You are currently browsing the monthly archive for July 2020.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler (1979) 295 p.


My edition touts Kindred as the first science fiction novel ever written by an African-American woman, which is probably correct; certainly no others spring to mind. It’s probably better described as a fantasy, but never mind that. The novel follows the travails of Dana, a black writer in modern-day California who finds herself repeatedly, inexplicably travelling back in time (against her will and beyond her control) to a slave plantation in antebellum Maryland.

I was prepared to dislike this from the start, for a reason that was almost immediately obvious: good on Butler for being a pioneering POC science fiction writer, but at the end of the day she’s still a science fiction writer, with all the stiff dialogue and wooden characterisation that entails. (The only other novel of hers I’ve read is Parable of the Sower, which suffered from similar flaws.) As soon as Dana returns from her first confusing foray into the past, she and her husband Kevin discuss it matter-of-factly and begin game-planning various scenarios and hypothesising causes and effects – precisely what a science fiction writer might do in that scenario, but not an actual flesh and blood human being who’s just suffered a disorienting, traumatic experience. It’s fine if that happens to characters once they’ve had a chance to adjust to the craziness of it, but this is literally page 11.

However, if you can suspend your disbelief on that rough start, Kindred is quite a good book. Some of these flaws never go away – most baffling is that even after truly coming to accept that Dana is a time traveller from the future, and even discussing that fact with her, neither the other slaves nor the white slaveowners display a shred of curiosity about the future. But Kindred is a pacy, tense, gripping story of survival, human relationships, and Dana’s developing Stockholm syndrome. There’s lots to unpack here about the nature of American slavery both in theory and actual practice, and the deeper attitudes and cultural institutions that it was a part of in both the American South and even the North. Most fascinating is Dana’s personal ethical conundrums. She determines that her life is tied to Rufus, the plantation owner’s son and heir, who also happens to be her ancestor; and as she revisits him again and again over the course of his life, bearing some measure of influence on his fate, she ends up indirectly influencing the lives of the slaves under his control, and is forced to make an endless series of morally grey decisions with respect to their lives. Rufus himself is easily the most well-drawn character, likeable on a surface level, yet capable of selfishness and cruelty; a man with whom it’s difficult to tell how much of his personality is a product of his era, and how much of it is just inherent narcissism and sociopathy.

There are certainly novels which examine the horror of American slavery on a deeper and more highbrow level, and plenty of them. But Kindred explores serious themes about privelege, culpability, and cultural inertia while also being a readable, engaging piece of airport fiction.

The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell (1973) 375 p.



This is the second book in J.G. Farrell’s very loose ‘Empire’ trilogy, which share nothing more than a common theme: the decline and decay of the British Empire. Troubles was one of my favourite books of last year, a mordant satire set in a decaying Anglo-Irish hotel during the years of the Irish guerrilla war for independence. The Siege of Krishnapur jumps back in time about sixty years to India’s 1857 sepoy mutiny, an uprising of some of the colony’s native Indian regiments against their British rulers, and follows the story of about a hundred white British men, women and children and their loyal Sikh troops who find themselves trapped in a small complex of buildings, surrounded and besieged by an army of sepoys – very closely modelled on the Siege of Lucknow, and indeed the NYRB edition of this book uses the ruins of The Residency in Lucknow as its title image.

Based on Troubles I was fully expecting to love this book, and was surprised to find that it didn’t quite gel together for me. Farrell maintains the same wry comic tone he used to great effect in Troubles; but the key difference is that in Troubles the privileged British characters were utterly insulated from the actual impacts of the war going on beyond their doorstep, making their pompous opinions and wildly off-base political predictions all the more amusing. In the Siege of Krishnapur, on the other hand, the British characters suffer greatly from actual, genuine hardship and misery. Violent battle, medical amputations, cholera, literal starvation, plagues of insects, the indignity of disposing of the corpses of loved ones by throwing them over the wall for the jackals – all of this and more is visited upon them, and for the most part they bear it with stiff-upper-lip Victorian Stoicism which, considering the circumstances, feels less like a Troubles-esque skewering of the ruling class and more like something to be genuinely admired. The disconnect is particularly jarring when it comes to Fleury, a character who has recently arrived from England and, once the siege is underway, involves himself in more than one combat engagement with the sepoys which can only be described as slapstick. Fleury is certainly a pompous twit, but he’s no coward, and the tone of these encounters is at odds with the rest of the book; I found myself uncertain of what Farrell was trying to accomplish with this character.

It’s quite possible the ‘Empire’ label was only applied retrospectively, after Farrell finished The Singapore Grip and his premature death in a rock fishing accident left us with only six novels, three of which display a clear theme of British colonialism. It’s perhaps unfair, then, to compare The Siege of Krishnapur to the more openly satirical Troubles. Farrell’s afterword makes it clear that the subject of the sepoy mutiny genuinely fascinated him. Re-examining the novel with that in mind, I think it probably stands better as its own work than as a follow-up to the style and themes of Troubles; though I still think aspects of it don’t sit right, and that Troubles is the far superior novel.

Archive Calendar

July 2020