Task: Read a classic of genre fiction.
Before I read Kindred, I had a lot of guilt over not reading more Octavia Butler. I don’t have that guilt anymore, because she just got moved off the “I should read” list and onto the “now now now” list. I’m not going to be a person who hasn’t read a ton of Octavia Butler for very much longer.
If you suffer from Octavia Butler-related guilt, Bloodchild (feminist body horror at its squicky, squelchy finest) is online, and you should stop what you’re doing and go read that right now.
Kindred is the story of Dana, a woman who lives in Los Angeles in 1976, who finds herself transported to Maryland in the early eighteen hundreds. Here’s a silly bit of ignorance from me – I did a double take at hearing Maryland repeatedly referred to as the antebellum South. “Isn’t that New England?” I kept asking myself. Nope, and I need remedial geography and history lessons, apparently.
Kindred is written in a lean style that gets right to the point. Dana is dragged back to the time of slavery within pages. She’s a smart, pragmatic woman who doesn’t waste any time trying to figure out why this is happening or if it’s real. Instead, she avoids cars so that she doesn’t accidentally cause a collision, and she and her husband pack a bag full of basics (aspirin plays a big part later on) and tie it to her waist after the first couple of incidents.
Genre classification debates are usually really tedious, and there’s a definite hesitancy to call works by women science fiction. To be clear, Octavia Butler absolutely wrote science fiction! But Kindred isn’t sci fi – it’s a book about time travel, but it’s time travel with no known mechanism. It’s a supernatural circumstance rather than one even nominally tied to the rules of the known universe.
It also spends very little time on the traditional time travel paradox of changing the past. Dana and her husband Kevin have no qualms about changing the past, except in that they want to be sure that Dana’s great-grandmother has a chance to be born. Making sure that happens involves some horrible moral calculus. Dana’s great great grandfather Rufus Weylin is a white slaveholder, and his repeated assault of his slave Alice is an unavoidable part of Dana’s family history. The paradox at the center of the book isn’t the future affecting the past, it’s Dana’s feelings about Rufus. Unlike most time travel stories, that paradox is painfully but fully resolved.
You could think yourself in circles about the stuff time travel fiction typically wants you to get caught up in, but Kindred really doesn’t invite that. I mean, it’s a straight up horror novel, really, but I’d grant it a fantasy label if that makes it easier for everyone to call it a classic.
It’s such a smart and complicated book, too, considering its stripped down style and fast paced narrative. Dana being involuntarily yanked back to American slavery is painful to read, and feels like Butler is dramatizing the institutionalized racism we’re still living with. A very large segment of the American population is getting hurled backwards in time, on a daily basis even.
But it isn’t just Dana that travels. Eventually her white husband Kevin accidentally goes with her. Rufus and his father are predictably monstrous, but Kevin is something else. First of all, Kevin clearly loves Dana. He’s also not a bigot–when he’s accidentally stranded in pre-Civil War Maryland for five years, he uses that time to work as an abolitionist, and the kind that mobs chase out of town, at that. But he’s also oblivious at best (he mentions something about how great it would be in some ways to live in that time, while his black wife stares at him dumbfounded), and chauvinistic at worst (he and Dana are both writers, and he throws a fit when she refuses to do clerical work for him by typing his manuscripts). He’s a brilliant portrayal of white liberal America, and I say this with full awareness that if I’m after a representation of white liberal America, I really just need to find a mirror. It is perfectly okay to call me out on that.
I can also whole-heartedly recommend the recent comics adaptation by Damian Duffy and John Jennings, if you’re short on time (or just prefer comics – that’s cool too!). I read it immediately after finishing Kindred, and it’s a wonderful adaptation. Most of the dialog is taken directly from the book, and the art is perfect. It won the 2017 Stoker Award for achievement in a graphic novel, and competition in that category was fierce this year.
I get the sense that a lot of people read Kindred in high school. Good. I wish I had. But I’m glad I’ve at least read it now, and I’m looking forward to as much Octavia Butler as I can get my grubby little hands on.