People routinely slam the prose styling of Octavia Butler (as I would demonstrate with citations and quotations were the new TypePad editor not so averse to material copied from OpenOffice documents), but reading the Patternist novels according to the chronology internal to them has me appreciating the gentle relentlessness of her prose. However, sometimes I think the critics have a point:
"What does the white animal follow?" asked Anyanwu's grandson loudly enough for Doro to hear. "What has he to do with us now?"
"My master must pay him for you," said Anyanwu's grandson loudly enough for Doro to hear. "What has he to do with us now?"
"My master must pay him for you," said Anyanwu. (Wild Seed 41)
That just scans something awful. In all seriousness, though, rarely is the reason behind an editorial error so obvious or so indicative of an author's stylistic tics. In Wild Seed, Butler wed her characters to her prose, such that the latter's stolidity became evidence of the former's hard-fought restraint. (It is, after all, a novel about two people who spend their unnaturally long lives finding excuses not to murder each other.) She did so deliberately because, at this point in her career, she could. The novels were published in this order: Patternmaster (1976), Mind of My Mind (1977), Survivor (1978), Wild Seed (1980), Clay's Ark (1984); but they move through narrative time in this one: Wild Seed (1980), Mind of My Mind (1977), Clay's Ark (1984), Survivor (1978), Patternmaster (1976).
I'll discuss how her interest in evolution is, fundamentally, a narrative one (and in so doing, discuss how this interest's inherent in all evolutionarily-inflected narratives, including Darwin's) at some point in the near future. For the moment, what fascinates me is how the elder Butler crafts the prose of the later novels in such a way that it "develops" into the style of the earliest one (Patternmaster). Were she actually a Dickian hack ("sophisticated ideas communicated in pedestrian prose," as Consensus Q. Amalgam would have it), such a feat would be beyond her; but comparing the occasionally dense and ornate prose in Wild Seed (which shares formal concerns and historical content with 1979's Kindred) to the more direct, straightforward prose of Clay's Ark—written nearly half a decade later—it is difficult to imagine that the latter's resemblance to Patternmaster is anything other than intentional. When she was young, she couldn't help but write of the future in spare and quotidian manner; but by 1984, she could adopt a transitional voice, something that approximates in complexity the difference between 1977's Mind of My Mind and 1976's Patternmaster.
While it may seem odd to call attention to the refinement of her narrative voice, it is essential to understanding the refinement of the thought processes it develops alongside: the series is unusual in that, as Butler said, she invented a society that was conceptually fascinating, but instead of going on to invent another, she became interested in how that one could possibly have come to be. The fact that eugenics and alien invasion were, for her, the answer is troubling, but I'll leave the how and why of that for a later post.