Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is pretty much a historical novel with a bit of SF icing, focusing almost exclusively on the relationships built between a mid-1970's modern black woman who is continually sent back in time to save an ancestor from an early death. Unfortunately for her, she's a black woman on a slave plantation, and she's stuck there for a disproportionately long time, sometimes even bringing her white husband back into the past with her and sometimes leaving him behind. Theres a ton of time dilation, where moments pass in the modern world and years pass in the past, so it brings a real sense of horror to the story as her real life tumbles away into long absences with her husband.
Of course, the real story isn't about Dana and Kevin, our moderns. Or at least, their intro brings to life a closer contrast of living as a slave, and not always entirely that different from those living in such humiliating circumstances on the plantation. Sure, science, medicine, the abolition of slavery, the freedom to speak your mind, all of that is very well and good, but it says a lot right out of the gate that Dana was able to fit into the frankly horrifying life of the past without too much struggle. Life as a temp slave as she struggled with her dream to become a writer seemed to be merely an appetizer before the grand meal of humiliation and torture.
I can make a pretty solid argument that most people live an all too-similar picture of daily grind and humiliation, and it's only in the matter of degree that anything has really changed, either that, or it's a matter of sublimation.
Dana was seen by too many of those past slaves as an black who pretended to be white because she was educated and tried, with varied success, to stand up to the one person she was nearly irrevocably tied to: Rufus, the son of the plantation owner, who despite Dana's best efforts, still turned out to be a fucking ass. Is it merely cultural? Is it thoroughly cultural? Butler's argument really seems to push aside individual will, time and time again, with every push in the right direction met with an equally feverish backlash.
Sure, we could have had these reversals take place as a science fictional trope, but Butler does something much more interesting. She blames people for being people.
Those times were a travesty of human stupidity and misery, and it's an even bigger blow to us as a species that it's hardly isolated or unique. We live in our own version of slavery, still, even if so many of the particulars have improved, we're still weighted by expectations, assumptions, and bloody-mindedness no less destructive.
Be kinder to our writers. Give them an outlet to create wonderful mirrors to ourselves, such as this novel.
I'm very sorry to know that Butler had passed away, and I'm sorry that it has taken me these many years to finally come around to reading her for the first time. If she was still around, I'd like to thank her. Since she isn't, I'll thank everyone who still remembers this book.
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