Kindred

Let’s go now to something painfully serious.

Sorry.
Kindred / Octavia Butler

This is one of those classic sf books that appears to get overlooked with depressing frequency due to the authors twin failings of being neither white nor male. It’s too bad because it’s exactly the kind of depressing uncomfortable stuff that awards committees love (and I mean that in a good way).

Seriously the basic premise isn’t that different from Slaughterhouse Five but Kindred is way more impactful.

Plot summary

Kindred is the story about a young woman who finds herself “unstuck in time”. Unlike Billy Pilgrim, instead of randomly traveling throughout her own life she finds herself being continuously transported to a plantation in the antebellum South.

So how is it?

It’s tough to read at times (as it should be, considering the context) but it’s very good. There are some powerful statements about prejudice and the way modern society continues to be influenced by slavery. It als o directly attacks the idea that slavery was “not that bad” for most as well as the idea that “having a Black friend” or “being married to a Black woman” automatically means one is immune to being racist.

There are also some pretty profound moral choices that have to be made, and it does a lot to dispel the idea that there is a simple, morally correct solution to a difficult situation that won’t end in the suffering of innocents.

There are reams of academic analysis that could be written about this book, but I’m going to try to avoid doing too much of that type of thing here. I’ll just say that it’s well worth reading and the fact that it’s not considered part of the literary “canon” is strong evidence that the “literary canon” is, like linguistic prescriptivism, anything other than an attempt by a cultural elite attempting to enshrine their tastes and values as somehow objectively superior.

Recommendation

I recommend this one to everyone. If I taught a literature class or was in charge of some English or literature curriculum Kindred would be required reading. It’s “literary” enough to sit alongside 1984, Brave new world, or any other novel with fantastic elements that is still accepted outside sf circles.

Seriously, most justifications for the Canon come from the same place as arguments about “proper English” – possibly well intentioned but at their core  more about socioeconomic class and/or perpetuating white supremacy or Anglo-Amercan cultural hegemony than they are about any sort of “objective” measure of quality.

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