On Thursday, September 17th, the Classics of Science Fiction Book Club met and discussed Kindred by Octavia Butler. Butler’s celebrated novel is a time traveling slave narrative set in 1976 Los Angeles and on a plantation in pre-Civil War Maryland. Edana (Dana) Franklin involuntarily travels to Maryland to witness and be a part of six traumatic instances in the life of Rufus Weylin. The first episode occurs when Rufus is 4 or 5 and the last takes place when he is an adult. For Dana, all 6 episodes transpire over a period of months and the resulting time disjoint leaves her grasping for any sense of stability or reality.
If allowed only one word to describe Kindred, I would call it important. Butler’s novel hits every literary bench mark (compelling story, complex characters, sensible pacing, realistic dialog, presentation of difficult ideas in a comprehensible format, to name a few) and satisfies what I think are the greatest accomplishments of science fiction–defiance of convention and the willingness to thoughtfully explore ideas often left shrouded in mystery.
One of the ways in which Kindred stands out in the science fiction genre (in addition to being written by an African-American woman, let alone having a protagonist who is both female and African-American) is by means of its characters. In addition to a fully formed and authentic feeling lead (Dana) and sidekick (her husband Kevin), Kindred’s supporting cast of slaves on the Weylin plantation and other people in Maryland with whom they interact is complex and often surprising. The two “villains”, Rufus and his father Tom Weylin, are human. In a genre where the antagonist is often portrayed as unredeemable, or a conglomerate of many ideas and people, resulting in a nearly indefinable mess of trouble for the protagonist, Tom and Rufus are, at times, though ultimately despicable, sympathetic. When considered in relationship to the context in which they were raised–or defined–they can be seen as genuinely confused and manipulated products of their environment, complete with their own personal conflict to the social paradigm in which they live.
As a historical narrative, Kindred successfully explores and exposes the tragedy and horror of the United States’ bloodied foundation. Part of the success can be attributed to Butler’s restraint in describing said foundation. While she does not shy away completely from grotesquely violent scenes and acts, they are relatively mild in comparison to many wide spread practices in the United States, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries. Similarly, Dana is neither excessively hopeful and heroic, or hopeless and defeated. Grappling with the complexity of the situation into which she has been thrust, Dana survives initially on her 20th century resolve that things will get better, but experiences a range of emotional responses from terrified, to comforted, to utterly perplexed as to why she feels compelled to put herself at risk for the sake of a future that may not ever exist.
It’s become a bit of a running joke in the CSF Book Club that I identify every book we read as my new “favorite so far”. I said the same of Kindred. After sitting with it over the last few weeks, and considering it in the context of the other 50 some science fiction books I’ve read over the last 3 years, I can now say that while it’s not my “favorite” (I’m not sure I actually have A favorite), it is on the short list of books I will strongly encourage any and every reader I know to take on. We are living in the future of our past–understanding the world through which we have been shaped is not just valuable, but essential. Octavia Butler’s Kindred is one of many keys to understanding the complexity of our story.
Join us on Thursday, October 15th at 7pm for a discussion of Walter Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth.