Dawn, Octavia Butler

dawnDawn, Octavia Butler (1987)
Review by Simon Petrie

Octavia E Butler was an African-American SF writer who died in 2006, aged 58. Her fiction has won Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, and she was the first SF writer to be awarded a MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ Grant for her writing. She wrote several well-regarded series of novels; Dawn is the first novel in what is variously called her ‘Xenogenesis’ or ‘Lilith’s Brood’ trilogy.

Dawn starts with the reawakening of Lilith Iyapo aboard an alien spacecraft in orbit beyond Earth’s Moon. Lilith is one of the few human survivors of a nuclear war which has devastated the Earth. Her captors / guardians / mentors are the Oankali, a three-gendered race of grotesquely tentacled humanoids. (It’s difficult, when reading the book, not to envisage the Oankali as looking like the Ood from Doctor Who.) Starved of human contact, and still grieving for a husband and son who were killed before the war which all-but-obliterated humanity, Lilith must conquer a deep-seated revulsion for Jdahya, the Oankali adult male who has been tasked with helping her acclimate to her circumstances. Once she has adjusted to Jdahya’s company (and his largely passive tutelage), she must learn to communicate with the less-patient, intermediate-gender Kahguyaht (one of Jdahya’s two spouses), then with the family’s adolescent child, Nikanj. With each of her teachers, Lilith strives (and fails) to argue for the necessity to accommodate the basic human needs for companionship, for freedom of movement, and even for information. The Oankali, it seems, are prepared to offer humanity’s remnants a form of salvation, a second chance at existence; but it is to be a second chance which is entirely on the Oankali’s terms. Humans will get to repopulate the Earth, if they agree to abide by the rules which the Oankali are laying down; but they will not get the Earth to themselves.

Dawn is an incredibly immersive view of a disorientingly alien culture: thinking through other books I’ve read in a somewhat similar vein, I think only Phillip Mann’s work (notably The Eye Of The Queen, a near-contemporary of Dawn, and this year’s The Disestablishment of Paradise) would come close in their ability to convey a detailed and convincing otherness. Stylistically, there are parallels with the writing of Ursula K Le Guin, most strongly The Left Hand of Darkness, with which there is a similarity not just in terms of tone but also of the exploration of alternative sexualities: where The Left Hand of Darkness has its each-way ‘kemmering’ of androgynous humanoids into briefly male and female counterparts, Dawn has its three-gendered aliens, with male, female and ‘ooloi’ genders, with the ooloi acting as a very hands-on intermediary between the more recognisable genders. Thematically, the work evokes comparison with Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End, with its superior aliens seeking to enlighten and to reshape humanity. I’d have to say that I found Butler’s view of future human evolution (or the foreshortened sketch of same on offer in Dawn) to be distinctly more palatable, largely as a result of the credibility and emotional depth of Lilith’s portrayal, and the sophistication (superior, supremely foreign, fallible, and somewhat arrogant) of Butler’s saviour-colonialist aliens. Although other humans do eventually appear in Dawn — the book’s final quarter places Lilith in the role of instructor and leader for the group which will subsequently be transported down — the focus, throughout, is on Lilith’s attempts to make her own personal peace with an alien culture which, no matter how well-meaning, spells a form of doom for human civilisation as we would recognise it.

Does Dawn work as hard SF? I think it does; the science in question is predominantly biological, and is addressed through Butler’s efforts to construct a detailed and self-consistent description of the Oankali’s aptitude for genetic (and more broadly biological) manipulation. This exploration is a satisfying and (I think) necessary component of the tale Butler is telling: while the story’s force derives from Lilith’s doubts and persistence as she masters the various dilemmas with which she is faced, its weight accrues from the Oankali’s plausibility as disturbingly accomplished genetic tinkerers, whose motivation in helping to perpetuate a human presence on Earth is plainly not pure altruism.

Butler shies away from simple answers: ultimately, it’s not possible to say whether she’s on the side of humanity, of the aliens, or somewhere in between. (The same could be said, I think, for her exploration of gender politics and of colonialism.) She just observes, and invites us to make our own conclusions of the scenario which she has sketched out with such care in this book. It’s this ambivalence, this careful understatement, which makes Dawn such a compelling story.

