Four decades ago, L.A. sci-fi author Octavia Butler published Clay’s Ark with Warner Aspect. I recently re-read the novel and would say I did so on a lark, but for some reason, unstoppable diseases merged with cultural earthquakes have been on my mind lately.
A friend first introduced me to Butler’s writing around the year 2000. Her more popular works include Kindred and Parable of the Sower. Yet I didn’t start with those—I began with the Xenogensis series and Clay’s Ark, novels that seem still less well known, but I found hard-hitting in the manner I like with fantasy and sci-fi, namely the kind of works where the reader becomes privy to a revelation that the world wasn’t ever as we thought it was, and will never even be as we just discovered ever again. Though Clay’s Ark is the last published of Butler’s Patternist series, within the timelines of the stories, it does not appear in chronological order and can be understood if read before and/or apart from the other novels.
Clay’s Ark begins as an alien invasion story with a twist—the invader is a microbe that threatens to take over Earth in the form of a disease. Set in the near future in a dystopian western United States, the book opens with Eli Doyle, an astronaut, forcing his ship to crash land in the desert. He carries a microbe that gives him heightened strength and power but only for the sake of spreading the disease. He stumbles on a compound occupied by a Christian cult and spreads the disease to its occupants. The story then jumps forward to a family crossing the desert to carry a dying child to see her grandparents. The family consists of two sisters, Keira and Rane, and their father, a doctor named Blake. The sisters are of mixed racial background—a father of European ancestry and a mother of African ancestry. Keira is dying of leukemia and hopes only to see their grandmother one last time.
When their car breaks down, they encounter Eli, now the leader of the cult—though the cult is no longer religious. Instead, the infected former astronaut has been breeding half-alien children with the women of the compound. They have created an isolated society where they are committed to both perpetuating the disease by procreating and by preventing the disease from spreading by staying isolated and capturing and assimilating anyone who becomes exposed to it. Thus Keira, Rane, and Blake become their hostages with little hope of escaping.
Re-reading this story and its characters in 2020 was more intense than expected. The context of the Covid-19 pandemic and political and racial strife in the U.S. is enough to deliver a strong shiver while taking in the story. But what struck me more is how stark Butler is with her descriptions, how graphic she is when describing the inevitable violence resulting from the characters at first being unwilling to accept their new reality and then the permanent changes it brings.
The children born to those infected with the Proxi Two microbe run on all fours—they have heightened strength, speed, and senses. But they do not conform to any stereotype of being “advanced”, or even “good” or “evil”, for that matter. And though the character of Keira, who is sick with leukemia, becomes in a sense “healed” by acquiring the alien disease, it requires such a change in what it means to be human as to make one wonder if “identity” as humans once knew it can survive at all.
As I read the climactic scenes in which there are graphic depictions of rape, gun battles, desire for cannibalism (if not cannibalism outright), and threats of incest and parricide, I couldn’t help but wonder how this resonates with our current ethics when it comes to what is palatable in art and literature, and what the difference is between that which is exploitative and gratuitous and that which is pioneering and empowering. There are certainly some reviewers who have decided there is little value in what Butler is doing with this particular work (for example, here).
The fact that Keira, the terminally ill child, is the family’s only survivor and that even the cult leader Eli doesn’t achieve his ethical goal of preventing the microbe’s spread says something about what “good” really means in this author’s vision. I read the final scenes of this novel thinking that stretching my mind past good and evil, black and white, and even gray becomes necessary to try and understand its emotional reality. For in Clay’s Ark, the value and definition of survival itself is called into question—what does it mean to survive if you no longer know who you are and if you have been abused so badly that the acts of cruelty themselves lose form?
We often think of cults as evil and coercive, and in most stories, they are depicted as such. But beneath such clichés, Octavia Butler has something subtler to say about what happens when people and their world totally change and have to find a way to continue. She ends the novel with very few survivors and a scene with an alive yet infected Keira and her cult-member lover committing to stay together even after the horrors they have experienced. And even though their children won’t be human, the story points out that whatever the way forward might be, a companionship of kindred identities is all that might matter. However strange and alien, however shocking and unlikely, and however offensive to others that kinship might be, it is the closest thing many of us have to something good.