Reading: Octavia Butler, Kindred

Author Octavia Butler

Kindred is a seminal work of science fiction. This is what I had been told, and this is what I went in to the book expecting. It’s not what I came out thinking (although I thought plenty of other things). Octavia Butler’s novel features a woman who finds herself inexplicably pulled through time whenever a particular person is in mortal peril, which unfortunately happens a lot. She is a black woman. He is a white man in early-19th century Maryland, the son of a slave plantation owner.

Published in 1979, Kindred is generally referred to as the first science fiction published by a black woman. 1979 was the year in which Margaret Thatcher was elected, Michael Jackson released “Off the Wall,” and five people protesting the KKK were shot and killed (by the KKK) in North Carolina. As relevant as the complex issues Butler raises in her book felt to me today, I truly can only imagine what they felt like to the average reader in 1979.

Cover of Octavia Butler's KindredButler’s writing is thoughtful and well-crafted, the pace of the story fast and yet each scene lingers. The relationships that Dana (the heroine) develops–with her white husband in both their own time and the antebellum South; with the slave-owning, abused boy to whom she is so oddly tied; and to the enslaved blacks on the plantation–are richly imagined.

That being said, I had a lot trouble reading this book as science fiction. Sure, Dana is pulled through time. That’s pretty weird. Turns out the guy is her distant relative. That’s intriguing. But there is no more exploration of that theme, and no investigation into what greater meaning it may have. The characters seem at best bemused.

I enjoy a lot of speculative fiction that doesn’t fit squarely within the box of a genre. And yes, science fiction has evolved a lot since 1979, but Dune had been out for 14 years, Star Wars for two; the genre was pretty well established. There is so very little in Kindred that could identify it with science fiction that I wonder if it hurts rather than helps the book’s tremendous power.

Reading this as a straight parable, or as historical fiction in which liberties are taken (see: Outlander…), might open it up to new readers. Far from diminishing Butler’s work, I would rather see it correctly homed so it could have the broader recognition it deserves.

Stuck for POC-authored sci fi? Try this excellent Buzzfeed list of 19 books, and one from Colorlines for comparison.

Still, perhaps I am not accounting sufficiently for the glass ceiling effect. Kindred does not constitute science fiction to me, but for a black woman to write herself in to a genre that had previously excluded her? That is extraordinary.

Have you read this or other works by Octavia Butler–forget that, by any person of color in this still very-white, very-male genre? Do you think I’m being too restrictive in my definition of science fiction? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “Reading: Octavia Butler, Kindred”

  1. I read Taichi Yamada’s Strangers several years ago and found it excellent, although as with your observation on Kindred, I found it to be only barely speculative fiction, in that it deals with ghosts. (I discovered A.S. Byatt due to Possession being included on a list of the Year’s Best Fantasy and Science Fiction back in 1992, so I think the definition has always been pretty fuzzy. Many re-readings of that excellent novel have failed to convince me it qualifies as fantasy.) I also hear good things about Cixin Liu, whose Three-Body Problem is coming up on my audio list. Graphic novels are on the rise as a format of storytelling (not that I haven’t loved them for years and years). Ta-Nehisi Coates is penning the reboot of the Black Panther series, and other established writers are crossing over into the genre–Margaret Atwood has a series out this year as well, I think.

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