This review originally appeared on Simon Petrie.

Kindred, Octavia Butler

Kindred, Octavia Butler (1979)kindred
Review by Debbie Moorhouse

Published in 1979, Octavia Butler’s Kindred is one of her few stand-alone novels. Narrated in the first person, it tells the story of Dana Franklin, a black woman from 1976 who is repeatedly transported to the South of the USA in the nineteenth century, usually without, but once with, her white husband Kevin.

Dana’s knowledge of the history of slavery in the USA, which includes her own family’s history, enables her to adapt to being dragged through time to rescue her ancestors, Rufus Weylin and Alice Jackson, from injury, illness and death. Rufus is the son of a slaveowner, and Alice a free black woman who is later enslaved. One of Dana’s rescues of Rufus is saving him from the wrath of Isaac, Alice’s husband, who has caught the young white man attempting to rape Alice. Once Isaac is caught, mutilated, and sold away, Rufus is able to take Alice to his bed with impunity.

Kindred doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of slavery, yet throughout it didn’t feel as if Dana was nearly as frightened as she ought to be. It’s as if something is lacking at the heart of the story. Butler does a much better job in Dawn of communicating the character’s fears, helplessness and distress. Perhaps Dana’s confidence is the result of detachment, an inability to believe that this world could kill her without a thought, yet that doesn’t come across, either. So although this is a well-told and thoughtful story, it lacks the visceral responses of a modern, free woman with rights who suddenly becomes a possession, a piece of property, something to be punished, mutilated, even killed, at will.

What is handled well is the relationship between Dana and Rufus, particularly. She tries to counterbalance the influences of his society and family, to make him see that raping Alice is wrong, that selling slaves away from their families is wrong. Yet she’s never able to overcome his own sense of rightness, of his place in a society in which nothing he does to slaves can be wrong – unless it’s teaching them to read and write, or tolerating their own choices of sexual partners. He doesn’t see himself as cruel or unreasonable; this is just how things are. And eventually he comes to believe that his rights over black people extend even to Dana, despite her having frequently warned him that alienating her will lead to his death.

The ambivalence of many of the relationships in this book are reminiscent of those in Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, and reflect how adaptive human behaviour is, especially when that human is a woman trying to protect herself, and perhaps her children. Dana herself adopts the behaviours and mannerisms of a slave, and it takes Alice to call her on it, to remind her of who she used to be.

By the end of the book, both Alice and Dana have freed themselves in the only ways open to them, their methods perhaps reflecting the gap of over a hundred years between their attitudes and beliefs.

A strong book, well worth reading, and one that carries utter conviction in its characters and its events.

Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler

parable-of-the-sower3Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (1993)
Review by admiral ironbombs

“God, I hate this place.

I mean, I love it. It’s home. These are my people. But I hate it. It’s like an island surrounded by sharks—except that sharks don’t bother you unless you go in the water. But our land sharks are on their way in. It’s just a matter of how long it takes for them to get hungry enough.”

As often as she appears on “best SF authors you ought to read”-type lists, I get the feeling that Octavia Butler is not half as well-known as she ought to be. (Probably a perception issue on my part due to her showing up on all those “authors you’ve never read but should” lists… and because I think everyone should have read at least one of her books by now.) It’s a surprise to me; despite any flaws and quibbles with her novels, they’re some of the most thought-provoking and innovative SF out there. I’ve meant to re-read her Patternist and Xenogenesis series, but before doing so, there was one series of hers I’ve yet to read: Earthseed. It started with 1993’s Parable of the Sower, and continued in 1998’s Parable of the Talents, and would have continued with Parable of the Trickster if Butler’s writing career hadn’t been cut short at the age of 58.

