Spring has finally arrived and I’ve got some great science fiction for you in the form of Octavia E. Butler’s thought-provoking Kindred. First of all, I had no idea the book was written 36 years ago until I began this post. Second of all, I normally steer clear of time-travel novels. Just personal preference really since I haven’t stumbled upon many compelling narratives. That being said, Butler completely shattered all my expectations of time-travel tropes and parallel universes.
Set in 1979 and 1819, the book follows Dana, an aspiring novelist, who begins experiencing abrupt time displacements over the course of a few weeks. Each time she suffers a strange dizziness, she is sent back in time to a slave plantation. It becomes apparent that her travel is driven by impending danger to one of her ancestors, the son of a plantation owner, named Rufus. In order to guarantee her own birth, Dana must save Rufus over and over again even though he plays into the patriarchal racist-driven hierarchy of the antebellum south.
One main thread within the novel comments upon the violence and shock-factor of televised re-enactments of slavery in the 1800s. As Dana experiences first-hand the horrors and pain inflicted upon slaves (and herself as she is treated like one when she returns to 1819), she argues that “most people around Rufus know more about real violence than the screenwriters of today will ever know” (48). Even though the novel was written in the 70s, way before the special effects of today, I think Butler makes a good point. In cinema, due to the inundation of violent images in our media, we’ve become immune to the reality that underlies them. What those in the 1800s experienced was terrifying violence that no movie can ever accurately depict, mainly because, as viewers, we do not feel the pain ourselves. We are merely made uncomfortable. History, Butler seems to argue, is the same because, even though we are aware of the hardships and inhumane treatment of others, we can never truly understand past experiences due to our distance from them.
The story is mainly about context. Even though Dana is far removed from 1819, in the 1979 of her real life she still experiences racist ideologies. Her family looks down on her husband, a white writer named Kevin, because they believe that she needs to marry a black man. Her grandfather goes even as far as saying that he would die before seeing his houses fall into the hands of a white man, no matter how liberal and well-adjusted Kevin is. In the same vein, Kevin’s sister essentially disowns him because he marries a black woman. The pair are alienated by their families in the same way that the past of 1819 tries to drive a schism between them based on race. They try to pretend that race doesn’t matter in the world in which they live, but are faced with the harsh reality that it does.
While Dana first goes to 1819 by herself, she later returns with Kevin. The pair must modify their behaviors in order to survive on the plantation even though Kevin dislikes the idea of pretending Dana is his slave. Dana states “I played the slave, minded my manners probably more than I had to because I wasn’t sure that I could get away with it” (91). While the first initial days are difficult for her to adjust, she observes later that “Time passed. Kevin and I became more a part of the household, familiar, accepted, accepting. That disturbed me too, when I thought about it. How easily we seemed to acclimatize…And I was perverse enough to be bothered by the ease” (97).
This sentiment becomes more and more disturbing as Dana and Kevin find themselves confined to 1819 for long stretches of time. She even goes as far as saying “I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery” (101). Even as she experiences a form of Stockholm syndrome with the slave owners, she is able to keep some perspective and sarcasm. When she comments on Rufus’ father, she says “His father wasn’t the monster he could have been with the power he held over his slaves. He wasn’t a monster at all. Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his society said were legal and proper” (134). However, Dana’s words do no excuse the plantation owners of their responsibility and culpability. I think she wants us to realize how easy it is for people to do unspeakable things to one another and understand the implications of such a sentiment.
While “Kindred” is just as much historical fiction as it is science fiction, I think Butler married the two to depict a sentiment that underlies the creation of science fiction as a genre. Science fiction is essentially alien to us in a way that 1819 is alien to us in today. It feels removed and unbelievable and I believe she juxtaposes the two to second-guess our own beliefs about history. Dana argues that “history happened whether it offends you or not” (141). The novel may be billed as scifi but the truth that grounds us in an otherwise alien time is profound and earth-shattering.
Read this book. NOW. Because it will serve to remind you how unreal reality is.