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Kindred

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kindred

Octavia E Butler is a renowned science fiction novelist but I’ve accidentally managed to choose the only one of her novels which isn’t SF for this series of posts on science fiction novels written by women. Whoops. I picked Kindred because it appeared to be the most popular of her novels but, as with so many of the titles I’ve selected for the series, it isn’t in print in the UK. Originally published in 1979, my copy is the 1988 Bluestreak edition (“a paperback series of innovative literary writing, featuring works by women of all colors”) from Beacon Press, featuring an introduction from Robert Crossley (which unfortunately hasn’t been updated since it was originally published).

The thing that misled me into thinking Kindred was science fiction is the fact it is a time travel story. More accurately, Dana, a young black American women living in Seventies California, finds herself flung back in time to the Deep South at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. Crossley remarks, perhaps unnecessarily, that “Butler is silent on the mechanics of time travel.” (p.x) That is understandable but it soon becomes clear Butler isn’t even interested in using magic to tell a science fictional story. Dana finds herself pulled back in time because a young white boy, Rufus, is drowning. She saves his life only to find herself threatened by his father. This is enough to snap her back to the present. Here, for reasons of pure plot expediency, she finds mere seconds have passed rather than minutes. This allows Butler to yank Dana back to the past every time Rufus is in danger but whilst he ages, Dana does not.

My wife read the novel earlier in the year and warned me that it as extremely boring. Perhaps that coloured my own reading but I certainly found it a tedious slog. Butler begins her book with the words: “I lost my arm on my last trip. My left arm.” (p.1) It is a great first line, the matter of fact repetition makes the sentence and promises tension and revelation. Unfortunately Butler does everything she can to strip this away, to close down her text as much as possible.

The second time Dana is forced to save the remarkably accident prone Rufus, she realises that he is her great-great-grandfather. This familial connection supposedly sets up a moral dilemma because it means she is tied to him and must be complicit in his sins to ensure her own survival but since this contrived ‘what if’ could never be it lacks any force. Instead, Dana is locked into a cycle of psychological and physical torture from which there can be no escape due to authorial fiat.

Crossley describes the power Rufus exerts as “an irresistible psychohistorical force, not a feat of engineering.” (p.x) It is a similar psychic power that propels Connie through time in Marge Piercy’s Woman On The Verge Of Time, published three years earlier. There are important differences, however. To start with, Connie has at least some agency; she does not have control but she has some influence. Dana has nothing, she is tossed around at random. More importantly, Connie is moving forwards through time which allows Piercy to compare Seventies America to a utopian potential future. Since Dana moves backwards, however, it is only possible to compare two specific periods in the history of the United States. This closes down a huge amount of potential.

Part of the problem is that compared to a straight historical novel, the timeslip removes a lot of the work (and hence engagement) for the reader. Instead of learning the world ourselves, piecing together its differences to our own time, we have Dana standing in the way, relaying it to us through her own filter.
“I never realised how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.” (p.101) If that is the case then Dana isn’t very bright; more likely, Butler isn’t treating the reader with enough respect.

On page 188, Dana goes back to the future once more and I gave up on the book. Recommendations for better Butler novels would be welcomed in the comments.

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Written by Martin

8 November 2011 at 10:41

14 Responses

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  1. I think her best science fiction is in the trilogy Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago (which when I read it was called the “Xenogenesis trilogy” but apparently now known as “Lilith’s Brood“). On the other hand, Parable of the Sower won a Nebula award.

    Gareth Rees

    8 November 2011 at 11:31

  2. If you want science fiction to limit itself to mechanics of time travel, you may dislike this novel. As I consider SOPECULATIVE fiction (Heinlein’s words) as something else than a simple consideration of bolts and engrenages, I consider Kindred as one of the good Butler’s books I’ve read and liked.

    Georges

    8 November 2011 at 17:05

  3. I actually went back and finished this as I don’t like to leave a book half read. Nothing happened though. Pointless.

    Martin

    10 November 2011 at 19:24

  4. It seems to me that much of your review is dismissing the book for not being what you expected it to be. Not good reviewing practice, in my opinion.

