Book Review: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler


What it’s about: Dana, a young Black writer from 1976, is transported back in time to save one of her ancestors. Unfortunately for her, that ancestor happens to be a white slave owner in the antebellum South.

Praise: When I was a kid, I read so many “protagonists are pulled back to another time for unknown reasons” novels. But none of them ever talked about how the rules of the world impact the characters. It was unsettling to follow Dana into a world where her essential status as a human is suddenly revoked. Octavia Butler researched the hell out of this. It is incredibly detailed and accurate.

It also focused on something that most stories about slavery ignore; the mechanics of normalization. Books written by whites often neatly divide those of the period into villainous slavers and heroic abolitionists. Or, if written by Southern apologists, bad slave owners and good slave owners. This book shows how a society that made evil the norm inevitably tainted everyone immersed in it.

Science fiction at it’s best often uses fantastic premises to make us see social issues in a new light. But when the writers come from a limited pool of perspectives, the issues they explore and the ways they explore also become limited. This book is a great argument for why publishers need to actively seek diverse narratives.

Criticism: Despite all that, I had trouble getting into it, mainly because Dana spends most of the book focused on the practical problems of survival. I prefer relationship centered stories, and I often only learned her feelings for the other characters when she reflected on them in their absence. I think this was necessary to the story. It was, I think, showing another survival technique of hers. She couldn’t keep existing in this world and also relate to people normally.

Recommended? Depends. Are you reading these reviews of mine for suggestions on places to start checking out good diverse literature? Or have you realized that our tastes are very similar, and my likes and dislikes are a good guide to what you’ll enjoy?

I didn’t care for it, but not because it’s badly written. In fact, it’s considered something of a classic. It just so happened that what it focused on and what I most like to read didn’t overlap well. So, if you read the premise and praise and said, “ooooh!” don’t hold back. If, on the other hand, you like the same things I like, might I suggest some of Octavia Butler’s short stories instead? There’s a collection called “Bloodchild” that I absolutely loved.


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