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.