Saturday, March 14, 2015

Review of Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Time travel is a science fiction trope, but Kindred is essentially a horror novel.  The horror is American slavery.  Here we see it through the eyes of an American black woman living in 1976 who is transported to an early 1800's Maryland plantation.

Octavia Butler is one of my favorite authors.  Her Earthseed and Xenogenesis series are some of my all time favorite science fiction (see my Goodreads review of the first book of the Xenogenesis series).  These series also focus on the issue of slavery, albeit in the future and not always between humans.

Like all of Butler's work, Kindred is horrifying, touching, thrilling, and thought provoking all at once.  Butler's work is seldom easy to read.  It's often downright uncomfortable.  If you want an easy, comforting read, look elsewhere.  Nonetheless, Butler's novels and stories are also hard to put down.  Butler's readers are encouraged to have thoughts and feelings as complex as those of her characters.  For instance, the main character of Kindred, Dana, has a difficult relationship with Rufus, the son of the owner of the planation.  She hates him, but she also pities and somehow loves him.

For most other authors, the lack of any real explanation for the time travel would bother me, especially if a work is supposed to be science fiction (likewise, my criticism of Stephen King's attempts at science fiction in The Tommyknockers and Under the Dome is that he doesn't explain enough to pass science fiction muster).  However, I can forgive Butler on account of her literary skill; this novel is just too damn good.  It's this lack of explanation that pushes Kindred more into the horror or fantasy camp.  Maybe the lack of explanation works best for his story.  As the critical essay by Robert Crossley at the end of my edition says, Dana's situation with time travel is something like Gregor Samsa finding himself to be a bug in Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" -- it's just there, and the story is about the characters' reactions to this strange new fact.

The Philosophy Report

One of the powerful themes of this novel is the question of what was so wrong about slavery in America.  Lest we think slavery is no longer with us, a widely publicized study in 2013 estimated that there are 29 million slaves worldwide.  So, this is still very much a live issue for this reason and also due to the continued legacy of legal slavery in the United States and elsewhere.

The wrong of slavery goes beyond the physical pain and humiliation of beatings, whippings, rape, and murder; the deep wrong comes from the context in which these things take place, which is the very fact of one human being owning another.  This creates a deep psychological degradation that those of us who are free can never fully comprehend.  Likewise, I suspect that white Americans such as myself don't fully understand the legacy of slavery in our country, especially for African Americans today.  A thorough and excellent philosophical treatment of slavery can be found in Between Slavery and Freedom by Howard McGary and Bill Lawson.

Butler's device of bringing a modern protagonist into the world of early 19th century American slavery is a brilliant way to shed some light on this issue.  It's also a good example of why, as I've argued before, diverse perspectives matter in speculative fiction.

Rating: 93/100

See also my Goodreads review.

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