Lauren Olamina grew up in the mid-2020s, watching the world deteriorate from the relative safety of her middle-class gated community outside of Los Angeles. Due to catastrophic climate and social change, society is coming apart at the seams. The new presidential administration has cut back investments in the sciences, and removed labor and safety regulations, in an attempt to “restore America to its former glory.” Police show up hours late, if at all, and cost too much for most citizens to use them. The firemen rarely show up at all – there isn’t enough potable water for drinking, so wasting it to put out fires costs an egregious sum. And there are plenty of fires from a new wunderdrug, said to make watching (and setting) fires “more enjoyable than sex” for its users. (Lauren’s addict mother took yet another substance while pregnant, which gave Lauren “hyperempathy,” a kind of mental link where Lauren feels the pleasure and pain of others.) And Lauren sees the first foreign corporations buying up American cities: “company towns” where the wealthy live in safety and security, and others can trade their labor for the privilege of living behind their sturdy walls.

This gated cul-de-sac has become the only family and world Lauren has known, a safe zone nestled in the anarchy, and its inhabitants soldier on against increasing adversity. Things are bad and are only getting worse, but the adults refuse to accept this societal decay as anything other than a temporary setback. Even Lauren’s father – a Baptist preacher and the community’s leader – is reluctant to admit the dark reality of everyday life. But thieves and arsonists keep breaking in; the deaths mount, as do the number of families leaving to work in corporate cities. Laruen’s family begins to collapse; after the community shatters from a series of attacks, Lauren heads forth from the wreckage with a multi-racial cast, reborn through change with new purpose: that of Earthseed.

Earthseed itself is hard to explain; it’s a religion Lauren builds as she struggles to understand it, a new God – a new philosophy – to help understand and guide her through this world. It’s both her construct and an outside force that motivates her. It’s a series of poetic verses which headline each chapter, the meaning of which builds as you progress through the novel. This recurring refrain is both explanation and teaser for the depth of Earthseed: “The Destiny of Earthseed / Is to take root among the stars.” Earthseed is the crux of the novel, somewhat ironic given that it’s given second billing behind the apocalyptic setting and atmosphere. I’m a bit of an agnostic skeptic myself, and found Earthseed too ’90s New Age-y at times, even though Butler handles the subject with a gentle but firm hand. Aside from bringing manifest destiny to the stars, it’s a reaction to the only world Lauren has known, a religion that promotes tolerance and understanding to bind together the remains of a human race fractured along geopolitical, ethnic, and class lines. It raises a fascinating concept: what would the idealistic philosophy of this grim future be?

And it is one grim future, festering in the aftermath of an unexplained catastrophe – Butler is coy with details on how this world messed itself up, perhaps because the narrator herself is coming of age well after the decline started. Prepare for dogs running around with children’s limbs dangling from their mouths, teenage cannibalism, and a depressing amount of background rape (several of the characters in Lauren’s band are former sex slaves). Butler has a very cynical view of humankind, portraying it as willing to destroy itself and spoil its environment in a frantic scramble for self-preservation; her 2026 California is as brutal as Earthseed is optimistic. There’s this rich, intoxicating atmosphere of decay that pervades the novel, humanity clinging to the last vestiges of society. It’s shocking how vivid and plausible this future can feel, a nightmare vision extrapolated from our worst predictions for climate change and income inequality. Yet it also had elements that don’t feel at all realistic – things I wouldn’t hesitate to take a lesser writer to task over. It hasn’t rained in six years, but everyone has thriving citrus/vegetable gardens. In one or two generations, dogs have gone from loyal companion to roving in packs eating children. Society is all but gone, but people still go to work and get paid; everyone is scraping by without enough food and water, but Lauren’s group never lacks supplies since every fifty pages there’s a guy selling food out of the back of a truck. I could go on.

Truth be told, I found myself drawn into this novel, warts and all. I think the epistolary style works against the novel – it’s composed of diary entries written by a confused teenager, but it gives the reader an inside view of Lauren’s thought process. The aforementioned plot holes were nits I couldn’t help but pick. The narrative is distant and detached, as Lauren builds – finds? – her religion and explains it through emotionless journal entries. And the ending doesn’t give finality or closure, as this novel is just a few steps of the journey of Earthseed. Butler had a grand vision for the series, following in the wake of Lauren as humanity’s new messiah; Parable of the Sower is just the first step on a long, six-book journey that ended two books in. There’s a good article on the LA Review of Books that charts the intended progression, and makes me wonder how amazing the full cycle would have been had Butler been around to complete it.

