There is a ship, Clay's Ark, which takes Earth's first ever interstellar explorers to another planet. That doesn't turn out so well. The last surviving crew member makes it back to Earth and goes into hiding. There is also a family. A doctor and his two daughters, their mother having died some time ago. It is 2021 and America does not seem like a great place to live. Smash all that together and we have the story of Clay's Ark.
What I liked most about Clay's Ark was Octavia E. Butler's allusions to the future. Clay's Ark was published in 1984. To me, it doesn't seem that long ago, but it has been 31 years (and that makes me feel old). Talking about her grandparents, Keira "wanted to visit them in the flesh, not just see them on a phone screen." That's something we can relate to now. We Skype and FaceTime our family and friends who live far away, even ones who don't, but sometimes it is nice to be with them in real life. Even the main character's name is called into question. When Eli asks where Keira got "a name like that", her response is that her mother didn't want her children "to have names that sounded like everybody's." To which Eli starts calling her Kerry. If Butler only knew, I know more than one Kiera (and Keiran) and her sister Rane does not have an unusual name for the 21st century either. At one point, the characters "turned on the map", which I think means they turned on the GPS. From the descriptions of the screen in the car, I'm sure it's an onboard GPS. The vocabulary to describe it was just different in the early 80s.
Of all the things that were part of the "future", this quote struck me most, "She knew about ugly reactions. Probably Jacob knew more, or would learn more, but walking down a city street between her mother and her father had taught her quite a bit." Keira's mother was black and her father is white. She remembers the racism she has had to deal with in her life (though Butler never uses the term "racism" throughout the entire novel), about people not believing Blake is her "real" father, as she is darker skinned than her sister. I hope we are mostly past these reactions. I haven't experienced them here, but maybe that is also about where I live. I have gone to other places and felt "different", a feeling I hope my children never experience. I sometimes wonder if it would be worse for them too, because their father is white. Nobody has ever stared at them though, except to say that they are adorable. I appreciate Butler writing these kinds of characters in the 70s and 80s. I've read other works by her with interracial couples and I feel like those stories might have been difficult to get published.
The story takes place in 2021, which was a long time away for people living in 1984, but that is only six years from now. Are we going to Proxima Centauri in six years? I doubt it. Though how they got there was not based on current technology (that of the 80s or of now). Here's how they did it...
I waited for half the book to tell me about Clay Dana and why Eli's ship was called "Clay's Ark". Then, it was barely a couple pages of information, about Clay Dana giving over information for interstellar drives, based on his own psionic powers and how the potential for these powers in others could power the drive. I'm not sure I'm on board with this reasoning, but it is what happened. The part that irked me the most was that the ship was the only information we got about Clay. What about him as a person? Yes, he was with Eli and the other astronauts, but what about his life? Who was he with? Did he have a wife and family? What was his life like after he left his brother behind? Where is he now? What about his brother and the Patternist people?
In the end, I felt like Clay's Ark was a set-up book. With Doro gone by the end of Mind of my Mind, the Patternists had no enemies, no one to stand against them as they spread. By the end of Clay's Ark, there is something that can now threaten the survival of the Patternists. It had to come from outer space, but it is on earth now. I wonder what the Patternists are going to do about it, but I also wonder if we needed a whole book to give the organism a back story. I think I would have liked the story better if it felt more connected to the series, instead of me just waiting for information that was never coming. Clay's Ark was okay. I think the story had more potential, but it didn't dive deep enough. It did make me think though, and I can always appreciate that. I am looking forward to Patternmaster. I have a feeling there is a showdown coming.