    More subjectively, I think you missed the boat completely on this novel, which I have read several times, taught several times, and always find gripping from beginning to end. The fact that Dana does not have the ability to fundamentally change the course of history is not a flaw, but the spring that powers the paradoxes of her situation. The book is deeply revealing on the psychology of the master-slave relationship, and complicates the simple black-and-white moral terms in which pre-Civil War slavery is typically portrayed. The sudden jolts between the past and the present, the increasingly long periods of time that Dana is trapped in the past, the fact that both her husband and her slaveholder ancestor are white men while the story is about the sexual predation of white men on black women, the gradual way she is drawn into complicity with the exploitation of her great-great-great grandmother (a woman who might be her twin sister), the way Dana goes from being an outsider and intervener in this world to a part of it, the way the sexual predation of her great-great-grandfather gradually and inevitably comes closer and closer to her, all increase the tension by the end to an unbearable level. Butler, in this as is so many other of her works, never lets the characters or readers off easily.

    But for you, nothing happened. Pointless.

    Of course, arguing someone into thinking a book is not boring when he was bored by it is a futile enterprise. But I do think you do Butler and the people who value this book a grave disservice with the cavalier way you dismiss it and her work. I guess you think they all must be fools. That is your prerogative as a reviewer, but it does not increase my respect for your opinion. I’m sure you won’t lose any sleep over that.

    John Kessel

    17 January 2012 at 21:00

  5. Thank you John, I could not say this as well as you did but I aggree quite completely with you. You were able to tell how I did, also, appreciate Kindred.

    Georges

    17 January 2012 at 23:07

  6. John: It seems to me that much of your review is dismissing the book for not being what you expected it to be.

    Firstly, I wouldn’t describe this as a review, it is more of a reaction (the sort of thing blogs were designed for). Secondly, whilst I would have liked the book to have been science fiction (since this was intended to be part of a series of posts about science fiction by women) and I discuss the way in which it isn’t, I don’t see anywhere where I have dismissed it for not being science fiction.

    Instead I dismiss it because I find it contrived and hence boring. I explain why I find it contrived and surely boredom is a valid reaction to contrivance? You don’t address the issue of contrivance that I am concerned with and instead tell me that my reaction is invalid, that actually all these contrivances “increase the tension by the end to an unbearable level”.

    You then throw in some psycho-analysis for free. Thanks. As it happens, I don’t think people who value this book are fools, I merely assume they have a different point of view to me (a point of view they may well be able to persuade me of reasoned debate).

    From your tone, however, it seems clear that you do think I am a fool so you’ll forgive me for not finding you persuasive.

    Martin

    18 January 2012 at 15:09

  7. As I say, I think it is fruitless to try to persuade you not to be bored by a book you feel is boring.

    I point out that you didn’t just complain that the book wasn’t sf, you also complained that it didn’t handle its premise the way that Marge Piercy handled a similar premise in Woman on the Edge of Time (correct title), since Kindred compares the present and the past instead of the present and the future. This strikes me as another complaint that Butler did not write the book that you wanted her to write. Her time travel should have been between the present and the future, even though she wanted to write a book about chattel slavery?

    About contrivance: yes, the premise of this novel is a contrivance. It does seem to me that many if not most fantasy novels, and many sf novels too, could be dismissed by saying “since this contrived ‘what if’ could never be it lacks any force.” Deciding which ones we dismiss would then come down to a matter of taste. My reaction to your calling the premise of the book contrived is thus to be puzzled at why this particular contrivance turns you off when, to choose some arbitrary examples, the contrivances of Chine Mieville or Philip K. Dick or Geoff Ryman do not (or perhaps they do?). I figure it must not be contrivance per se that is the problem, but I can’t tell from your comment here. The best I could figure was that you did not like how this particular contrivance resulted in Dana’s lack of agency. That’s why I went on about some of the particular consequences of her being trapped in this situation, and how I (and perhaps some other readers) might find those worth the contrivance, and in fact, rather than boring, quite meaningful.

    Regardless, you are welcome to dismiss anything you like. Tastes are tastes. But “Nothing happened, though. Pointless” in reaction to this novel seems to me to say more about you than about Butler’s novel.

    I’m glad that you don’t think that people who read things differently from you are fools. I hope you understand how I might, from reading your blog over a period of time, and from reading your comments on Kindred, have come to a different conclusion.

    John Kessel

    18 January 2012 at 15:59

  8. While it wouldn’t come as any surprise to me that someone who’s read Martin’s blog over a period of time might think him opinionated, judgmental and occasionally rash, it’s a mystery to me how someone who’s done that could possibly think he’s a fool. Nor is it obvious to me what benefit there is to stopping by the blog of someone you think is a fool to tell him you think he’s a fool.

    As it happens, I’ve always bounced off most of the Butler I’ve tried for reasons not entirely unrelated to Martin’s, but enough readers I respect have been effusive enough in their praise over the years that it’s clear there’s something there that’s not getting through to me, and I would have welcomed a sincere attempt by a Butler partisan to help readers like me see what that is; but alas, instead we get ad hominem attacks.

