(1979 / 2014) Octavia Butler, Headline, £8.99, pbk, 295pp, ISBN 978-1-472-21481-2
I did not have any great expectations for this book, a fresh reprint of her 1979 novel. I chose it from the review list circulated SF2 Concatenation reviewers because I felt Octavia Butler was someone I ought to have read, because people I respect tell me I should, and because I have a sneaking suspicion that there is quite a bit of truth in the argument that SF's domination by white males is not entirely justified on talent grounds. But still, I approached it like I would approach a set text for a school assignment. I was expecting worthy but dull, message heavy and preachy. What I was not expecting was a well written, pacey story that was presented with subtlety and charm. And yet, despite the premise, that is what I got.
That Octavia Butler can write well there is no doubt. That we should all have read something by her became pretty apparent when I read Kindred, too. This is a reissue – it originally came out in 1979, and it has a real 1970's feel to it. I am told it is a popular choice of text in some American High Schools, and probably rightly so. It is about slavery, and coming on the back of the great civil rights movement of the 1960's it is an articulate and measured examination of how good people can do terrible things, and about the bad in the good and the good in the bad. Butler’s characters are nuanced. Her heroine, Dana, finds herself being sucked into a situation she has no control over, and in order to survive becomes complicit in her own situation. Her antagonist, Rufus, is a sweet kid living out the prejudices of his ancestors. Butler is not an apologist, but she does, in Kindred, aim for an understanding. She also puts a modern spotlight on an historic – but not so historic – dark chapter in American history. Kindred is not perfect, and it is very obvious Butler is more interested in making a point rather than telling a story, but it’s a damn good book for all of that.
Most of Butler’s work is squarely science-fiction but you would struggle to find any hard science in Kindred. It uses Time Traveller’s Wife style time travel (that is, unexplained and barely credible) to propel 26 year old Dana Franklin back through time from 1976 to the early 1800's every time her ancestor Rufus is near death. And there she stays, every time until she is afraid she will die too. The twist is that Rufus is white and Dana is black. In Dana’s world, she is happily married to (white) Kevin. In Rufus's world, she is just an uppity slave (or at least she is when she is captured, whipped and pressed into service). But I am getting ahead of myself, and risking plot spoilers. The book starts out with Dana rescuing Rufus as a small boy from drowning in a river. She quickly snaps back to 1976, though, when Rufus’s father pulls a gun on her.
The next time she is yanked back into the past, barely hours later, Rufus is years older. This pattern of differential time passing is repeated throughout the book, so Dana remains 26 while everyone in the past gets significantly older with every visit. On the second trip, where Dana rescues Rufus from the fire, they get to talk and Rufus gets his first taste of, as he sees it, conversation with a black woman who talks like she is white and who is brazen about doing things she really shouldn’t, like reading and writing. They form a bond and, initially at least, seem to like each other. Dana realises, though, that she must keep Rufus safe. He is her ancestor, and if her were to die without fathering a daughter, she might never be born.
With every trip, Rufus and his father come under the influence of Dana, and she begins to learn what it’s like to be black in the deep South the last days of slavery. But can she succeed in civilising Rufus and get him to renounce the cruelty of the time?
That is the moral point at the heart of this book, and there is an inevitability about the ending which is, nevertheless, satisfying even though it probably raises more questions than it answers.
The thing I find most impressive about this book is that it leads up gently to the really bad stuff, and even then presents it in a measured way, eschewing any sense of the hyperbole which might have undermined the key message. That, and the disturbing sense of unease you are left with after the final page makes this book a firm recommendation.
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