Parable of the Sower tackles complex issues in a rich and disturbing apocalypse, a world that felt more real due to its detailed and diverse cast. While some elements were vivid and realistic, others are awkward and poorly thought out, and the author’s cynical view of humanity is a downer – with enough cannibalism, rape, and so forth to probably deserve a trigger warning. Still, I couldn’t put it down – I found it well-written and very readable; Butler has a strong, sure voice as a writer, and uses it to her full advantage as Lauren founds a new religion for all humankind. Parable of the Sower doesn’t rise to the same heights as Wild Seed or Kindred, but it offers some thought-provoking insight into religion, gender, and race in the dystopic remnants of society. I just wish Butler had been around to complete this series.

This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.

Kindred, Octavia E Butler

kindredKindred, Octavia E Butler (1979)
Review by admiral ironbombs

Octavia Butler overcame dyslexia to become one of the most noteworthy science fiction authors of the late 20th Century. Her science fiction explores themes of race, sex, power, religion, and other key cornerstones to the human condition. The shocking suddenness of her passing in 2006 left a void that has yet to be filled, cutting several of her series short. Aside from her numerous short stories, most of Butler’s novels were in her Patternist, Xenogenesis, or Parable series, with two exceptions. Kindred is one of those, a stand-alone novel written as a reaction and exploration of slavery; it feels like Butler’s series can overshadow her other work, and Kindred being a genre-bender I don’t think it’s gotten the recognition it deserves.

Dana is a modern black woman living in 1970s California with her white husband Kevin, two struggling authors trying to break into publishing while making ends meet. The trouble begins when Dana slips out of her house and onto a wooded riverbank, just in time to save a young boy- Rufus Waylin – from drowning. As she slips back into her own home, Kevin informs her only a few seconds have passed – her clothes are soaked, her shoes caked in mud. This is real. Painfully real, as she slips in time and space again and begins to understand her situation. Dana soon realizes she’s being drawn to save Rufus whenever he’s in danger, pulled back into antebellum Maryland where Rufus is the son of a slave owner, and – to Dana’s horror – he’s one of her great-ancestors, progenitor of her family line.

Dana may be an enlightened 20th-century woman, and she may not wear physical shackles, but she’s still very much enslaved – bonded as Rufus’ savior across space and time. Whenever Rufus is in danger, Dana will arrive to save him, and she lives in fear of her next transportation. The psychological toll is so heavy that she becomes a hermit in her own time, too afraid to drive in case she’s pulled out of a moving car, too scared to leave her house for fear of pulling someone else back into the past. Her friends and relatives see her wounds and assume Kevin is abusive – see, they imply, what you get for marrying a white man? Reading this novel today, even the 1970s feel like another era, with familial tensions over Dana and Kevin’s mixed marriage. And things only get worse when Kevin is pulled back into the past, then accidentally abandoned; the already sizable age gap between Dana and Kevin grows, and his perception changes after spending half a decade in the 1820s.

Kindred is a hard book to read; it deals with the darkest stain in American history, a systemic injustice that remains uncomfortably difficult to discuss, despite feeling its after-effects to this day. Butler, through Dana, makes comparisons with the Nazis: instead of industrialized extermination, it’s the barbarism of torture and subjugation – treating human beings as animals, as property – and Dana experiences plenty of that first-hand. It’s not just the torture, but the psychological impact of slavery – how easy it is to live in fear, to fall into the mindset of a slave – that makes things a complex psychological hell. Add to that one of the many meanings of the title: at its most literal, the genealogical link between Dana, Rufus, and the freewoman-turned-slave Alice. To ensure her existence, Dana needs Rufus and Alice to create her ancestral line – but she must walk an ethically fine line, disgusted by Rufus and unwilling to force Alice into a relationship she has no interest in.