    I wish you hadn’t got my hopes up, Dr. Kessel. I don’t believe we’ve met, but many of my friends and acquaintances speak very highly of you, and seeing you deploy this line of argument is a great disappointment.

    David Moles

    18 January 2012 at 16:30

  9. John: I point out that you didn’t just complain that the book wasn’t sf, you also complained that it didn’t handle its premise the way that Marge Piercy handled a similar premise in Woman on the Edge of Time

    I certainly didn’t do that. I compared Kindred to Woman On The Edge Of Time to draw the distinction between two works that use a similiar premise in different ways. My view is that comparing the present with the past is inherently more limiting than comparing the present with a hypothetical future. This is part of my wider commentary about the way Butler closes down her text.

    I don’t want Butler to have set her novel about Nineteenth Century slavery in the present and the future. As you say, this is absurd (and should probably have tipped you off to the fact I didn’t hold that desire). I do question what Butler has achieved through using the premise of this type of time travel that she could not have achieve more successfully by writing a historical novel. The use of the premise also throws up huge problems for me in terms of contrivance.

    yes, the premise of this novel is a contrivance. It does seem to me that many if not most fantasy novels, and many sf novels too, could be dismissed by saying “since this contrived ‘what if’ could never be it lacks any force.”

    There are two difference types of “never be”. Firstly, there are the type that could never be in our world. I’ll stick my neck out and say that all time travel stories fall into this category. Secondly, there are the type that could never be within their own world. Even accepting Butler’s magical time travel as existing within the world of the novel, the way in which Dana is tied to Rufus could never be. There is a long discussion of this with NK Jemisin in the comments of this blog post by James Nicoll. The short version is that Butler imposes the connection from outside the world of her novel in service of her story. Hence contrived.

    Because of this I could never think of Dana as a character in her own right, only Butler’s pawn. So there is no tension as, for example, “the sexual predation of her great-great-grandfather gradually and inevitably comes closer and closer to her” because that is transparently what Butler has planned.

    Martin

    18 January 2012 at 16:51

  10. @David: I did not say and would never say that Martin is a fool. He is obviously very intelligent and capable of deep and rational analysis. I do not understand how you got this impression. “Opinionated, judgmental, and sometimes rash” is more like what I think of his analyses (though I would say it in stronger terms).

    Where in my writing do you find ad hominem attacks?

    When I said to Martin at the end of my last comment that, “I’m glad that you don’t think that people who read things differently from you are fools. I hope you understand how I might, from reading your blog over a period of time, and from reading your comments on Kindred, have come to a different conclusion” I meant that I have gotten the impression from his writings that he DOES treat people who have different readings as fools.

    What bothers me about his writing, and about this particular post on Kindred, are not his opinions per se, but the offhand way he dismisses works and writers, his casual hurling of unequivocal thunderbolts from parnassus. (“Nothing happens, though. Pointless.”) I could give many examples if you’d like, but I assume, given what you wrote above, you know what I am talking about. Despite his manifest and impressive qualities as a reviewer and critic, I wish he showed a little more humility.

    This is Martin’s blog and he gets to write whatever he wants and hold whatever opinions he likes, and express them in whatever way he prefers. I am simply commenting, as he invites people to do.

    John Kessel

    18 January 2012 at 17:24

  11. @Martin: “Secondly, there are the type that could never be within their own world. Even accepting Butler’s magical time travel as existing within the world of the novel, the way in which Dana is tied to Rufus could never be.”

    I don’t understand on what basis you assert this.”Could never be?” Why? (I’ve read the comments at the Nicholl blog post.). I guess we could spend a day or two arguing about what constitutes a “contrivance” vs. a “premise.” I am willing to accept some complex “givens” as long as the author does not violate them after they are established in the story. It seems to me that Butler follows this rule-of-thumb in Kindred.

    By the way, I am by no means an unequivocal admirer of all of Butler’s work.

    John Kessel

    18 January 2012 at 17:46

  12. @John — I read in haste, and completely misunderstood “I’m glad that you don’t think that people who read things differently from you are fools. I hope you understand how I might, from reading your blog over a period of time, and from reading your comments on Kindred, have come to a different conclusion.” I apologize, and withdraw the accusation.

    David Moles

    18 January 2012 at 18:48

  13. @David:

    I should have worded it better, or maybe not said it at all.

    John Kessel

    18 January 2012 at 19:02

  14. [...] Kindred by Octavia Butler [...]


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