Octavia Butler’s Patternist Series: Types of Mutations


By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D.University of Connecticut

The Patternist series, published in the ’70s and ’80s, consists of five novels set in a world in which human telepathy is common. Octavia Butler employs multiple narrative perspectives to fully explore the nuances of a society that begins as a utopian dream but ends up leading to dark—although always somewhat hopeful—outcomes.

Illustration of a man sitting with his eyes closed, with icons of communication network around him.
In the Patternist series, human telepathy in the future is the setting for exploring possibilities of utopia or dystopia. (Image: metamorworks/Shutterstock)


The first book Patternist takes us to a distant future, probably on Earth, in which millions of people are connected together through telepathic links in a Pattern, run by the Patternmaster. Those belonging to the Pattern—the telepaths—basically enslave the ‘mutes’, who are without this sense. And the Pattern gives them a great advantage in the ongoing war against the Clayarks, a different mutation of humans.

The novel plays out a kind of dark future. In Patternist, we see a dying leader and two powerful young telepaths fighting for future control of the Pattern, leaving the reader to wonder if the new Patternmaster will eventually become as corrupted by power as was the old.

This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of LiteratureWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Telepathic Applications

Throughout the series, we see the applications of the telepathy. There are the military applications since the Patternists are involved in a war against the Clayarks, who walk on all fours and eat raw meat, sometimes eating the Patternists. The Clayarks are just as different from the humans of today in their bodies as the Patternists are in their minds. Also, the Clayark minds are so different the Patternists can’t read them, but they can still use the Pattern as advanced communications technology.

In the novels, telepathy also has a strong medical application since a telepathic healer can go into another person’s mind and diagnose an illness, making repairs without surgical intervention. The flip side of this is that all healers have the potential to be killers, who can stop the heart through telepathy alone.

Despite these dangers, the Patternist world is actually quite stable. People have enough to eat, they live in functional communities, they have deep communion with their fellow Patternists. It’s a world that has substantial utopian elements under the right leader.

Learn more about hybridity and utopia in Butler’s works.

Image shows a young woman sitting with closed eyes.
The second book of the Patternist series introduces us to Mary, a young woman who develops a powerful telepathic ability. (Image: fizkes/Shutterstock)

Mary’s Telepathy

It’s also a world where, under the wrong leader, the vulnerable ‘mutes’—have no access to the pattern, no telepathic abilities, who are what we would consider human beings as they are now—almost always become enslaved. It’s easy to imagine a version of the Pattern in which the Patternists become a totalitarian force, creating a virtually inescapable dystopian society.

Book 2 of the series, Mind of my Mind, takes us back in time, to the present day and the origin of the Pattern. Here we meet Mary, a bright, compassionate young woman whose mother is a drug addict, and who, as a teenager, develops a powerful telepathic ability.

Mary’s telepathy didn’t just pop up as an unexpected mutation. It is the work of Doro, a prehistoric being who has, for thousands of years, been working toward such mutations.

Doro and Mary

Doro can inhabit other people’s bodies. Every time his current body nears death, he enters the body of whoever is closest to him. And for generations, he has been doing human husbandry, trying to breed humans for superhuman ability. Every time he hears of someone who has a little more strength, a little more healing, he goes to that person. He tries to figure out what their genetic mutation is, and tries to breed them with someone who has a similar or complementary mutation, often taking over one partner’s body in the mating process.

Through this long, slow process of husbandry, he has created people all over the world who have significant genetic mutations. Mary has known Doro since she was 12, and she is aware of the role he has played in making her who she is. Mostly, she accepts him.

Jameson and Utopia

Fredric Jameson is an extremely well-respected cultural critic, who has done fascinating work on utopia. In an essay, he has come up with a methodology for talking about utopia, using Wal-Mart as an example of the utopian potentials that lie in unexpected places. He makes clear that he isn’t a supporter of Wal-Mart. He argues that to have a utopian world on a large scale, you need to have an underlying structure.

It’s easy to imagine small utopian communities, and in fact, many have been a reality. But it’s very hard to imagine how to create utopia large-scale. One possibility is to alter existing structures such as those Wal-Mart has in place. In a lot of ways, those structures are currently working in dystopian ways, but they can be reimagined to create a better global future.

Learn more about utopian aliens in Butler’s works.

Changing Perspectives

Mary becomes enormously powerful, and eventually creates the Pattern, initially linking together people with great telepathic power and, eventually, people with only a little mental instinct. This Pattern is the Wal-Mart of Mary’s world, providing the underlying structure through which we can imagine change, potentially utopian, potentially dystopian.

In the Patternist series, each book gives us a different point of view. Mind of my Mind gives us Mary looking at Doro, Wild Seed gives us Doro’s point of view, and Clay’s Ark gives us the perspective of the quadrupedal humanoid creatures, whom the Patternists see as merely animalistic. The Clayarks, it turns out, are much more interesting than the Patternists could ever imagine, reminding us that how we imagine a better society is always very much bound up in our own personal perspectives.

Common Questions about Octavia Butler’s Patternist Series: Types of Mutations

Q: What is the fundamental idea of the Patternist novels?

In the Patternist series, telepathic humans are connected together through links in a Pattern, run by the Patternmaster. The telepaths or Patternists basically enslave the non-telepathic ‘mutes’. The Patternists have the ongoing war against the Clayarks, a different mutation of humans.

Q: In the Patternist series, how does telepathy evolve in humans?

Mary’s telepathy didn’t just pop up as an unexpected mutation. It is the work of Doro, a prehistoric being who has, for thousands of years, been working toward such mutations. He lives in the mind of humans and has, over the years, promoted mutations in humanity.

Q: What is the flip side of medical application of telepathy in the Patternist series?

In the Patternist series, the medical application of telepathy has a flip side. All telepathic healers have the potential to be killers, who can stop the heart through telepathy alone.

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