Well… this is definitely the weakest book in the Patternmaster series.
Its main problem is an even worse version of the one that afflicted Mind of My Mind: it has too many characters getting too much page time who just aren’t very engaging. But where Mind of My Mind at least has Mary and Doro, whose epic struggle carries the whole book, Clay’s Ark has a bunch of weaker characters who are mostly just struggling against themselves – or at least, against an alien organism becoming symbiotically intertwined with their bodies.
Not only are the characters unengaging, but this is also a very gruesome, violent book – especially the last part, but not only there. There are so many rapes and beatings and gunshots blowing out half someone’s head and decapitations and throat-slittings and on and on… I won’t say the other books are all sunshine and rainbows but this one is orders of magnitude more gory than the others, and it didn’t feel purposeful.
So the setting for this book is southern California, around 2021. Technologically, there are parts of this era that Butler predicted correctly (“screenphones”, cars with GPS navigation) and parts that she has not (faster-than-light travel to Alpha Centauri). It is also a vision of 2021 where there are small pockets of safety (i.e. gated communities) in the midst of vast swathes of lawless, ultraviolent country. The story starts with the Maslin family foolishly taking a cross-country drive, despite all the roads being ridiculously unsafe, and getting abducted and taken to a secluded ranch by a strange extended family.
This family are all suffering from a disease, an alien disease brought to them by the only survivor of the Alpha Centauri mission, Eli. The disease basically makes them catlike in various ways: sharpened senses, eternally hungry, insatiably horny, and they only like unseasoned food now, preferably raw. They have an uncontrollable urge to spread their infection, but enough awareness to know they should probably not start a worldwide epidemic, so instead they periodically abduct people off the highway and induct them to life as an infected person on the ranch.
Also, when they have kids, those kids are even more cat-like (described as sphinxes); if you’ve read Patternmaster, they will be recognisable as the antecedents of the Clayarks in that book.
Indeed, the only relevance of Clay’s Ark to the overall series is that it provides an origin story for the Clayarks in Patternmaster. There is also a brief reference to a very minor character from Mind of My Mind, and to the psychic powers people exhibit in the other three books, but no one in this book actually has any psychic powers and that story thread is not built on at all. You could posit that the security situation being so bad is a natural extension of the situation in Mind of My Mind, except the cause in that book (incompletely psychic “latents”) doesn’t seem to be the cause here, so it’d be a bit of a stretch. Overall, the connection to the other books is weak.
Honestly, nearly everything about this book is weak. The only character I could really get interested in was Eli; everyone else just acted against their own best interests all the time (the Maslins) or were just bland (the other ranchers) or one-dimensional ultraviolent maniacs (the “car rats”). It was kind of interesting to read about how infected people’s sensory perceptions changed, but it was sandwiched between so much blargh stuff. I think I’d have preferred to read a book set a little later, with a Clayark society at least somewhat established, which could have given the important parts of this book as mere background information. This series could actually have done with one, because Patternmaster is told entirely from the Patternists’ perspective and they have no real understanding of the Clayarks. I know there is one more book from this series – Survivor, which Butler disowned – and that it’s set after this one, but I don’t believe it fleshes out the Clayarks the way I’d really like to see. Such a shame.