By Octavia Butler. Published in 1979.
When writer Octavia Butler died a few months ago, her obituaries intrigued me. They described how she used science fiction to discuss individuality and conformity, outsiders and insiders, history, identity, and humanity — all from her nearly unique perspective in the genre as a black woman. This, I thought, was writing I wanted to experience.
Other people must have had the same thought because the library had a waiting list for Kindred, Butler’s best-known book. It was worth the wait. Kindred is a perfect example of the best kind of science fiction: The fantastical traits of the genre are not themselves the point but simply a way to get at genuine truths from a perspective realism couldn’t achieve.
Kindred tells the story of Dana, a black woman who finds herself whisked back in time to the antebellum South. She soon puzzles out that she is summoned whenever Rufus, a young white boy, believes he is in mortal danger and returned whenever she believes she is. As if this weren’t difficult enough for her to fathom, Dana also discovers that Rufus, heir to a modest plantation, will grow up to father her several-times-great-grandmother Hagar with Alice, one of his slaves.
Butler dispenses of the mechanics of Dana’s time travel quickly and never offers any explanation of why it is happening. Time travel is beside the point; it’s simply a device to force modern eyes to confront slavery intimately rather than with the comfort and arrogance of distance. In rural Maryland of the 1820s, Dana loses her freedom. Her husband, Kevin, a white man — dragged back with her when he tries to hold her in the present — loses much of his self-respect when he stifles his own values to keep a low profile in a land in which he has no friends or allies.
Butler doesn’t flinch from the cruelties of slavery, but neither does she take the easy path of depicting Rufus or his father as inhuman sadists. When she first introduces Rufus, he is a vulnerable, inquisitive child who thinks of some of the slave children as his friends. Dana naïvely hopes that their friendship and her influence will inspire him to free his slaves when he inherits his father’s property, but Rufus disappoints her again and again. Even so, because Dana knew him as a boy, because she knows how difficult his childhood was (abusive father, overbearing mother), because — in short — she knows there is good in him, she forgives him again and again.
For a time, Dana becomes just as submissive and prone to identifying with her master as those beaten-down slaves she initially had pitied with benevolent contempt. Although she eventually pulls back, she still makes moral compromises, repeatedly saving Rufus’ life — even after he has committed horrible acts — because she believes her existence depends on him living to father her ancestor. Dana’s relationship with Alice, the slave whom Rufus loves in his twisted way, is particularly problematic as Dana is torn between helping Alice to escape and encouraging her to submit to Rufus and willingly bear his children.
Kindred is empathetic but merciless in its depiction of how slavery corrupted everyone, white and black. Butler’s writing is vivid and robust: By the time her story reaches its inevitable climax, she has achieved not only dramatic tension but an emotional tension, even a moral tension. In some ways, Butler is using Dana to implicate modern Americans in the stain of slavery; we, too, are heirs to this monstrous legacy.