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Review © 2003 T. M. Wagner.
Book cover art by John Jude Palencar.


What hath Nietzsche wrought? Many SF and fantasy novels have depicted the prospect of being superhuman — possessing psychic, telepathic, and other extraordinary powers — as eminently desirable, and comic books have practically made this notion their raison d'être, elevating it to the ultimate heroic archetype. Octavia Butler presents quite the opposite view in Mind of My Mind, an often gut-wrenching tale in which becoming superhuman is the first step to losing your humanity. That it also serves at another level as a trenchant critique of the relationship between race and power — a subject that would clearly resonate with an African-American writer — is a tribute to Butler's intelligence and skill. She's truly one of the genre's most gifted voices.

Mind of My Mind is the second of Butler's "Patternist" novels, but as it is a stand-alone story that deals with the Patternists' origins, it can be read before any others. The story introduces us to Doro, an immortal possessed of stupefying paranormal powers. From his early childhood, he has had the ability to enter and leave the bodies of others at will — a kind of psychic parasite. Now four thousand years old, Doro has been trying for nearly all of that time to breed a race of superhumans, and his motives are anything but altruistic. But his efforts have been mostly in vain. Many of his latent talents do not survive the transition — a kind of paranormal puberty all packed into a period of hours — when their minds become "active," gaining control of all of the agonizing input they routinely pick up like broadcasts from a nightmare radio station. Tellingly, Butler makes it clear that latents only ever pick up the worst emotions a person can feel — anguish, terror, rage — and never the best — joy, love, euphoria. Madness is common. And Doro's breeding experiment is risky because two fully active talents brought together will almost always certainly kill each other.

Now it looks as if he might be getting close. A young daughter of Doro's, Mary, has the potential to be extremely powerful. Doro — who wields a slave master's absolute control over his latents and actives — has Mary, while she is still a latent, marry a male active in the hopes that their children will be the psychic übermensch for whom he's always hoped.

But something unforeseen happens. Mary's transition — an intense ordeal she only survives with the help of her husband — causes her to wrest control of the minds of several actives around the country, each of whom is compelled (none too happily) like dogs on leashes to come to Mary's home on the west coast. What begins is the Pattern, the first-ever mental network of actives. Doro is concerned at Mary's unprecedented feat, but lets her build the Pattern, curious about the outcome.

At this point in the story, a sense of inevitability settles over the proceedings. Once the Pattern is formed, and Mary becomes the first of Doro's actives to pose a tangible threat to him, it's dead obvious there's ony one way this story can end. Indeed, the book actually seems to lose steam as it nears its finale instead of building it up, because you're just waiting for the inescapable Final Confrontation.

What carries the novel over the obvious course of its plotting is Butler's attention to character, as well as her intriguing notion of how those with psychic abilities might function in a world mostly populated by people who haven't got them. Doro, an utterly loathsome bastard from the get-go, is a ruthless, psychopathic tyrant; devoid of empathy, he kills those not useful to him as casually as one might crumple up a paper cup and throw it away. Mary becomes the first of the Pattern to develop anything like a moral compass, but even her most beneficent deeds involve taking over the minds of others, compelling them to follow her will, all the while believing they are choosing their actions. Mary understands the moral quandary, but doesn't choose to avoid it. The result is that even this novel's most sympathetic characters are never 100% likable. But Butler's theme — that the moral precepts all of us live by in order to get along might not even occur to someone who possesses powers nearly godlike to us — is startling and provocative.

As is Doro's agenda, to create a "master race" whose destiny is to dominate all others. (In Butler's most scathing bit of satire, Doro, originally born a black Nubian, enjoys taking over the bodies of white men.) He's a psychic Hitler without even Hitler's guile. Nothing stands in his way, no compassion stays his hand. Thus, in a sense, he does seem an awfully one-dimensional villain at times. But the implicit social commentary, blessedly written without a heavy hand, gives Mind of My Mind a relevance that makes this bleak story as chilling today as it was upon its release.