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Patternmaster is the first of the brilliant Octavia Butler's provocative Patternist novels, and it's an accessible adventure story. But thematically it's problematic. Butler has yet to get a handle on how best to deliver the subtextual social commentary that would give the series its depth. Many readers may well be put off by the Patternist novels as a whole, criticizing them for an overly bleak and misanthropic worldview. I get that the novels are dystopian. But their overall theme — that being superhuman is not necessarily the key to being a better human — has a lot of merit, even if it's only for flying in the face of conventional escapist power fantasies. The thing is that in Patternmaster, Butler doesn't offer anything particularly valuable with which to replace those power fantasies.

Patternmaster introduces us to a future in which humanity, through selective breeding, has produced a race of telepaths. (The origins of this future are detailed in the grim and compelling Mind of My Mind.) Far from creating a blissful paradise on Earth, this has led to a tense society in which the most powerful telepaths control those less powerful, as well as non-telepathic humans they call "mutes," through a link called the Pattern. Humanity, by evolving this direction, has reverted to many purely animal instincts. Patternist leaders, called Housemasters, usually have no choice but to kill outright anyone of comparable ability that might challenge their authority. Though strict laws are in place forbidding wanton abuse of power, especially towards mutes, these are commonly flouted. Nations and governments as we know them no longer exist. The law of the jungle has returned full force.

Underscoring the metaphorical link to animal instincts is Butler's use of the Clayarks, grossly mutated (they look like sphinxes) posthumans of no telepathic ability, the descendants of an aborted attempt by mutes to flee Earth in a starship. Now the Clayarks wander the landscape in loose tribal groups, sometimes alone, preying upon Patternists, who in turn live in terror of infection by the "Clayark disease," the genetic anomaly that mutated Clayarks in the first place.

The plot concerns a young Patternist named Teray, one of the many sons of Rayal, the current Patternmaster. Teray finds himself under the rule of Coransee, a powerful Housemaster who appears to be first in line to succeed the ailing Rayal. Coransee fears that Teray has the power to challenge his succession, and demands that Teray allow himself to be controlled, preventing his power from ever growing to dangerous degrees. Coransee even promises Teray his own House. Teray refuses and vows to escape Coransee — which he soon does, in the company of a healer, a woman named Amber — to seek sanctuary with Rayal. But Coransee isn't about to take that lying down.

The premise doesn't bear close logical scrutiny. If Coransee were really concerned about Teray's power, he could have killed or controlled the young man with little effort right at the novel's opening. Why even ask? (Well, we wouldn't have gotten a book out of it, then.) Butler's characterizations are good. But in the end Patternmaster seems little more than a grim anti-superhero story. The narrative becomes an exercise in waiting for the foregone conclusion, the inevitable duel to the death between Coransee and Teray. This problem even hampered Mind of My Mind, but in that book, Butler had a much better grasp of both her themes and of how to write suspense. Here, her themes get confused. For a while, it looks as though Butler is telling a metaphorical odyssey about the evils of slavery. But all that dissipates when you realize Teray doesn't want to unravel Patternist society and free everyone from mental tyranny. He'd just rather see himself as Patternmaster instead of Coransee. And Teray doesn't hesitate to use his powers to control others when he gets the chance.

Also, there's just lots of killing going on in this book, of the grisliest sort. Ironically I found myself sympathizing the most with the dreaded Clayarks, whom Butler depicts as a mass of mindless animals bent on wiping out Patternists for reasons she never adequately explores. The book loses a lot of depth because Butler never explains the Clayarks' actions. In fact, she makes a big mistake in having Teray encounter and actually speak to one early in the book. There's an entire missed plot opportunity here Butler never follows through, and this one instance of humanizing the Clayarks, far from making them more fearsome, actually allows the reader a bit of empathy. Which doesn't go down well when you see how our supposed heroes deal with the Clayarks later on.

Butler's Patternist novels get much better than this one, and there's nothing surprising about the earliest work of a fine writer not being among their best. Though Patternmaster can probably be overlooked, Octavia Butler is a novelist you shouldn't.