Clay’s Ark is the last of five novels which comprise Octavia Butler’s Patternmaster series of science fiction tales. The series that commence in 1976 was brought to a close with a book which gestated and was born during a very difficult period for the author. Despite the story having swirling around inside her writer’s mind for quite some time, Butler churned out the manuscript at an atypically frenzied pace of a chapter a week. The stimulus for this furious composition was a friend dying of cancer with whom she shared each chapter as it appeared and whom she feared would not live to see the ending.
That friend’s illness also contributed directly to the content of the novel. A character’s leukemia becomes important to the plot while the storyline is actually about a group of infected space travelers returning to earth carrying the threat of a potentially catastrophic epidemic. The monstrousness of her friend’s cancer is here transformed literally: the parasite within the travelers transforming the infected into highly evolved but nonetheless mutated beings. The theme of genetic enhancement co-existing with the contamination of the body sweeps powerfully through this concluding chapter of the Patternmaster saga.