Patternmaster

I have an arcane personal system for reading. It’s basically a hierarchy of dog-earing: big folds at the top corners of the page when I put a book down, and precise little tucks on the bottom corners when a passage strikes my interest. Later, when I have a pen, I trace back through the dog-eared pages and underline specific lines–although I don’t often remember what moved me at first reading. A casual observer can tell immediately which books did it for me: they are peppered at the edges with accordion folds, and shed tiny triangles of old paper when handled. I read Patternmaster, Octavia Butler’s first published novel, in an afternoon and it contains precisely one dog-ear: a poor rating.

The essential premise is that eons from now, the human race has split into three distinct evolutionary categories: Patternists, mutes, and Clayarks. Patternists are psychic knights who are all tenuously linked to one another through the “Pattern,” a sparkling web of power and consciousness. They control the world; to them, the non-psychic are little more than animals. Clayarks, on the other hand, are a proud tribal race of creatures who look like lions and lack the ability to read and control minds. These two groups are sworn enemies, so mortally separate that they scarcely ever come within a mile of each other without flinging arrows, psychic and material.

Patternists and Clayaks stared at each other across a gulf of disease and physical difference and comfortably told themselves the same lie about each other: “Not people.”

Mutes, humans like you and me, aren’t even part of the equation. There are rumors that the mute race once built a mechanized society, traveled to the stars, and that this somehow led to the present situation, but they’re dispelled as myths. Patternmaster is a future epic that, without its glimmer of temporal premise, would be a fantasy novel. There are Lords, horse-riding and fiefdoms. It only hints at the themes which later developed over the course of Butler’s significant oeuvre: gender issues, empathy, class struggle, and racial anxiety.

What I’d like to discuss here is not the plot of Patternmaster, nor the merits of Butler’s later career, but a trope within science fiction that this book perfectly expresses. Imagine a future so distant that our present has become mythological, and all the things we associate with science fiction–viz. technology, space travel, modernity–have become inward experiences. Instead of zap guns, we have telepathic warfare. Instead of travel to the stars, we have a starlike map of consciousness. It’s a distinctly unfuturistic future, one where society functions like juiced-up medieval history, and monarchy and the mind are the only forms of power.

The implication, presumably, is that our current epoch is a folly, an outlier, and that once we shake our obsession with gadgetry, we’ll understand the full force of the focused human mind, and replace theories and ideas with myths and stories. It relegates the entire span of the industrialized world into a chronological blip, rendered irrelevant by time. This genre deserves a name, and I propose Mythological Futurism.

Mythological Futurism has a strong lineage. We see elements of it in the entheogenic space travel and interstellar feudalism of Dune; all over the work of Samuel Delany, particularly in the Einstein Intersection, which takes place in a future so remote that the Beatles are half-remembered as gods; and in the broad chronological strokes of Olaf Stapledon, of course. Clifford Simak’s A Choice of Gods goes there beautifully, too, as does much of the canon of Jack Vance (undoubtedly there are scores more, and I look to my readers to fill me in). These are post-historical narratives, stories that have mutated far beyond us and somehow returned full-circle to the slow dreamtime of early human history.

At its worst, placing a narrative in such a remote future can turn science fiction into fantasy, absolving the writer of the responsibility of operating within real-world, or extrapolated real-world, physics. At its best, it zooms the human struggle out to a poetic and universal whole. I can’t say exactly where Patternmaster falls on that spectrum; in a sense it’s too grounded to be fantasy, but it’s also too concise to thrill as an ambitious work of science fiction (only one dog-ear, after all). That said, the difference between science fiction and fantasy, in this case, is essentially semantic; here is a world where technologies are so advanced as to be invisible, and its effects could be classified as magical if Butler chose to describe them as such.

Perhaps the distinction, then, lies in the gradients of myth. If, in the culture of its telling, a myth is regarded as a true account of the remote past, then a writer who scries forward through the same ahistorical fog–who tucks technology back into a magical space, building fables for remote aeons–is building a kind of sacred narrative for the future.

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