Kindred

Kindred, Octavia Butler.

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L’Engle, very early set my threshold for “scary” in a story. The Ultimate Nothing, mind control, compliant uniformity… yah, scary stuff to toss around in one’s head at any age. Every other book I’ve read since reading that at ten years old or so ranks a “meh” on the scary scale.

Kindred is Wrinkle in Time kind of scary, but grown up.

We become callused to the ideas that frighten us as we are growing, thoughts like trying to work out How does nothing actually exist?, and What’s the point of loving if we all die anyway? At some point we give up thinking about these things in exchange for moving on into the day-to-day bullshit of adult-hood. Kindred made me question my understanding of what it means to be an adult and realize that we don’t stop changing, even if we ignore that change.

The other thing I really like about this novel is that it is a fantabulous example of the way in which science fiction can serve humanity. What a perfect and beautiful thought experiment is Kindred.

The over-simplified premise is that a woman mysteriously gets snapped back in time to meet up with an ancestor. He’s an idiot and always nearly getting himself killed, and she figures out pretty quick that her purpose is to keep him alive long enough to…well, you know, continue on the line that will eventually bear herself into the world.

Only thing is she doesn’t know when she’ll get called back, how long she’ll get stuck back in that time, or how much danger she’s really in. If she dies in the past, does she die in the future, too?

The scary bits begin when she realizes that death would be preferable to the life she’s expected to lead while in the past. And the super scary part is when she realizes that she’s become pretty much OK with the social conditions of that past time.

Sitting here sweet and happy in the future, it’s easy to be grateful for my human rights, list them off like ingredients on the nutrition information panel. It’s easy to imagine that, if born in another time, I would be totally intolerant of my doomed lack of education, my subjugation to others, etc. But you know what? Probably not. I would likely be a completely and unrecognizeably different person. My morals, values, rights and beliefs would be alien to the person I am now.

And then (like that’s not enough for one book) there’s the discussion about how much we change our persons in order to survive, whatever that word means for our current environment. Do we learn to become meek in the presence of an over-bearing boss? Do we learn to become careless and unprepared in the presence of luck and fortune? Do we learn to become unkind and ungrateful when surrounded by bitterness? Do we learn to sever our creativity in exchange for earning a living?

That’s pretty scary.

Kindred, Octavia Butler.

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