And as hard a book it is to read I have to imagine it was an even harder book to write. Butler wrote the novel as a way to let readers feel what it meant to be a black woman slave and the first-person perspective echoes the fear and uncertainty, the feelings of utter powerlessness. Dana is not completely powerless, and as Rufus becomes more a product of his time – more ruthless, less humane to his slaves – she uses his vulnerabilities as leverage, letting him know his life is in her hands. The other slaves we get to know lack any sort of leverage, save for Alice, who also challenges the master-slave power dynamic in her own way. By the end of the book, Alice and Dana will take actions to reject the subaltern roles Rufus allotted them.

Kindred is the kind of science fiction novel that sits astride the genre line; my copy has an afterword that claims the novel is not science fiction, instead focusing on the neo-slave narrative in its analysis. I disagree, because this is the kind of SF book you should give to readers who “don’t like SF” – a deep, insightful, and powerful novel that speaks across time and space to make complex themes understandable and relatable. The best kind of science fiction isn’t about building better robots or the adherence to stricter, more rigorous physics. No, like Kindred, the best science fiction uses fantastical elements to explore and speculate about complex ideas and themes. It’s a book everyone should read, SF fan or not, just to experience its raw power.

This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased.

Parable of the Sower, Octavia E Butler

parableParable of the Sower, Octavia E Butler (1993)
Review by Nicolette Stewart

Parable of the Sower begins on July 20th, 2024 – narrator Lauren Olamina’s birthday and what will be, assuming I manage to live that long, my own 42nd birthday. This coincidence gave me a head start – I felt connected with the narrator before Butler had lifted more than a couple of fingers, felt the chill of how close this future could be to our own.

On my 42nd birthday America could be going to shit (let’s forget for a second that I don’t live there). On my 42nd birthday I could find that a group of drugged out Robin Hoods who thought I was rich had broken into my community, killed my neighbuors, and burned down my house. I could be forced to take to the road and fight to survive. To steal, to starve, to endure rape, to bury my friends and family, to learn to shoot, to learn to kill. It isn’t just the date that makes Parable of the Sower feel so close, but the disturbing normality of the situation. There are more and more poor, more and more homeless. People squat houses, the police are corrupt, public schools are all but extinct, and clean water will cost you. This isn’t The Road, with its mysterious, unexplained circumstances. This isn’t an epic plague story like The Stand or a whacked out King Arthur mash-up like SM Stirling’s Emberverse series or a suspenseful (and racist) “will the asteroid hit the Earth?” thriller like Lucifer’s Hammer. This is plausible to a banally horrible degree. This is already happening. Open up today’s paper and you will see the signs there already, and it is these signs that, according to the interview in the back of my book, Butler decided to follow to one of their possible conclusions in writing this.

It takes almost half of the book for the chaos to creep over Olamina’s community’s gated wall. And when it does she flees, meeting people along the way, gathering them to her as allies and disciples. Because this book isn’t just about survival in a crisis situation, it is about the religion that Olamina has created: Earthseed. A quick browse of other internet reviews of the book tell me that Earthseed was a disturbing element for many readers. I loved it. This collection of verses are an expression of the truths Olamina has seen in the world and written down, and their basis is that change is the most powerful force in the world:

“All that you touch

You Change.

All that you Change

Changes you.

The only lasting truth

Is Change.


Is Change.”

The entire philosophy – and to me Earthseed is more of a philosophy than a religion – strikes me as rational, a way of thinking meant to help people describe the world as it really is and to successfully cope with those realities. I’ve never liked the “delay your happiness in this world to gain the eternal carrot in the next” fantasy that most religions are selling. Earthseed isn’t even about God (or gods). The point is that there is no God, not as anyone has ever imagined him/it/whatfuckingever before. (There is a moment in the text when Lauren admits to using the word God, even though that isn’t really what she means, to get people’s attention. This sentiment seems to fade in time, however.) There is the world and your participation in it can shape it and it can shape you. There is no anthropomorphic being in the sky who gives a single shit about what you or I do, loving or angry or indifferent. Prayer is a way of talking to yourself that helps you to focus your concentration on achieving certain goals. They are all thoughts I have had before. Not only that, but it is a philosophy, religion, whatever you want to call it, that encourages personal responsibility, something that seems to have leached out of most of the world and something that is incredibly important to me.

