Octavia Butler, Mind of My Mind

I told a friend that I thought that Octavia Butler was the best writer of her generation, and was told that, given for example Toni Morrison, who really is fantastic, I was perhaps hyperbolic.  Mind of My Mind, however, is good enough to make that claim.  I got my copy in a mass-market paperback at the library.  It is now available in a volume, entitled Seed to Harvest, which contains four novels of her Patternmaster series.  I’ve only read this one (of that series), as it was the one on the shelf in the library when I felt like grabbing one of her books.

To rehearse the plot, which is at some basic level beside both my point here and the point of this blog: an immortal has been breeding a master race of sorts for a few millenia, and is about at the point where he–it’s significant that Doro, the immortal, is a man, as the book is a critique of patriarchy, of actually-existing patriarchy–is about to make a major breakthrough in his project.  His breakthrough, named Mary, is an exceptionally powerful telepath, and the book in a nutshell deals with the struggle between Doro and Mary.

That’s all one needs to know about the plot.  More to my point is how phenomenally well Butler goes about her project, which at base is to create a critical speculative fiction, to use her preferred term (as opposed to sci-fi).  Her plots are imaginary, but the target of her critique is the United States as it actually existed in her lifetime, more or less the same United States as we have today.  She begins with centering her work on people from social groups that do not wield power in this country, and in this case, as in all of her books I’ve read, she centers the story on a Black woman, Mary.  She does so with an interesting technical device: the novel bounces between difference characters’ perspectives, each section headed with the first name of the character.  The only character, however, whose perspective is written in the first person is Mary.  This is typical Butler, insofar as she is writer enough to use very simple technical devices unobtrusively to make very big, important points about our world.  Throwing the center of her narrative this way off of this country’s center–the wealthy white male–she forces the reader into a critical examination of the United States.

I have read a moderate amount of fantasy as I’ve gotten older, really out of a nostalgia for my childhood in which I played Dungeons & Dragons.  Generally in the genre, magic more or less just happens.  There is no explanation of how it works, and I suppose that the mystery of it is maybe part of the appeal.  It allows one to fantasize.  That said, it is to Butler’s credit that she uses her portrayal of psychic power to make a broader point.  It struck me in an episode with one of the psychic characters–part of Doro’s attempt to breed his superhuman race–who had the ability to heal.  She did so as part of a church service.  People who needed healing would come, get healed, and everybody in the audience would be impressed by God’s healing power as manifested through this woman, and go home–go home, crucially, more tired than they arrived.  They were tired because the healer did not just magically make illness go away, but drew energy from the audience, literally.  She needed big audiences to do her healing, because otherwise she would have to suck out too much energy out of people, and they would notice that something was wrong with the process.  This is, again, Butler using a fairly simple and, when one bothers to think of it fairly obvious plot detail to make a larger, more important critical point.  Nothing comes without some corresponding cost.  The relatively great power of some comes necessarily from the relative disempowerment of others.  So too with wealth.  This is the story of modern American racist, capitalist patriarchy.  I would add that I say “obvious” only once it’s pointed out.  Conceiving of this stuff is an entirely different, not-at-all obvious process.

Buy the book.  Read it, already.


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