Let’s talk about ownage. Let’s talk about what it means to be owned.
Octavia E. Butler wrote about power. She envisioned its direction in the future, knew how it was used in the past. Saw how it is wielded by men and women in the present. One of her harshest themes, running across her work, is how power creates hierarchies among those who have it and those who do not, those who have some and those who have more. The counter to this is not sharing but instability — what you have will be taken away; what you lack you can take. And this too will have consequences. These are hard truths and it is not surprising that her characters don’t want to recognize them. Because the rest of us don’t want to either.
“I don’t think I own you,” Eli Doyle tells Blake Maslin about 20 pages into Clay’s Ark. Eli is telling Blake that he won’t force him to breed with a woman in Eli’s community; he is telling Blake this because he has just kidnapped Blake and his teenage daughters Keira and Rane so they can be bred into the community. In a way that is very important to Eli, he is correct — Blake will soon be very interested in breeding and will not need to be forced into anything (in fact, he will try to fuck one of his own daughters and she will want him to). He will be interested because after he’s kidnapped, Eli’s people will scratch him and his daughters to infect them with an alien organism that will override their human instincts. Scratching, prodding — penetration. “We’re not rapists here,” another member of the community tells Rane, whom he is hoping to impregnate.
Eli will not fully recognize who and what he owns; he is twinned with Blake, who will not recognize what owns him. Blake is a father — of daughters, no less! — and a doctor. He is introduced under the section heading “Physician” and he is defined by trying to heal himself despite that being an impossibility. Keira and Rane are young Black women, a frequent Butler protagonist type, while Blake is a middle-aged white guy. In the very first paragraph we meet him, he is blowing off the concerns of his daughter about traveling in harsh conditions and everything in the story follows from this blithe arrogance, arrogance that Blake never modifies even as his fears are mostly for others. The power he has is taken from him, all he can think of is getting that same power back. He is told over and over again that his escape would be catastrophic and he always dismisses this, he sees infection as something that can and must be dealt with by other men of science and medicine. Other people of his kind, except he is no longer one of those people. At the end of the book he is in the same place Eli was at the beginning, infected and staggering through the desert, only where Eli ultimately succumbs and destroys a family, Blake creates the real Patient Zero that spreads this alien throughout the world. The very thing he was trying to prevent and of course brought about anyway.
Eli got four years out of his commune and realizes at one point that it can’t last, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to contain things, from going out on a raid to get Blake and his daughters in the first place — Butler slyly drops that one of the other members of Eli’s tribe actually discovered them by accident, and a rando like that fleeing and leading to the apocalypse of full invasion would have in some way let Eli off the hook. But Blake and his family are there and then escaping in their fear and destruction to spread the plague because of Eli’s actions and belief in control — Eli and Blake both obsess over trying to remain human and perhaps the clearest indication of their remaining humanity is their capacity for self-deception as a way to create a version of yourself and your actions you can live with. Butler says it is not that simple. Stephen, the guy who took a wrong turn, tells Rane he is staying with his infected brothers and sisters because that will keep his actual wife and son ignorant and safe and this is true. “You sacrificed my family to spare yours,” Rane responds and this is true as well.
In the introductory post I went on about the highly speculative nature of Clay’s Ark, and of course it turns out a story about terrified people reckoning with a often-fatal and extremely transmissible plague in the year 2021 could now be shelved in nonfiction. Butler digs into something very uncomfortable about COVID-19 from the other side — the selfishness of spread, the way people refuse to accept a restriction for themselves as a way to help others. Through Blake and Rane, Butler makes this refusal both more understandable but also more devastating, and by using the conceit of an actual alien invasion as opposed to just a novel virus she taps into something atavistic about fearing its effects and trying to fight it — it is not just infection but change, obvious in the altered physicalities of Eli and his people but especially in the feral, clearly not human Jacob and the other children. And that’s if the infected person even survives. I think Butler is very pointedly making a middle-aged white guy the person who fucks everything up through his fear and rejection of something that so conclusively destroys his status quo but she doesn’t condescend to his fear or make him a mouthpiece for stupidity. She lets him and Eli, and Rane as well, come to conclusions it’s hard to argue against even as they contradict each other.
