Top critical review
Reviewed in the United States on September 20, 2018
As someone who really enjoys socially conscious science fiction I feel obligated to read Octavia Butler, but to be honest, I am persistently disappointed with her work. I finished all four books, but there was a several-month gap between when I finished Clay's Ark and when I started Patternmaster.
It's worth noting that the books in this volume are not placed in a thought-out optimal order to read them, but rather they're in chronological order within the timeline of the story- this isn't even the order in which they were published. It's also worth noting that there was another book in the series not included here because Butler didn't like it and didn't want it reprinted. Probably the best order to read them in would be in reverse chronological order within the timeline of the story- so starting with Patternmaster (the first one published, last in the in-story chronology), continuing to Clay's ark, then Mind of my Mind, etc.. Wild Seed is not a good place to start.
The problem with Wild Seed is that it's so clearly a prequel rather than a first book in a series. It isn't very representative of the series as a whole, since it's all about Anyanwu and Doro as characters, and they're only featured in Wild Seed and in Mind of my Mind. It's structured like it's trying to piece together bits of backstory that were mentioned in the previously-written books and this doesn't quite work. Perhaps if you're familiar with the characters from Mind of my Mind and want to see their backstory in more detail, then you'd be interested in reading Wild Seed, but it's not good as a starting place. And besides that, I was rather annoyed with how naive Anyanwu was, given that she's supposed to be multiple hundreds of years old at the start of the book.
Mind of My Mind is like those movies where you get to the end and it feels like you've just watched an extended tv episode rather than a movie. The ending feels anticlimactic for a novel ending. Even though the stakes are technically high, they feel low. This is also the case for the last book, Patternmaster, although Patternmaster has more of a dynamic where you would expect it to follow the main character's journey further, but it ends after the resolution of what seems like a secondary conflict. This would work as the first in a series where there was another book or two after it in the chronology, but it's really the last book.
Another thing that annoyed me about Mind of My Mind is that, while it does have the one character in an Octavia Butler book that I've ever seen not wanting to have children, that character still has a baby because her husband wants one and it's treated like no big deal. Butler's work often contains a strong theme of human reproduction and reproductive control, so you would expect it to touch on the injustice of women being pressured to have children at all when we might not want to, but in this series (and in her Xenobiogenesis series for that matter) she doesn't have a single character who explicitly and persistently doesn't want to have children in general over the entire course of the book/series. She just has characters who don't want to have children with the particular partner selected for them or who don't want their children to be born into dangerous or unjust circumstances. Mind you, she doesn't actively push having children either (and I haven't read all her books). It really is just a conspicuous absence of childfree women when they are pertinent to the theme and could easily be fit into the plot.
Clay's Ark may have been my favorite because it had a cool Mad Max Fury Road meets Twilight Zone vibe to it. But it still had a major problem with too much repetitive exposition. The Clay's arc disease just had to be explained to three different characters separately. Then every time one of the people with the disease did something idiosyncratic, it had to be explained that it was due to the disease, as though a reader can't be trusted to infer that. It would have made a fine novella if the redundancy was cut.
Butler does a good job of showing power imbalances and the experience of being under the power of someone else. The degree to which she spells out the dynamics between individuals in power and individuals who are under their control does come off as being kind of YA-ish at times, but I can see this as being a good tool for really explaining and building empathy for the experience of being disempowered.
That said, I don't feel like she goes far enough in challenging hierarchies. She shows a clear stance against tyrannical leaders, but by and large she seems to mostly just suggest replacing them with more merciful leaders. The structure itself stays in place and is still headed by one person, usually connected by blood lineage to the previous leader. You may have a higher opinion of this view than me.