Saturday, April 4, 2015

Weird & Wonderful: Kindred

Much-delayed meeting notes! The last convocation of City Lit Books' "Weird & Wonderful" reading group discussed Octavia Butler's "Kindred" (1979), now considered a classic--probably why the Classic SF Meetup discussed it a while back.

In the novel, a modern black woman is mysteriously transported back to the early 19th century to save a drowning boy, who she later deduces is her ancestor. Dana is then transported back and forth several times--called back to save Rufus Weylin whenever his life is in danger, and sent forward to her own time whenever her life is in peril.

"Kindred" is almost certainly Butler's most-discussed work (I first ran into it in an undergrad lit class SO LONG AGO), which is interesting given how "non-genre" this reads. Unlike Butler's other works, which are clearly "genre" (aliens, vampires, post-apocalypse, etc.), "Kindred" purposefully downplays its one weird element--the time travel--allowing it read more as a mainstream, literary novel. At group we talked about shelving and genre decisions, how that affects how people read; I'm vastly amused to imagine slow, passive-aggressive category debates carried out by furtive re-shelvers.

Other things we discussed in relation to the novel:
  • The time-travel mechanics and how we don't seem to be meant to worry about it beyond the basics. There aren't any threats/concerns about paradoxes or alternate timelines, for instance.
  • Comparisons to Audrey Niffenegger's "The Time Traveler's Wife" (2003).
  • Also of course to "Quantum Leap" (1989-1993).
  • We talked at some length about the way that the early 19th century seems more "real" in many ways; we read this on one level as a critique of some aspects of modern life (over-sanitized, removed from nature, isolated/alienated from others), but on another as analogous to soldiers' difficulties in returning to civilian life. When time-travelling, Dana is in great physical danger, bombarded with a lot of intense experiences, but also has a clear purpose; that absence in her modern life makes it feel relatively washed out.
  • We liked what Sara called the "invisibility of actors in history"--rather than endorsing a "great man theory of history" wherein things turn dramatically on the acts of a few significant people, "Kindred" presents the difficulties of addressing even clear problems--like slavery--within the context of that society, and furthermore the way that history is also just a mass of individual's choices. After the adventure is done, Dana & Kevin look for some evidence of their interventions, and aren't able to find any--not to say that it didn't happen, but simply emphasizing the way that most individual actions are lost in the course of time.
  • Obviously, talked a lot about slavery, both as it existed and as it continues to affect us. Insofar as this novel is a character study, one of the more interesting facets here is how we see that the master/slave power relationship does terrible things to the psyches of the owners as well as the owned--not in any way to equate the psychological damage done to Rufus with the far worse pain meted out to everyone around him, particularly Alice.
  • We also liked the (fairly subtle) way that "Kindred" uses the extreme injustice and inequality of the past to underline the way that we still haven't achieved utopia today.
  • The theme of scarring and loss of ability are a little less subtle, but great.
  • We had a fairly morbid discussion of what exactly happened to that arm in the wall; personally I'm a little concerned that a more realistic take might have involved a small nuclear explosion as the atoms smashed together.
  • Also: how realistic is Dana's reception in the past, and how much just authorial papering-over? We pointed to a supernatural interpretation (Dana as an angel/witch, not be examined too closely) as one idea, or perhaps more broadly just a general lack on intellectual curiosity/knowledge about the larger world, that made it easier for the Weylins et. al to accept a Suddenly Appearing and Disappearing Woman Of The Future (In Pants).
Weird & Wonderful's next selection is "The Humans" by Matt Haig, which I'm quite excited to read.

Since City Lit is now getting all of its bookclub's selections picked well in advance (which is great!), we know the next couple as well:

May: "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?" by Philip K. Dick.
June: "Stories of Your Life and Others" by Ted Chiang (jazz hands).

No comments:

Post a Comment