Sunday, January 18, 2015

Classic SF Meetup: Kindred

I can't often attend the Classic SF Meetup, as it's usually scheduled for the same time as Think Galactic. (And the Forest Park Speculative Fiction group. And the Suburban Fantasy Meetup. 2nd Thursdays are over-booked!)

However, once in a while the schedules diverge, as happened last week, so I got to attend the discussion of Octavia Butler's 1979 novel "Kindred". Possible spoilers below!

A good Meetup--Classic SF meets at Mad River, a bar in Lakeview. Fortunately it was fairly quiet and they have tables large enough to accommodate-- I think we wound up with a baker's dozen discussing the book. As everyone trickled in, we discussed possible selections for the March meeting. Classic SF shoots for books that are generally 30+ years old (haven't done anything from the '90s yet), and fairly influential--Hugo/Nebula etc. winners and nominees, or works that otherwise had large popular or lasting impact. I know Heinlein, Brunner, and Delany were all mentioned as potential picks; I believe there will be a poll up on their page at some point in the near future. Once enough folks had arrived, we launched into a good discussion of Butler's novel.

"Kindred" is an excellent read, and probably Butler's most widely-read work; it explores issues of racism and the American heritage of slavery by way of a time-travel story. Dana, a black woman in the 1970s, is suddenly transported back to the early 1800s to save the life of a young white boy, who she soon deduces is her ancestor by way of his union with a slave, Alice. We then follow Dana through a number of trips back (including a trip in which her white husband Kevin is brought back with her and subsequently stranded for several years), each time seeing more brutality of the slave-holding state. Although Butler herself said she basically "toned down" how awful this time period was in order to make it more approachable for a broad audience--you can see how she's kind of pulling her punches, not writing/showing as much brutality as you know must be happening--it's still a rough read.

Is this science fiction? I'm going to say "yes" and then run away from the question. Truthfully it's more like a species of magical realism that happens to use a plot device we're familiar with from science fiction: time travel. The mechanism and reason for the time travel is not explained, it's just a brute fact that Dana has to learn to deal with. From a writing/reading perspective, it works very well, because this is trying to convey the essential revelations of a slave narrative but from a modern perspective; a modern protagonist allows us to see someone reacting to slavery more the way we would, as opposed to how historical figures would have. Furthermore, by minimizing/deleting the technical apparatus or metaphysical implications of time travel, Butler has removed a barrier for non-genre-reading folks. I first read this in an undergraduate class many moons again, and I don't remember the time travel being a hurdle for anybody.

From a genre perspective, the categorization is interesting. If Butler were not known as a science fiction writer--she wrote clearly science fictional works before and after "Kindred"--I suspect this wouldn't often be thought of as "genre SF".

Part of the way this doesn't work like SF--besides the fact that Dana's time travel is unexplained and apparently unique--is the way it doesn't engage problems of causality or alternate history. Dana seems to assume that a "Back to the Future"-like set of rules is in play, and she simply must ensure her ancestor's survival or she will cease to exist. But this isn't stated explicitly, and a number of people at group pointed out that Dana doesn't seem to consider that sacrificing herself in this way is even an option--she takes it as a done deal that certain things have to happen in the past.

I suppose that makes this work an interesting case of bidirectional fatalism or something, which is weird and I'm not going to get into it, particularly because Butler does NOT seem to want the reader to be worried about time-travel causality, alternate timelines, or paradoxes.

At the group, Oscar said that he really liked this about the book, because time-travel paradoxes are a huge turn-off for him, a sentiment I echo heartily.

We took a lot of asides to talk about alternate histories and realities--Harrison's "Rebel in Time"(1983) and Turtledove's "Guns of the South" (1992), for instance, both of which deal with attempts to change history/create alternate timelines in which the Confederacy didn't lose the American Civil War. I'm sure there's other examples--I also thought of William's "Otherland" (1996 for the first one), which includes a complex virtual world exploring a timeline where the American civilizations were not colonized by Europeans, but instead developed into a technological superpower along their own lines before contact. I would also be very surprised if there weren't some Afrofuturism works exploring similar ideas (or I should say other Afrofuturist works, I suppose, since Butler's a pretty key figure). We also talked a bit about "Kindred" in relation to Morrison's "Beloved" (1987), particularly in terms of how it portrays brutality/cruelty resulting from slavery (also a modern slave narrative that uses speculative or magical realist techniques, intriguingly).

