Octavia Butler overcame dyslexia to become one of the most noteworthy science fiction authors of the late 20th Century. Her science fiction explores themes of race, sex, power, religion, and other key cornerstones to the human condition. The shocking suddenness of her passing in 2006 left a void that has yet to be filled, cutting several of her series short. Aside from her numerous short stories, most of Butler’s novels were in her Patternist, Xenogenesis, or Parable series, with two exceptions. Kindred is one of those, a stand-alone novel written as a reaction and exploration of slavery; it feels like Butler’s series can overshadow her other work, and Kindred being a genre-bender I don’t think it’s gotten the recognition it deserves.
Dana is a modern black woman living in 1970s California with her white husband Kevin, two struggling authors trying to break into publishing while making ends meet. The trouble begins when Dana slips out of her house and onto a wooded riverbank, just in time to save a young boy—Rufus Waylin—from drowning. As she slips back into her own home, Kevin informs her only a few seconds have passed—her clothes are soaked, her shoes caked in mud. This is real. Painfully real, as she slips in time and space again and begins to understand her situation. Dana soon realizes she’s being drawn to save Rufus whenever he’s in danger, pulled back into antebellum Maryland where Rufus is the son of a slave owner, and—to Dana’s horror—he’s one of her great-ancestors, progenitor of her family line.
Dana may be an enlightened 20th-century woman, and she may not wear physical shackles, but she’s still very much enslaved—bonded as Rufus’ savior across space and time. Whenever Rufus is in danger, Dana will arrive to save him, and she lives in fear of her next transportation. The psychological toll is so heavy that she becomes a hermit in her own time, too afraid to drive in case she’s pulled out of a moving car, too scared to leave her house for fear of pulling someone else back into the past. Her friends and relatives see her wounds and assume Kevin is abusive—see, they imply, what you get for marrying a white man? Reading this novel today, even the ’70s feel like another era, with familial tensions over Dana and Kevin’s mixed marriage. And things only get worse when Kevin is pulled back into the past, then accidentally abandoned; the already sizable age gap between Dana and Kevin grows, and his perception changes after spending half a decade in the 1820s.
Kindred is a hard book to read; it deals with the darkest stain in American history, a systemic injustice that remains uncomfortably difficult to discuss, despite feeling its after-effects to this day. Butler, through Dana, makes comparisons with the Nazis: instead of industrialized extermination, it’s the barbarism of torture and subjugation—treating human beings as animals, as property—and Dana experiences plenty of that first-hand. It’s not just the torture, but the psychological impact of slavery—how easy it is to live in fear, to fall into the mindset of a slave—that makes things a complex psychological hell. Add to that one of the many meanings of the title: at its most literal, the genealogical link between Dana, Rufus, and the freewoman-turned-slave Alice. To ensure her existence, Dana needs Rufus and Alice to create her ancestral line—but she must walk an ethically fine line, disgusted by Rufus and unwilling to force Alice into a relationship she has no interest in.
And as hard a book it is to read I have to imagine it was an even harder book to write. Butler wrote the novel as a way to let readers feel what it meant to be a black woman slave and the first-person perspective echoes the fear and uncertainty, the feelings of utter powerlessness. Dana is not completely powerless, and as Rufus becomes more a product of his time—more ruthless, less humane to his slaves—she uses his vulnerabilities as leverage, letting him know his life is in her hands. The other slaves we get to know lack any sort of leverage, save for Alice, who also challenges the master-slave power dynamic in her own way. By the end of the book, Alice and Dana will take actions to reject the subaltern roles Rufus allotted them.
Kindred is the kind of science fiction novel that sits astride the genre line; my copy has an afterword that claims the novel is not science fiction, instead focusing on the neo-slave narrative in its analysis. I disagree, because this is the kind of SF book you should give to readers who “don’t like SF”—a deep, insightful, and powerful novel that speaks across time and space to make complex themes understandable and relatable. The best kind of science fiction isn’t about building better robots or the adherence to stricter, more rigorous physics. No, like Kindred, the best science fiction uses fantastical elements to explore and speculate about complex ideas and themes. It’s a book everyone should read, SF fan or not, just to experience its raw power.