Monday, August 16, 2010

When is Time Travel not Science Fiction?

There’s only one literary ghetto worse than science fiction, and that’s gender or race-specific fiction.  Just the appellation ‘african-american fiction’ or ‘glbt fiction’ is enough to guarantee that the general population will avoid it like the plague, while not necessarily describing the contents of the book all that well.

Thankfully, Octavia E Butler was able to keep herself in the science-fiction genre.  Someday, hopefully, a plot device as simple as time travel won’t automatically relegate the book to the SF section (The Time-Traveller’s Wife is a good example of mainstream fiction with time jumping involved).  But for now, Kindred is destined to be genre fiction.

For those of us who have no problem reading genre, however, Kindred is a fantastic look at slavery through the eyes of at 1970s.  Dana herself is a very liberated, forward-thinking woman in her 20s (dealing with an interracial relationship in her own time, etc), but like anyone born in the 20th century, she is completely unprepared to be transported back to the times of slavery in the deep South.  The fact that she seems destined to save her slavemaster over and over does nothing to help her deal with the emotional scars being inflicted on her.

As the story goes on, we learn more and more about the world she keeps visiting; a world in which she has no basic human rights, but still has to learn to live-or survive-within family units that have no chance of staying together, and since her time jumps span a lifetime, she has to learn to live with the changes that happen without her.

Having grown up in a very integrated school system, I’ve been forced to read a lot of books like this.  Eventually, as sad as it is, you start to become desensitized to story after story about slavery, and the Holocaust, and genocides throughout Asia.  So many of the fictional stories just come across trite and preachy, and the firsthand accounts just blur together eventually.  When written by such a masterful author, and with such a clear frame of reference, this brings forth the horrors of slavery in a way that very few stories have for me.

Highs: Fantastic writing, compelling storylines

Lows: Slightly overdone genre, although the best of the group

Verdict: A fantastic story, and ought to be assigned reading in high schools

Further Reading: Parable of the Sower, The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices

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