For my first review as part of Vintage Sci-fi Month, I’m tackling my first book by Octavia E. Butler, in the form of her 1979 novel Kindred.
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In 1976, Dana and her husband Kevin have just moved in together. In the midst of unpacking, Dana suddenly vanishes, before finding herself somewhere unrecognisable witnessing a child drowning in a river. Rushing to his aid, she saves his life – for the first of many times. The young boy is Rufus, and Dana will find herself called back to him across time and space again and again, the ties between them transcending the laws of physics. But Dana’s life is on the line with every visit – as a black woman in what turns out to be antebellum Maryland, she must be constantly on her guard.
Early on, Dana realises she is called back whenever Rufus is in imminent danger of death, and as a careless child – and later, a careless man – this happens frequently. What’s more, it becomes clear to her that she must save him, as his death could have catastrophic consequences. Dana’s pragmatism when confronted with the uncertainty of the time jumps is evident in all of her actions, and the approach that both her and Kevin take to what is happening to her is refreshing. When Kevin hears her story, for example, he packs an emergency bag for her, which they then tie to her wrist so it will travel back with her. The couple don’t endlessly go back and forth wondering why this is happening to her, or working out how to stop it, nor do they just take it in their stride. They feel very real, as characters, and their actions are believable.
As a narrative device, the nature of the time jumps is extremely clever. They frame Dana as the perfect observer from the modern world, as she is forced to intervene but must also maintain her cover as someone who belongs there. The urgency of the situations Dana always finds herself in as soon as she travels back – with her panic-stricken as she hunts for whatever is threatening Rufus this time – means there is no reason to get almost straight into the action from the opening. As a way of dragging the reader in quickly, it works very well, with Dana’s instinctive drive to help another human being in trouble overriding her immediate questions about her sudden displacement.
Dana is pragmatic in the face of uncertainty, certainly, but this doesn’t mean she is keen to instantly toe the line when she finds herself in a time in which even the slightest misstep could see her beaten, whipped or worse. The persecution of black slaves which she witnesses is not something she is able to ignore, but she is obliged to consider her own safety. The powerlessness she feels in these harrowing situations, which she is unable to stop, along with the swift and shocking moments of violence, make for some very intense scenes.
The individual stories of Dana’s friends on the plantation (which Rufus’ father owns) are compelling in themselves, as is the main storyline regarding Dana’s presence there and whether or not she will be able to break the cycle of being called back. But this is also a story about the effects of slavery on the collective consciousness of a people. Seeing Dana gradually being forced to accept her circumstances is devastating, as are the various ways in which mastery is enforced over her and her fellow slaves. This is a story of the many facets of slavery; the physical and sexual violence is certainly present, but it’s also about the psychological effects on the enslaved, as well as the attitudes they are forced to adopt and the roles that both master and slave slip into.
Kindred undoubtedly remains essential reading today. Intelligent, profound and heart-breaking, it retains all its intensity and fire, and is sure to be the first of many books by Octavia E. Butler to grace my shelves.
Kindred is published in the UK by Headline. You can order your own copy through this affiliate link.