“Your God doesn’t care about you at all,” a skeptic tells Olamina after she has told him about Earthseed. And her reply? “All the more reason to care about myself and others.” To take care of the world. To feel responsible for taking care of the world. That’s the good shit.

If it weren’t for the fact that Earthseed was also based around humanity’s “destiny” to settle on other planets – not really my thing, though if it happens, neat – I would have been a ready convert in the universe of the book. See? Butler’s already got me joining a fictional cult. She’s that good.

All this to say that depending on your take on things, Earthseed will either be a slight irritant or a very enjoyable reading bonus. For me it was another delicious layer among other delicious layers: a story that I devoured; full, interesting characters and relationships; a complex world that felt intensely real for the lack of white- and hetero-washing; post-apocalyptic survival stuff (my favourite aspect of the genre); travel; and philosophy.

A few quotes to savour… Before her world ends, Olamina tries to convince a friend to learn about survival, to join her in preparing for the worst scenario. Sometimes it sounds like this in my head:

I’m trying to learn whatever I can that might help me survive out there. I think we should all study books like these. I think we should bury money and other necessities in the ground where thieves won’t find them. I think we should make emergency packs – grab and run packs – in case we have to get out of here in a hurry. Money, food, clothing, matches, a blanket… I think we should fix places outside where we can meet in case we get separated. Hell, I think a lot of things. And I know – I know! – that no matter how many things I think of, they won’t be enough. Every time I go outside, I try to imagine what it might be like to live out there without walls, and I realize I don’t know anything.

On being dirty (and this reminds me so much of punk, and how it integrates things like having holes in your clothes into fashion):

Fashion helps. You’re supposed to be dirty now. If you’re clean, you make a target of yourself. People think you’re showing off, trying to be better than they are. Among the younger kids, being clean is a great way to start a fight. Cory won’t let us stay dirty here in the neighborhood, but we all have filthy clothes to wear outside the walls. Even inside, my brothers throw dirt on themselves as soon as they get away from the house. It’s better than getting beaten up all the time.

This review originally appeared on Bookpunks.

Lilith’s Brood, Octavia E Butler

lillithLilith’s Brood (Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago), Octavia E Butler (1989)
Review by Shannon Turlington

Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis novels were first compiled into one volume in 1989, but that compilation is now out of print. As with Seed to Harvest, Grand Central Publishing has reissued the compilation in an attractive trade paperback to capture new readers. And I’m glad they did, because I probably wouldn’t have read these books otherwise.

When I finished Lilith’s Brood, I actually wasn’t sure whether I liked it or not, but I thought about it a great deal, which I think is a sign of a book worth reading. The underlying theme disturbed me, partly because I didn’t find much hope in it, partly because I found myself agreeing with the series’ assessment: that humankind is fated by our own biology to destroy ourselves.

Lilith’s Brood includes three novels: Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago, which comprise the Xenogenesis series. The story starts 250 years after a devastating nuclear war. The few human survivors have been picked up by an alien spacecraft and kept in stasis while the aliens, the Oankali, study them. Lilith is one of the first to be awakened and to be integrated into an Oankali family. She is being trained to awaken others, to introduce them to their new reality and their alien hosts, and to reveal the Oankali’s plan: to produce Oankali-human offspring, a brand-new hybrid species.

The Oankali are genetic engineers and reproduce by genetic manipulation. They have no disease or old age, and they can communicate with one another at the cellular level. They survive by travelling through space and finding species with promising genetic traits to mate with, such as humans. However, this means that humans can no longer reproduce with one another; the Oankalis have disabled their fertility. Also, when the Oankali leave, they will consume the remainder of Earth’s resources for the journey.

