1977’s Mind of My Mind, second in Octavia E. Butler’s Patternist series , is Butler’s take on classic Science Fiction themes: an examination of a world where mental powers are real rather than the delusions of the confused, the bewildered, and the fans of Analog.
Like Telzey Amberdon and Paul Maud’Dib, Mary is a Campbellian superhuman. Born to a latent telepath and another psychic, Mary has potential mental powers that could dwarf anything ever seen on the Earth of the late 20 century!
Too bad she’s property. Or, possibly, food.
Many SF authors have imagined splendid worlds where some or all have psychic powers, the result of centuries-long eugenics programs. In Butler’s world, psychics like Mary are bred to be slaves. The fellow in charge of things is a body-hopping psychic vampire named Doro. Doro eats the minds of anyone who annoys him or who is standing conveniently close when his current body needs to be replaced. Or who just happens be nearby if Doro needs to make a point.
Doro has been breeding psychics of various kinds for four thousand years. Psychic minds taste best …but it’s more than that. He is trying to create a race of superhumans to rule over, who will be subjects worthy of his majesty (as well as tasty food). Like a lot of farmers, he gives his cattle names, even becomes fond of some of them, but he never loses sight of the fact that they are his property, not his friends.
Mary’s damaged mother Rina is enough of a telepath to have been ruined by it. By crossing Rina with a psychic whose parasitic powers are more akin to Doro’s, Doro hoped to create a child greater than either parent. It’s an experiment the ageless Doro has tried again and again, one that has always ended badly for its subjects. Still, Doro hopes that Mary will succeed where her predecessors failed. If she doesn’t, he can always eat her mind. Nummy!
Millennia of minor failures haven’t prepared Doro for success beyond his wildest nightmares….
Memory is a funny thing. I remembered the beginning of this, the general situation and the finale but the part where Mary deals with her new community of like minds completely vanished from my memory.
What a joy-filled celebration of life this isn’t! It’s certainly well-written (although Butler would get better). But if you’re looking for some sort of affirmation that most humans are essentially decent people, look elsewhere.
I don’t know what SF Butler read as a girl but this certainly feels like it’s her reaction to ideas common in some science fiction of the time: the fallout zone downwind of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s psionic kookery (2). Butler sees that what you get when you bolt psychic powers on top of regular humans probably won’t be some benign Second Foundation ruling over the oblivious mundanes. What you get are people with the common prejudices—Mary, being black, is forced to be keenly aware of American race issues—plus new ones. Such as the belief that the ability to use normals—mutes—as the whim strikes justifies using normals as the whim strikes. Psychics submit because if they don’t, people stronger than they are will kill them.
It probably doesn’t help that not only is Doro an irresistible monster, but to the degree that he has beliefs about politics and such beyond “do what I say”, his beliefs seem to have solidified about the time the last mammoths on Wrangel Island were dying out.
Mary starts off at the bottom of the heap. She is the dark-skinned child of an alcoholic prostitute. She is exposed to her mother’s abusive clients. Eventually she is taken under the protective wings of both Doro and his grudging ally, the grandmotherly Emma (3). However, Mary is protected only as long as she submits and serves her owners’ purposes. When she comes into her power, Mary does do what she can for the latent psychics and for those to whom she has a personal connection, but that seems to be about as far as her altruism goes. Mutes are outside her moral purview. She’s nicer than Doro, but that’s not saying much.
Readers who encountered Butler’s books in publication order would know where Mary’s experiments will lead. The destination is nowhere good, although the books in which the new world order is described are, like this book, good and worth your attention . Mind of My Mind and the other Patternist books are available from Open Road Media .
1: The publication order of the Patternist books is:
Mind of My Mind
The internal chronology is:
Mind of My Mind
After that, you can read either Survivor then Patternmaster, or Patternmaster then Survivor. Mind of My Mind is second in both—OK, all three—lists.
2: Although this could also be a reaction to tropes in superhero comics—“With great power comes great responsibility!”—I don’t think it is.
3: Anyanwu from 1980’s Wild Seed, although I don’t know to what degree Butler had worked out Anyanwu’s back story at this point.
4: The exception being Survivor, which is both terrible and out of print.