Monday, February 6, 2017

Review: Kindred

Kindred Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this one a lot more than I did.

The premise here is fantastic, and I mean that both literally and evaluatively. On the one hand, this is clearly fantasy. It takes a contemporary woman (contemporary to the moment of its writing in 1976) and transports her back to slave times. As a Black woman, she is in the awkward position of preserving the life of the generally obnoxious plantation owner who will eventually become her great-great-great grandfather. If fantasy is typically escapist, this is an ambitious effort to engage the ever-challenging question of race in American history. If I’d read this as a book proposal, I’d be all over it. I’d pre-order it, sure I was going to get a home run read.

But, great as its conception is, this suffers from the same problem a lot of “golden age” science fiction does. It’s so in love with its own premise that its characters don’t emerge as satisfyingly formed. Dana is ever reasonable, taking her time-slipping almost for granted. She solves some of its problems in straightforward fashion, for instance tying a denim bag to her waist so that, when she is transported next, she has assorted 20th century items (aspirin or a knife) at hand. That said, she then takes the experience at face value. There are things to learn, situations to apprise, horrors to see. There is almost no real emotional grappling, though.

Take, for example, the section of the novel where her husband, Kevin, goes back in time with her. She inadvertently goes forward again, stranding him in the past. For her it’s only another day or so before she returns. For him it’s five years of his life. He’s a white man in a world where that gives him privileges, but he still has to live five years in a world that condones slavery, a world much more physically demanding than our own. When Dana does get back, she busies herself in the lives of the plantation family to which she’s tied. She tries to figure out what’s happened while she away, and she tries to put things right.

And she hardly bothers to ask after Kevin! As a sympathetic reader, I’m desperate on her behalf. She has just stranded the most important man in her life in a difficult past, but he seems an after-thought. It’s as if the bones of the story are too interesting for Butler to worry over what must surely have been the central emotional fact of Dana’s experience. Husband? Oh yeah, he’s around here somewhere, but I’m going to worry over these slaves instead.

There is also a narrative clunkiness here. The episodic nature of the story means that we never have to see how one situation develops into another. Dana is then, she’s now, and she’s then again. The opening scene recounts what will happen to her, and all we’re left to figure out is how. I might call it a [SPOILER] to suggest i that Rufus’s holding onto her arm – and causing her to have it sheared off on her return – reflects the crippling grip slavery has on our national consciousness, but I don’t have to say it. That’s a blunt claim, one she shares at the very beginning, and one so heavy-handed as to seem unartistic.

There is a lot of ambition here, and I think it might serve well to push a young adult audience into contemplating slavery in new terms. Plus, this has a solid spot in literary history. It’s a stepping stone toward stronger work that contemplates some of the same material – I’m thinking of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow or, by reputation at least, Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad – and someone had to be the first to subvert sci-fi to the problem if race and history. Plus, I’ve read Butler’s later Dawn and, if I don’t quite love that, I see a more mature artist there.

So this was a place to start, and it deserves credit for that. I can overlook some of its clumsiness to the better work beyond, but I’m also less than inspired about this work on its own terms.

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