Thursday, 18 April 2013

Mind of My Mind

Octavia E. Butler Mind of My Mind (1977)

It seems fair to say that black female science-fiction writers are fairly thin on the ground, and since Octavia Butler passed on in 2006, they've been sadly thinner on the ground to the tune of one, although I say that not so much for the sake of ticking any particular diversity box as the simple fact of her having been a fairly exceptional author and someone who really should have achieved wider recognition than she did.

Mind of My Mind was her second novel, and second of a series telling a much larger story spanning thousands of years in the lives of a roughly dynastic breed of telepaths. It's probably not what you would call hard science-fiction - as if that really matters - and oddly, it reminds me a little of Chris Claremont's New Mutants comic back when Bill Sienkiewicz was drawing thoughtful tales of young people struggling with weird powers, a book that had strayed a long way from standard superhero pastures, although then of course some idiot invented Rob fucking Liefeld and everything turned to shit. The details of the tale, the actual story onto which Mind of My Mind is bolted isn't that remarkable and, it might be argued, was later done to greater effect in Stephen Baxter's Coalescent; but Butler had a wonderfully persuasive narrative voice, a pleasantly gritty blue collar feel which was nevertheless able to convey subtle points without any of the usual showing off or ham-fisted allegorising one might expect of a novel such as this. In other words, she drew on her experience as a black woman without trading on her ethnicity as a virtue in itself, thus allowing for the sort of  communication of ideas which can sometimes be a problem with novels wherein such issues are raised.

Mind of My Mind is quite complex in terms of subject, being about relationships, power and coercion. Whilst some ideas regarding slavery enter the equation, there's much more going on here, with a dynamic in which the owned are simply obliged to accept their servitude to a master who seems at times quite likeable. There's no dramatic breaking of chains in the face of a scowling despot, nothing so obvious to intrude or detract from what is actually being said; and what Butler may have been saying is probably up to individual reader. I've seen this book criticised for raising issues and then failing to deal with them, but this strikes me as a basic misunderstanding, the assumption that a black woman writer is necessarily obliged to make bold, shouty statements just in case any of us had failed to realise that racism is bad, like in one of those stories where we set down the book and exclaim to ourselves hang on, these poor robots are being treated just like they used to treat the slaves!

I think my only criticism of Mind of My Mind is that the voice of the narrator is significantly more engaging than that of any of the subsidiary characters, all of whom get their fifteen minutes, but it's nevertheless a great book.

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