Not long ago I posted All the Christie as a follow-up to an earlier post about Agatha Christie. I’d read her when I was younger but only realized what an extraordinary writer (and person) she was when I revisited her work recently.
In contrast, I knew Octavia E. Butler only by reputation and some short stories I’d read. This past August I finally set out to correct this egregious oversight for a serious science fiction fan. As it turned out, I sat down to a delicious feast by another extraordinary cook. I relished every crumb, from appetizer to dessert. (I even shamelessly licked the plate.)
The dessert was her finest (and most popular) dish, Kindred (1979).
Which is not to say my favorite, because Kindred is a harrowing tale into what is not just America’s most shameful era, but an ongoing stain on humanity worldwide. To enslave another human being may be the greatest sin we can commit against each other. While Kindred is about a specific family tree, it points us to understanding we are all wood of a much larger family tree.
To make the story more engaging for readers, Butler deliberately softened some aspects of slave life in the antebellum south. (Compared to, for instance, what’s found in narratives by former slaves.) Not that there is any sugar-coating, the pill is bitter and unpalatable, but Butler made it digestible for her readers.
[Frankly, I left reading this one for last because I expected it to be painful. And it was, but it wasn’t as traumatic as I feared, because Butler found a way to tell an honest tale that is still so accessible the book is studied by high schoolers.]
Kindred takes its protagonist, Dana Franklin, into her ancestral past where she soon realizes she must act to insure her family line. Time travel stories raise the Grandfather Paradox, which asks what happens if you travel back in time and kill your grandfather before he meets your grandmother. In this story, Butler sets it up so not acting dooms the descendants. (Note that Back to the Future came out in 1985. Not the first time Butler’s work anticipates.)
The time travel here is left unexplained; it simply exists. Butler’s work sometimes does have elements of fantasy. For examples: The Patternist series has Doro and Anyanwu, who are (different kinds of) supernatural beings; Fledging is about vampires; Kindred has magic time travel. In contrast, the Parable series is a horrifically realistic vision of a near future dystopia, and the Xenogenesis series is hard SF involving aliens.
While never explained, the time travel itself is innovative. (Part of Butler’s genius is finding fresh spins on the usual tropes.) The story is about Dana, a modern day Black woman living in California with her husband, who is pulled into the past when a certain ancestor’s life is in peril. She returns only when she believes — honestly believes — her own life is in imminent danger. Urgency comes from the realization her ancestor hasn’t had children yet.
In fact, the first few times she encounters him, he’s just a child — the white son of a plantation owner in pre-Civil War Maryland. The story involves six times during his lifespan she’s called back to save his life.
(One could argue Dana’s existence requires her trips. She exists because she was always there in the past. Reality itself demands her time travel.)
I started my feast with the four-book Patternist series, and Butler immediately impressed me as a writer, as a storyteller, and as a science fiction author. (Yes, those are all different things to me.) Her fresh ideas, carefully plotting, and transparent writing style stood out and captured my mind.
Then I read the three-book Xenogenesis series, and liked all those things even more. A big shift in tenor, too, from immortal telepathic beings to tentacled alien genetic experts.
Next for me was Fledgling, which is about modern day vampires. Butler finds a delightfully fresh take. These vampires know all about (and disdain) the legends about garlic, silver, and churches. But the blood drinking is real, and… well, you just have to read it yourself.
The fourth major course was the two-book Parable series, and again Butler blew me away. By all the things I just listed, but especially by her prescience. Her vision of our slide into a slow partial dystopia is horrifically realistic. The story is also about the intentional creation of a modern religion, Earthseed.
And finally Kindred, as substantial and wonderful a dessert as there ever was. Each course of this feast was better than the last.
Butler’s masterful writing is apparent in the very structure of the book. Consider the chapters:
- Chapter 1 — The River
- Chapter 2 — The Fire
- Chapter 3 — The Fall
- Chapter 4 — The Fight
- Chapter 5 — The Storm
- Chapter 6 — The Rope
Many have noted the mythopoetic nature of the chapter names. They’re elemental and suggestive of the raw nature of the story. Each refers to the precipitating incident that pulls Dana back to save Rufus Weylin from (invariably) himself. She’s then stuck there until she fears for her life. (The era and the circumstances provide plenty of opportunities.)
The first time, Rufus is a small child drowning in a river he shouldn’t have attempted. The second time, he’s an older petulant child who’s just set the curtains on fire. The third time, older still, he’s fallen out of a tree he shouldn’t have climbed and broken his leg. Badly. The fourth time he’s a young man losing a fight. Badly. The fifth time, older still, he’s passed out drunk in a stream (and about to drown). The sixth time,… well, you should read that one for yourself.
