People like to say that space opera is derived from westerns. Octavia Butler seems to have set out to prove that on a smaller scale. Patternmaster is transparently the story of a young cowboy (‘civilized’ man) out in the wilds, killing or escaping wily natives (mutated humans) at every turn. There’s a gloss of science fiction, but it’s a western at heart.
Sadly, this is not a very good western. It doesn’t have the purple prose of Zane Grey, though it does have some of the convoluted relationships of Louis L’Amour. The story adds a layer of slavery, but does so little with it that it remains no more than a thin veneer. This, what should have been the heart of an interesting story, is a device only – characters are acted upon and react, but there’s very little introspection. The protagonist resents being sold off, but … oh well. He doesn’t think much about the fact that “hey, slavery looks different from the other side” or “huh, those natives are more interesting than we give them credit for”, or even “gender relations in the future seem to have regressed to the 1800s”. It’s unfortunate, becuase Butler so clearly sets up the possibility for all these considerations, and then utterly fails to capitalize on them.
When I started this series, it was with the impression that Butler was a pretentiously intellectual, elitist author. The first couple of books proved me wrong. The stories were well written and low key, if a little dry. How I wish now that my first, mistaken impression had been correct. The third book was incomplete, the fourth a disaster, and this one not that much better. A dose of elitist erudition might have turned it into a work deserving serious thought.
As it is, what the book has is a very thin story of betrayal, detention, and a long chase scene, with very little philosophical expansion. It’s not much, and since the emotions and relations are almost as restrained as in the earlier books, it’s not enough even for this story.
This last book in the series was written before the others. It’s hard for me to see how it got published. It relies heavily on events established in the prequels, but they’re not explained clearly enough for the book to stand alone. Maybe this version was revised after the others were written? If not, I’m not confident an audience would be able or interested to make sense of the world it describes.
I was clearly wrong about Octavia Butler – she’s not the stuffy writer I thought she was, and Wild Seed was a good book. Unfortunately, based on this five book series (or even just the four she didn’t disavow), she’s also not the writer her reputation says she is. If she were, she’d be a lot more interesting.
< br /> * On the plus side, the main books of this series had few of the editing flaws I’ve come to associate with Open Road Media.