There are a lot of back-and-forth dialogues here but also a lot of internal rationalizations as characters justify themselves on their way to acting. Butler creates opposing forces that underestimate each other, she is not interested in winning arguments or making a larger philosophical point or metaphor but in watching the clash of irreconcilable actors — she wants to punch the reader in the face, not have them stroke their chin. Her writing reflects this, her prose doesn’t have the self-conscious bluntness of hard-boiled wannabes or the fussiness of someone trying to turn a phrase. She favors direct sentences and clauses and this can be turned toward ends hard and soft. Here are two sections from facing pages, but different chapters — first a description of a gunfight between Eli’s crew and a car family:
“An instant later, Meda fired her rifle. Eli looked around, saw a man fall only a few feet from the Ford. On the opposite side of the car, Lorene fired her husband’s rifle at a nearby rise. At first, it seemed she had done nothing more than kick up a puff of dust. Then a woman staggered from concealment, arms raised, one hand clutching her rifle by its barrel. As they watched, she fell face down into the sand.”
Action and consequence, with the almost pathetic detail of the surrender just one more movement in a chain that ends with death. But here is Keira one page before, in a bedroom with Eli:
“She reached out and took Eli’s hands. She had been wanting to do that for so long. The hands first pulled back from her, but did not pull away. They were callused, hard, very warm. … The hands closed on her hands, giving in finally, and in spite of everything, she smiled.”
The increasing commas link actions and create passion even as the language remains straightforward. I think this is harder than it looks, it runs the risk of being dry and humorless — while characters may joke Butler almost never does, and sometimes those characters speak a little too similarly (Eli’s use of dialect might be a way of countering that). But as a discipline it constructs something inarguable, the telling of something that is this way and not another. That could be love and it could also be violence. It’s easy and circular to describe how an author writes violence in terms of violence itself — depending on the book, James Ellroy will write with shotgun blasts or close-in knife work. Butler’s violence is violence, metaphors fall away to the act:
“The disease organism was merciless. It kept her alive even when she knew she must be almost cut in half. It kept her conscious and aware of everything up through the moment someone stood over her, shouting, then seized her by the hair and held her head up as he began to saw slowly at her throat with something dull.”
The alien isn’t the only thing that’s merciless here, the commas are back and now providing no break in the action until its final brutality, that unknown implacability of “something dull.” Rane has just shot up a bunch of car family rapists and murderers, a confrontation that was set in motion by her own gang rape and built through the book as she fought the hardest and had the strongest refusal against the possibility of infection, of losing herself. She owns these people who act like animals and it feels righteous, but she gets owned herself. It is awesome to see her blow away some lying rapist scumbag, Butler does not deny this, but neither does she emphasize it and this is where the idea of ownage, maybe the ideal of it that a reader feels like delivering upon the assholes and scum in their life, meets the reality. Ownage is placing yourself above someone else, taking over their world, and having the same thing happen to you. You do not get to choose not to have the second part, any more than you can choose not to die.
The only member of the Maslin family to survive is Keira, and she has been expecting to die for some time now. That makes her more receptive to the changes wrought by the alien — she has nothing to lose — but she also benefits from those changes in a way her father and sister can’t, as the infection drives out her fatal cancer. She is in touch with her feelings but not always in control of them, the stubborn and resistant Rane has to stop her and her father from fucking each other when they are under the influence of infection and totally in thrall to their desires. Keira does recognize and understand Eli”s loss of control and the pain of that, and her empathy leads to a desire that is independent of the changes to her DNA. And it affects Eli too — while he can’t hold off on his desire, he stops for a moment when Keira tells him to, shocked that he still has the power to do this. He submits.
And a little while later, Keira brains him with an elephant bookend — “the space between the elephant’s trunk and its body offered a good handhold,” Butler as Keira notes, you can see exactly how well it would serve as a bludgeon. She does this for her father. As much as she is willing to be with Eli and his people, who are tied together by something stronger than blood, she is bound more strongly to her family (I said Butler doesn’t have a lot of humor but the near-incest can read as a grim joke on this bond). Families make claims on us and we make claims on our own. Even the horrible car “family” — its own invasive entity leaving behind ravaged victims — has members that seem to work together for all the good it does them, and the young Smoke, an alternate version of Keira or Rane, gets a new name and the stability of savagery. Being part of a group that owns everyone else they come across. Blake’s existence has been avoiding this, in walled enclaves and fancy cars, as a way to keep his family safe. And Rane’s greatest revulsion at the idea of becoming part of Eli’s family has to do with who her children will be, even though she likes and is helped by Jacob. A family is just as defined by exclusion as it is by inclusion. But an invasion like this respects no borders. You either survive or you don’t.
