Mind of My Mind by Octavia Butler
Mind of My Mind (1977) was written second in Octavia Butler’s 4-book PATTERNIST series, and comes second in chronology. However, I think it is less-polished than Wild Seed (1980), which comes earlier in chronology but was written later, after she had more fully developed her ideas about psionic powers, power/control, and telepaths vs. mutes. It’s tough to decide whether readers should approach this series in the order it was written, in order to see Butler’s development as a writer, or by internal chronology, to follow the PATTERNIST story at the expense of uneven writing style/quality.
Mind of My Mind takes place about a century after the events of Wild Seed. Doro, the immortal being from the first book, has continued to cultivate a huge number of active telepaths throughout the U.S. Anyanwu, the centuries-old shape-shifting healer, now goes by Emma and occupies a much smaller role in this book. Instead, the story is centered on a young teenaged girl named Mary. Doro recognizes great potential in her, and though she has a troubled upbringing like many other latent telepaths, he brings her through the difficult transition to active psionic abilities.
At this point Doro and Mary realize that she has a unique ability to link together other telepaths under her control in a Pattern of psychic bonds. The story follows a number of psychics who find themselves drawn to Forsyth, California, not understanding why. When they are gathered under one roof with Mary, it is revealed that Doro wants them to submit to Mary’s control in the hopes of forming a telepathic bond among them. They are extremely resistant to this proposal, and consider trying to kill Mary to avoid this outcome. However, Doro is an ever-present threat, and they are afraid to cross him. However, when they do link their minds, it is Doro who questions whether this outcome is truly the goal of his psychic breeding program over millennia, or whether Mary and the others in her Pattern represent a greater threat to him than anyone before.
All the books in the PATTERNIST series are short and told in a concise, somewhat clinical tone that is at odds with the themes of emotional bonds, struggles for control, manipulation, and internal conflict. The development of latents into actives is always a painful process, one that frequently results in death or injury, and does not always make that person happier. Unlike other writers, Butler does not assume that psychic powers gives a person a free ticket to do as they wish, controlling normals and bending them to their will. Instead, we see latents constantly battling internally with their powers, most often because they do not realize what the problem is, and frequently lashing out violently at the people around them, including family members. This struggle is posited as the reason behind a lot of mental illness cases, frequently in poverty-stricken or troubled homes. In fact, most of the latents that Mary eventually identifies and brings into the Pattern are suffering beforehand, so allowing them to joint a psychic family provides much-needed support and understanding. This eventually leads to a climactic confrontation between Doro and Mary, which will have lasting repercussions for centuries afterward.
In the end, it would be hard to say that Mind of My Mind is an easy or enjoyable read. Butler excels at depicting mental and physical hardship and torment. The characters are almost universally unhappy for much of the time, often because of their powers, and it is only the Pattern that eases this somewhat. Though there are many secondary characters in the story, they are not particularly memorable, so the focus is on Doro and Mary. Doro we know well from Wild Seed, and while he is a complex and powerful being, he is not likeable. Mary is more of a compassionate figure than Doro, but she is not averse to the power gained from controlling other psychics, similar to Doro, except she does not need to kill and feed on people to survive. The book does not make either character appealing — we are left to choose whom to sympathize with.
It’s fairly clear that Butler was still perfecting her craft and ideas about psychic powers, so Mind of My Mind feels more rushed and less polished than Wild Seed. At the same time, knowing that the next books, Clay’s Ark and Patternmaster, move further into the future, it makes sense to follow the internal chronology rather than the publication order. But I can’t help thinking that Butler would have wanted to brush up this book, and that’s probably why later books like Parable of the Sower have garnered more acclaim than her earlier works. Still, as a fascinating and unsettling look at what the development of a telepathic group-mind might actually feel like, Mind of My Mind is a very worthy effort.
Mind of My Mind is narrated by Christie Clarke, and she does a solid job. I imagine a female narrator was chosen because Mary is the main character of the story, though it’s debatable whether the narrator and main character need to be matched gender-wise. Wild Seed was narrated by Dion Graham and Kindred was narrated by Kim Staunton, and I feel like they were more powerful voice actors (they certainly have impressive credentials), but I always hesitate to pass final judgment on a narrator because the book itself has such a huge role in forming our impressions, and I thought those books were superior to Mind of My Mind.
I agree with Stuart that Mind of My Mind is inferior to Wild Seed. The writing is brilliant, but the characters are loathsome and they’re miserable. I’m glad I read this book, but it’s not one that I want to read again.