Of course, there is rebellion. Many humans choose to live long, childless lives rather than join with the Oankali. Lilith does not, because having been integrated with an Oankali family, she has become physically dependent on them. The next two books follow the lives of two of her children, as the Oankali-human interbreeding progresses. I don’t think I would have been compelled to keep reading the second novel if it were a separate sequel; each book on its own seems somewhat incomplete.

Throughout all three novels, the humans – living in primitive conditions on Earth – are portrayed as without hope, a species that, if allowed to reproduce, would attempt to destroy itself again within a few generations. Humans are hierarchical and competitive, unlike Oankali. As individuals, they can be intelligent and compassionate. But as a group, they are violent, destructive and territorial. Even when the aliens allow some humans to start a new colony on Mars and have children, the Oankali hold out no hope for their future.

That’s what makes this series so disturbing. The only hope posited is essentially that a greater power from the outside will find us, cure all our diseases and create with us a better people than we can ever hope to be. We are unable to cure ourselves, doomed by our own biology to always be fighting and murdering one another. I look at the news every day and feel that this is true. But I don’t want it to be true. I want humans to be capable of evolving past whatever impulse causes us to want to destroy one another. I want us to save ourselves, not look to some alien or god to save us.

But if I’m looking for that kind of resolution, I won’t find it in Lilith’s Brood. Still, I’m glad I read it. Even if I don’t ultimately agree with Butler’s conclusions, her writing made me think about and question some of my own assumptions.

If you liked this book, you might also like Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler; Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson; Seed to Harvest by Octavia Butler; Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia Butler; The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin; The Snow Queen by Joan D Vinge

This review originally appeared on Books Worth Reading.

Kindred, Octavia Butler

Kindred, Octavia Butler (1979)
Review by Grace Troxel

If I had to sum up Kindred in one phrase, I’d say that this book is Murphy’s law applied to time travel. Everything that can go wrong does, and at the worst possible time.

Kindred is technically classified as sci-fi, but it is a genre-bending novel that also incorporates elements of historical fiction. It tells the story of Dana, a modern black woman from California who is pulled back in time to the early 1800s in Maryland to rescue her distant white ancestor Rufus when his life is endangered. Dana makes six visits to the past during the course of the novel and is only able to return home when she believes that her own life is threatened.

Dana is forced to confront the horrors of slavery as she spends time in the past and struggles with her own identity as she is swept into life on the plantation. Meanwhile, she finds herself in the rather awkward (and completely f’ed up) position of having to make sure that Rufus has sex with a woman named Alice so that her ancestors would be born and she wouldn’t flicker out of existence à la Back to the Future.

Kindred is such a powerful story because Dana is so easy to identify with. She’s intelligent, resourceful, and a very much a product of modern life. When we see slavery from the eyes of someone from our own world it makes everything seem so much more real than it would in a typical historical fiction novel. We see Dana react to the past in a multitude of different ways, ranging from her initial realization that she wasn’t in 1976 anymore when kid-Rufus used a racial slur against her to the panic at realizing that medicine in the early 1800s could be downright scary (bloodletting? leeches? gross!). It’s extreme culture shock on a multitude of different levels, but Dana eventually finds herself adapting and learning to understand the mindset of surviving the violence and dehumanization that her ancestors faced.

One of the things that I also enjoyed about this book was seeing Dana’s relationship with her husband Kevin. She and Kevin are both writers and are very clearly soulmates. We see some of her backstory with Kevin, including the way that both of their families handled the fact that they were an interracial couple (badly, of course). However, the problems that Dana and Kevin face in the modern world pale in comparison to the harsh reality of life in the 1800s.

Dana discovers that anything she’s carrying when she gets pulled into the past goes with her, so she packs herself a bag and on one occasion even takes her husband with her. Kevin tries to use his social standing to protect her, but that doesn’t make Dana’s experience of the past any less dangerous.

I read Kindred in one sitting and was on the edge of my seat the entire time. Butler’s writing is articulate and powerful, and she is able to make readers not just see the past but also feel it. Kindred is one of the best books that I’ve ever read, and I’d highly recommend it.

This review originally appeared on Books Without Any Pictures.