The Prologue and Epilogue are their own modern day mini-arc, both taking place after the events of the chapters. Butler provides her own attention-grabbing spoiler in the first one-sentence paragraph:
I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.
Well, that’s one way to start a story with a bang. Butler has said she couldn’t allow her protagonist to survive that era unscathed, because no one did. The second paragraph draws the reader in even more:
And I lost about a year of my life and much of the comfort and security I had not valued until it was gone. When the police released Kevin, he came to the hospital and stayed with me so that I would know I hadn’t lost him too.
The rest of the Prologue, the dialog between Dana and Kevin, only makes us more curious. Her arm, it turns out, was somehow crushed into the wall, although as Dana comments, “Not exactly crushed.”
(More like merged, actually. Surprising it doesn’t happen more often in time travel.) The Epilogue picks up their life after Dana is released from the hospital and they go visit the location of the Weylin plantation.
One thing I noticed is that “The Fall” starts with a flashback where Dana remembers how she met Kevin and how they fell in love.
And “The Fight” starts with a flashback where she remembers times of conflict between them. Firstly how Kevin wanted her to act as a secretary to him because he hated typing or doing correspondence. (Both are writers. Dana is pre-success, Kevin has sold several novels.) Kevin never noticed Dana did everything but her final draft in longhand because she also hates typing.
Dana flat out refuses, much to Kevin’s dismay and suppressed anger. It’s in this part that we learn of conflict between their respective families due to — and this is the first time Butler lets us know this — that Kevin is white.
Which means, when he’s pulled back with Dana, that his experience of that era is quite different from hers. Butler’s narrative constantly compares — not always favorably — Kevin, an “enlightened” modern white man, with Rufus, very much a man of his time. The unconscious power dynamic between them shadows the explicit power dynamic Rufus has over Dana. The comparison is all the stronger when it turns out Rufus is in love with Alice, a childhood friend, the child of a free Black woman. Alice later ends up a slave owned by Rufus, making the power dynamic all the more intense.
As it turns out, it’s the daughter Rufus will have with Alice that is the ancestor Dana must insure actually happens.
As an aside, I also noticed Butler never directly connects the name Dana with her husband’s last name Franklin. A search shows that Dana’s name always appears on its own, although “Kevin Franklin” appears many times. Given the story’s nature, that seems deliberate.
Another aspect of the time travel here is that Dana spends much more time in the past than she loses in the future. Butler never fixes a ratio (and I’m not certain she had one in mind), but one trip of eight months in the past amounts to only three hours passed when Dana returns home. All Dana’s trips take place in the span of a month or so, starting on June 9, 1976, Dana’s 26th birthday. Her last trip back begins, symbolically, on July 4th.
The time travel is a bit magical in that Dana is able to carry back what’s touching her, clothes and a bag of supplies she prepares and keeps with her at all times. Kevin is carried back when he grabs Dana on one of her trips back. (Each trip is signaled by dizziness and nausea.)
Unfortunately he’s not around to grab her when she returns, so he gets caught in the past for a while. (The Prologue has already let us know he obviously gets back.) His time in the past serves to strengthen the comparisons to Rufus. (Study guides for Kindred often ask what readers think will happen to Dana and Kevin now. I’m an optimist; I think they’ll work it out.)
Both Kindred and Fledgling are outstanding standalone novels that offer an excellent entry into Butler’s work. The former is her most popular work, and is rich with meaning. As I mentioned, it’s often studied academically as a social narrative. (Her work in general is studied academically because of her writing skill.)
I was going to write that both are a bit atypical of Butler’s work, but then I realized everything she wrote was atypical. None of her works is like the others. She obviously had a thirst to explore fresh ground and the smarts to find it.
One thing I’ve noticed is how transparent her writing is. It’s not stylized; she provides a clear window into her story. Her prose flows effortlessly.
I’m so impressed that even though I’ve read all her work through the library, I just bought Kindred, the Parable series, and the Xenogenesis series. I want to support Butler’s legacy as well as be able to read and study these in the future.
I’m tempted to also buy the graphic novel version of Kindred by adapter Damian Duffy and illustrator John Jennings. It’s excellent. Duffy and Jennings also collaborated on a graphic novel version of Parable of the Sower, and they’re working on the sequel, Parable of the Talents. I’m reading the first one now.
What is my favorite Octavia Butler story? It’s a tough call, partly because I don’t tend to have #1 favorites of anything; I have Top 5 or Top 10 with no particular ranking among them.
It’s a tough call also because I really like everything she did, and there is so much variety that it’s an apples and tomatoes comparison. They share roundness and the green, yellow, and red colors, but otherwise they’re more different than similar.
But I think by just an hair I’ll pick the Xenogenesis series as my favorite. It’s the most SF, and it has aliens and space travel.
Stay kindred, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.