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

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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.