by Octavia Butler
“The immediate effect of reading Octavia Butler’s Kindred is to make every other time travel book in the world look as if it’s wimping out,” Jo Walton writes in her science fiction critique, What Makes This Book So Great.
Because no writer of time travel stories, those most irrational of science fiction subgenres, ever sent her characters to a destination as excruciating as the nineteenth-century slave plantation pictured in Butler’s narrative, or did so with more serious motives.
On July 4, 1976, the 200th anniversary of the United States Declaration of Independence, a twenty-six year old African-American woman named Dana Franklin lands in a California hospital without her left arm. “I had lost about a year of my life and much of the comfort and security I had not valued until it was gone,” Dana tells readers in her first person narrative. “‘How did you hurt your arm?’ (police) asked. ‘Who hurt you?’ . . . ‘Accident’, I heard myself whisper. There was no honest explanation I could give them¾ none they would believe.”
Because the truth is so fantastic neither Dana nor the people she met, not even the white husband who shared part of her adventure could at first accept that she had traveled through space and time, from twentieth century Los Angeles to a nineteenth century Maryland plantation. A plantation on which she is the slave of her own remote ancestor.
Dana Franklin feared telling her story would consign her to a psychiatric hospital. In the hands of Octavia Butler, Kindred’s genre-bending cross between time travel and slave narrative becomes a masterful tale about the intertwined history of relationships between race and gender.
In her twenties like her character, Butler was barely starting to make her name as a black woman writer of science fiction when the novel that would make her famous was published in 1979. (The 1981 date quoted in Walton’s book is for the trade paperback publication.) Is it science fiction, slave narrative, or as Butler herself termed it because she didn’t provide a science fictional method for the time travel, as “grim fantasy?”
(As far as I know, there has never been a truly logical reason for time travel. Butler has Dana time travel from twentieth-century California to nineteenth-century Maryland at crucial instances when the genetic chain between her and her ancestor is threatened. She returns to her native time when her life is gravely endangered in Maryland. Both incidences of travel preserve the integrity of the “historical” time line.)
Butler would later state she had to sanitize the reality of slavery to make it palatable for modern readers. Even so, the nineteenth-century portions of the narrative are brutal and harrowing, but complex. Black characters distrust time traveling Dana for being able to read and write, for talking “more like white folks than some white folks,” and for the strangely protected status she receives from her remote ancestor, slave owner Rufus Weylin, once he begins to grasp that Dana’s mission is to save his life (at least he can beget his slave-born daughter Hagar, Dana’s great-great-grandmother).
And if the Los Angeles of 1976 sometimes get overly idealistic treatment (aspirin! TV! electric lights!) it also provides fodder for some sanity-saving humor. “The cook came over and looked at me, at my pants,” Dana reports. “She pinched up a little of the material, feeling it. ‘What cloth is this?’ she asked. Polyester double knit,” Dana thinks, but doesn’t dare say.
Throughout the story, Dana will make harrowing choices, morally-compromising choices to stay alive and keep her family alive. And she will leave a part of herself, her left arm, behind in that Maryland plantation house as a reminder of how the injustices of the past mar the shared future of us all.
(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics will begin an August of adventures at sea with another story of the clash of race, Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the Narcissus.)