A lot of our discussion revolved around the extended impact of slavery--not just the immediate subjugation of and violence towards the actual slaves, but the way that that system impacts others in the system, including slave-owners and their families; Alice (book club, not character) said that one of the things that jumped out at her is not how bad the Weylins treat their slaves, but rather how badly they treat each other. There are also a ton of interesting angles on race, sex, and power relations between Dana and her husband Kevin, distortedly mirrored in her relationship with Rufus Weylin--Bharath pointed out that Dana refuses on principle to type up Kevin's work (they're both writers, and she won't enter into that kind of servile relationship with her partner), but she eventually acquiesces to Rufus's demand that she do essentially the same tasks for him.

We talked a lot (without coming to any consensus) about judging people from another time, and to what extent their conditions excuse their behavior. Personally I think one of the points of this novel is to show how the belief in racial superiority and ownership are internally flawed and hypocritical, regardless of time period and environment, and as Kim pointed out, it's not like there weren't abolitionists at this point. At the same time, we thought that one rather pessimistic lesson to take from the discussion is that there will probably be some people who will do the most heinous, amoral things, particularly if they're profitable, unless they're made illegal. No excuse, but no surprise, either.

Another major point of discussion was the long-lasting scars slavery leaves. Scarring, not just cosmetically, but in a way that affects how you live, is a definite theme of the novel, culminating with Dana losing her arm. As Oscar put it, "no-one gets out unscathed." While the novel is pretty tightly written, with our attention focused on the immediate, non-allegorical plot, it definitely gestures towards the deep psychological damage done to families and individuals on both sides of the master-slave relationship.

By the way,  non-fiction book-plug, if you're interested in Hegelian master-slave dynamics and the actual history of slavery/revolution and how we think and talk about them, I highly recommend "Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History" (2009) by Susan Buck-Morss. Along of course with lots of other works, but that sprang to mind. (I'm pretty interested in those power dynamics, particularly in SF; there's some odd Hegelian things going on in some of Cherryh's work that I explored in a paper at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts some years back.)

We got into the question of how well we as modern folks would do if suddenly transported back in time, particularly wondering how much our general character has changed towards nonviolence, and whether and how quickly we could re-learn that callousness if need be. We referenced Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined" (2011), which I highly recommend if you want a ray of hope blasting the "things are getting worse" theory of the world, as well as Dave Grossman's "On Killing" (1996), which looks at how most soldiers historically were likely to refrain from killing if possible, and how intense training is needed to overcome that natural reticence.

One thing that occurred to me was how much I like the "modern visitor to historical time-period" as opposed to "perspective of a person in that historical period", because I'm actually very skeptical about how people in the past thought--I think our discussion of attitudes towards violence are a good example; there are deep-seated beliefs in any time period that make any modern narration from that viewpoint kind of misleading. In writing up the Chicago Nerd's discussion of "the Peripheral", I re-read Gibson's Paris Review interview, where he made a similar point, although talking about technology rather than moral change:
It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future. What we were prior to our latest batch of technology is, in a way, unknowable. It would be harder to accurately imagine what New York City was like the day before the advent of broadcast television than to imagine what it will be like after life-size broadcast holography comes online. But actually the New York without the television is more mysterious, because we’ve already been there and nobody paid any attention. That world is gone.
Finally, we got into a brief discussion of Butler's style, about which one can give the rare praise of "invisible". This jumped out at me particularly because I read "Kindred" in between a book that was incredibly well-written and also noticeably stylish at a few different levels (Gibson's "Peripheral") and a book that was written extremely badly at a few different levels (Chu's "The Lives of Tao", which will be my next write-up). By contrast to both of these, there's barely a sentence in Butler that jumped out at me--and I mean that as a compliment: the writing never hung me up. I think this is particularly laudable given it's a first-person narrative, which I think is very hard to do smoothly; Butler's prose, or Dana's narrative, however you want to look at it, flow very directly, almost bluntly forward, which is partially a reflection of Dana's no-nonsense, problem-solution orientation, but also a real accomplishment writing-wise. I want to return to some of Butler's other works and see how they compare.

Good stuff! Classic SF's next meeting is Thursday, Feburary 12th at 6:45 PM. The book is "The Mote in God's Eye" (1974) by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle, please RSVP by Meetup.

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