Book Review

Clay’s Ark by Octavia E. Butler

an excellent short genre piece

cw: mental illness, anxiety, depression etc

The last couple of posts that I’ve posted slash scheduled at time of typing this (14th November, how time flies!) both descended into me, yet again, taking aggressive aim at science fiction and saying that it’s shit.

Tho I made some – imo – correct assertions about genre fiction being a way for people lacking skills of expression to fake creativity (even going so far as to demonstrate how easy it is to create a fantastical world), the pretty high level of my depression a month ago lost these comments amidst a torrent of descriptions of self harm, heavy drinking and implied suicide ideation. Also lots of nerves about the release of the pleasure of regret, which has since happened with absolutely no fanfare or stress, other than one of the main characters repeatedly demanding a free copy, which I have no access to. 

I don’t have any copies yet, the Publisher has been quite unwell (not COVID) and though a few copies have made their way to a handful of my friends and fans (mainly fans lol haha fans) through some means I don’t understand, nothing has reached me and there’s no way for me for me to seek information about it without setting off all my social anxieties (if I’m mainly getting in touch with the publisher to find out about my book then I’d be dishonest to express concern etc about their health because for me to mention a near-stranger’s health seems very overpersonal/invasive, especially in a sort of professional-ish interaction, but similarly social norms would indicate that I would have to express this but I don’t feel comfortable saying something I don’t mean, well, not not mean, obviously I don’t not wish the guy well on a personal level, but our relationship is not a personal one and if the major ill health is the headline then that should be the first line of the email but it’s not the reason why I’d be sending the email so if I were to open an email with a comment about it that I didn’t feel, then I’d be conscious of my dishonesty so wouldn’t feel comfortable at all and, in fact, the only way I’d feel comfortable asking for an update would be if it was the only thing I included in the email (I very much struggle with conversations slash interactions that are not straightforward, especially when it comes to discussion of my creative output which I’m already.anxious about because it’s all very very indiscreet and I don’t want people getting angry or mean at me even tho it’s inevitable given the content like it’s just not nice or polite and if I considered peoples feelings when I wrote then I wouldn’t write the way I do and this publisher is someone who likes the way I write enough to publish my book and I don’t want to betray my own literary aesthetic in an email, y’know, so I’m destined to never know for a while Jesus Christ this is an accurate representation of my internal monologue whenever I try and think about any interaction that is not clearly delineated by work (i.e. are you a child whose English I’m correcting or are you a guest at an event (not this month!) or a dinner (maybe not for much longer!) I’m working at or are you a terrifying monster whose expectations of me are as unknowable as how long it will be until I can go on holiday again?).

It’s exhausting.

I’m exhausting.

I’m not exhausted tho.

Far, far too much energy.

If I was able to use my energy constructively then I could probably be one of those prolific-type writers, however as I have another weird memoir and another book of bleak poetry I’m still trying to find a home for, getting to the end of any other project seems counterproductive.

Sorry, I thought this post was going to be relatively straightforward as I really enjoyed this book and I’m in a much healthier slash happier headspace than I have been for a while.

There are several reasons, one of which is the pleasure of regret existing in the real world, even tho not quite yet in my hands, the second is that my lover has finally returned from the wine harvest and the third is that I’ve finally sent off all the stressful visa documents that have been hanging over me for the past several months. Even if the application is refused, there is nothing for me to do for a while. It should be approved, but that’s not up to me (unlike filling in and paying for the application was) and I am zen enough – a strange, uncharacteristic anomaly – to not freak out about things beyond my control. Things that are potentially or theoretically WITHIN my control, tho, that’s my fucking nightmare fuel.

///

Clay’s Ark – I didn’t realise until halfway thru reading it – was actually published as the last book in a series of five books. Oh no, I momentarily recoiled, spoiiilers! But, this was not to be the case, thankfully. A la The Magician’s Nephew, Clay’s Ark is a prequel, so my ability to enjoy the rest of the Patternist Series remains intact.

Clay’s Ark is about the beginning of a pandemic. It’s a pandemic that comes from an alien planet and transforms those it infects into super-humans who give birth to even-more-super-but-more-monstrous-humans. The earlier novels are set far in the future and are about these mutants and the way they run the planet when they have become the dominant majority species. Clay’s Ark is set in 2021.

There are two threads to the novel. One focuses on Eli, the last survivor of a crashed spaceship whose crew had been decimated by this space disease, and the other – set maybe a year or two later – is about Eli and his little gang of superhumans and mutants as they try and keep themselves sustainable (one of the effects of infection is the compulsion/need to spread it), but are thwarted when they kidnap a family (they kidnap them to infect them) who are more educated and more resourceful than those they usually snatch. The novel is about the virus inevitably escaping and the brief, false, procrastination of a chaos that is doomed to occur.

Obviously, reading about a fictional (and fantastical) pandemic during a very real one (remember COVID-19, future readers???) creates a reader-text connection that would have been there when the book was published, in 1984, during the AIDS crisis of the eighties, but would not have been felt by many readers in the decades since.

Butler’s characters, their attempts to battle the destructive, selfish, urges the virus creates, are deeply evocative and they feel very real.

In 200 pages, Butler creates about fifteen or maybe more characters, all dealing with a situation that could never literally happen, but they respond how people of the real world would. It’s deeply emotive, very moving, intelligent, powerfully evocative and also kinda scary. Also, as mentioned above, it’s set in 2021 which is only a few weeks away.

Anywaaaaaaaay:

Clay’s Ark is great, is my conclusion, and it proves (and disproves?) my comments about genre fiction. It isn’t Butler’s plot that makes this a powerful novel, it is her characterisation. That, I suppose, is the feat, making believable people who respond believably to experiences that are unbelievable.

I’m probably already halfway thru Butler’s disappointingly small oeuvre now, but I will persist, because the books of hers I’ve enjoyed have genuinely changed my mind about an entire genre of fiction, which is an impressive thing to do. (Or shows a fault with me.)

Definitely recommended.

My copy of Clay’s Ark in front of the “American Falls” at Niagara Falls.

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