Butler structures the novel in alternating chapters of Past and Present, showing Eli’s initial infection and development of his community over months and years contrasting with the fallout of the Maslin family kidnapping in a few days. Even with some certainties — Eli and Meda are obviously going to survive that early period to be around in the current one — the Past section is still largely compelling. It makes me think a bit of the second half of The Stand, where people are learning to govern themselves in a new world, under a new disease. And there are a few surprises too, especially Andrew Zeriam. He sees what he is becoming and he alone takes the only sure way out from spreading the disease. Butler plays fair with some earlier info here, noting that once the alien has been inside a person long enough (as it was with Eli when he landed) it will not let them commit suicide, and that Zeriam managed to kill himself within that window. But it is an option, as it is in several other of Butler’s books. Some people look at where they are and say no to the future. Like so much of the violence she writes about, Butler does not “respect” this but recognizes it, just as she recognizes how others will fight for their future, however misguided they may be.
The Past sections grow shorter as action in the Present section intensifies and spends more time with the various fighters at cross purposes until everything is resolved in a pile of guts on the highway and a nameless trucker bringing plague to the entire world, courtesy of Blake. Courtesy of Eli. Courtesy of one man who wanted to protect his daughters, ultimately by running away from them, and another man who wanted to protect his strange new sons, who are the only kind of children his people now make and who are referred to several times as “sphinx-like.” The Sphinx asked its victims a question that had the answer of “man,” another myth from our past that confirms our place of primacy in the world. The question of Clay’s Ark is who will make their way into the future, and the answer to that question as the world falls apart — and the name on the book’s final section — is Jacob, a sphinx. Humans will no longer be part of the picture. We’ve been owned.
Thanks for reading Clay’s Ark! This would be a grim book in any circumstance and as folks have already noted, has a new resonance today. But it struck a chord when I read it for the first time pre-pandemic and I hope it gave you all something besides an uncomfortable view of The Way We Live Now.
I think the larger issue with the book’s subject and style is not any “relevance” but how its general dark tone and survivalist intensity in the Present section limit character development. Butler doesn’t stint on violence and pressure in her other books (and she certainly doesn’t waste time) but she usually lets up a bit to give the characters more breathing room — Keira and Rane get a bit shortchanged here I think.
And in terms of shortchanging, I did not go a lot into how Butler places sex in the context of power dynamics and also just being horny. She is explicit and honest about her teenagers’ desires and this is constant throughout her books as well. Her vampire book Fledgling was written at the same time as Twilight but in some ways reads like a vicious parody of Stephanie Meyers’ book — Twilight is all about how the lead character is incredibly desirable yet heroically resisted in her desirability; Fledgling opens with a 10-year-old seducing and basically raping an adult. Things are revealed to be more complicated than that summary, but that summary is what Butler initially gives the reader as she develops her take on vampirism and sexual dynamics — Pico brought up vampires in terms of this book earlier so I am shamelessly jumping on it here, but that sexy and dominating aspect of the alien is another big part of Clay’s Ark.
Some vague SPOILERS for the rest of the series: The first book published, Patternmaster, is the last book in the series’ chronology, set hundreds of years after Clay’s Ark. There is another group of not-quite-humans who are the subject of that story and the books Wild Seed and Mind Of My Mind, but they don’t have any effect on Clay’s Ark that the casual reader would notice. But Clay Dana, the person who creates the Ark, is a minor character in Mind and is set on the path that leads to this book there. More importantly, his connection helps tie Clay’s Ark into the series’ larger thematic concerns of people creating things that will eventually cause them harm if not destruction, but you should read the rest of the books to fully understand that. I think Patternmaster is generally considered the weakest of the series (a take I would agree with) but it is still a good read, and Wild Seed and Mind Of My Mind are both excellent — Mind in particular has a terrible moment of ownage that has stuck in my head since reading it, surfacing every so often to give me the creeps.
And to tie things back to the movies: Apparently Ernest Dickerson, director of many episodes of The Wire and of the great pulp horror actioner Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight (as well Surviving The Game, a very class- and race-conscious version of The Most Dangerous Game) was trying to get an adaptation of Clay’s Ark off the ground a decade ago. Dickerson is attuned to nuance but unostentatious, I think he’d do a great job with the story. But I’ve also been thinking about Carl Franklin, a rough contemporary of Dickerson, as an adapter after reading an excellent piece by Zach Vasquez looking at One False Move and Devil In A Blue Dress — Vasquez describes Franklin’s style as “neither subtle nor overwrought, but simply natural” and that sums up Butler’s writing as well.
Finally, after throwing 3,000 words at you I will be mostly out of pocket today and this weekend, but I will check the discussion when I can – I’m very eager to hear what people thought and will make sure to infect anyone who didn’t like it.