Kindred – Octavia E. Butler (1976)

OctaviaEButler_KindredBilled as the first science fiction book to be written and published by an African-American female author, Kindred finds itself quite commonly on community One-Read reading lists across the country, and although written in 1976, it’s still a powerfully relevant read for the world as it is today in America.

The story revolves around the main protagonist, Dana, an African-American who is living in 1976 and working on her writing in CA living with her white boyfriend/partner. One day to her surprise, she passes out after being dizzy, and finds herself waking up by herself in 1815 Maryland on a slavery-run plantation being put into the position of saving a young white boy called Rufus from drowning in the river. It’s only after some time passes that Dana manages to work out that she is slipping through time from 1976 back to the early eighteenth century with the goal of keeping Rufus alive so that he can father her grandfather in modern days, and the only way that she will not influence her future (and her very being alive) is to fight for Rufus.

“The ease. Us, the children… I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.”

Butler keeps the ethnicities of both Dana and Kevin under wraps for quite some time, so as a reader, it’s quite confusing as you read about how the African-American slaves with whom she interacts treat her. To them in their time period, she talks and acts “white”, but she looks African-American, so it’s tres confusing for everyone for quite some time. Eventually, Dana learns that her time slippage has the mission, and then as the chapters progress, the story fits together really well.

It’s interesting that when Butler published this novel in 1976, it was the two-hundredth anniversary of American independence from the Crown, and about a century after the emancipation of slavery and thus, is an obvious link with that difficult history. It’s much deeper than you realize at first, as the novel is very well written and the relationships between Dana and her fellow slaves are delicately handled. With Dana’s first-person modern POV, the novel seems epistolary in some ways, a reminder of some of the earlier first-person slave narratives except that Dana was born free and then was enslaved (similar to poor old Solomon Northup), as opposed to the more traditional narrative of being a slave and getting one’s freedom, such as was the case for Frederick Douglass and others.

However, despite the serious topic, it’s a fast read. That’s not to say that it’s an easy read — some of the scenes are harrowing in terms of how her fellow slaves are treated or how she herself is treated – but the narrative flows very smoothly and once you get the hang of the how and the why behind this time slippage, everything makes sense. Despite the fact that this is fiction, Butler sets it up so convincingly that at times, I just fell completely into the story itself that it read as though it was actually happening. (Sign of a great writer, methinks.)

Octavia Estelle Butler was an American science fiction writer, and the first African-American female sci-fi writer. Butler was awarded both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, and in 1995, became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant. She died in 2006.

I really loved this read and am now interested in reading more of Butler’s work.  Going to toddle off to the library soon…



The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham (1951)


I’ve been familiar with this title since childhood, but hadn’t actually picked it up and read it. Perusing my Century of Books project, the year of 1951 was open and unfilled, so this was the perfect chance to take this title off the shelf. I think I knew the plot on a vague level – man-eating plants, scary, apocalypse etc. – but I do have to admit that it was a much better read than I had thought I was going to get.

This is a post-apocalyptic novel set in the days following an unexplained meteor shower that hits earth one ordinary night. Anyone who watched the meteor shower went blind, but the hero, Bill Masen, avoids that calamity by having had a previous accident to his eyes and being bandaged up that evening. The morning after the shower, Bill’s bandages are taken off, and he is plunged into a new world of mostly blind people and the triffids – clever man-eating plants who can walk around to trap their prey.

It sounds ridiculous, but it was a really good narrative. How does Bill survive when he is one of the few left who can see? How to live in this new world of shrinking resources and aggressive vegetation? Like any post-apocalyptic story, there are bands of people who battle for food and petrol, for clean water and for power, and although the book covers a short period of time, so much happens so quickly that you as the reader are taken along for the ride.

Written in the 50’s, it’s got the cultural references of the time with regard to gender expectations (men should rescue women, women love nice clothes and cook etc.), and it’s so interesting to watch them wrestle with these issues as their new world develops. Overarching everything are the triffids, the experimental plants that have escaped their enclosed yards and are now inching over the earth. They seem to be learning from experience, gathering together for strategy, and communicating with each other. They also have a ten-foot lash that they whip out unexpectedly to kill people.

I’m not usually a sci fi person, but I do tend to like spec fiction like this, and it was a good read overall. I just found out in Wiki that Brian Aldiss, a sci fi historian, called this “a cosy catastrophe” in that it’s a post-war apocalyptic world in which society is destroyed but for a handful of survivors who go on to enjoy a “fairly comfortable existence”. I wasn’t familiar with the term, but now that I know of it, it’s a perfect fit. This is sort of like gentle horror. It keeps your interest but isn’t too scary overall. I loved the read.

Wyndham based this tale on H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) (I haven’t read it yet), and was very open about the influence. This Triffid book itself proved to have a long life with multiple versions of radio, movie and TV adaptations so perhaps we’ll track one of them down to watch (or listen to) this Christmas season.

Anyway, this was a surprisingly good read. I enjoyed it.

Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood (2003)

book181This was a bit of leap into the dark for me, as it’s not usual for me to read much speculative or dystopian fiction. It’s not that I don’t like it, but more that I am usually falling down some other subject rabbit hole. (I’m not sure that I’ve read much spec fic since McCarthy’s The Road – hard read. Perhaps Hunger Games would count?)

This was a fantastic read – one of the best, I expect, for this year – and Atwood has created a multi-level world which covers every detail and perspective to make it real for the reader. It was incredible – every question I had asked in my head was answered with regard to plot lines and action details.  One of the reviewers from the UK’s Daily Telegraph calls Atwood a “linguistic engineer” which is a perfect description, I think. (Another reviewer describes the book thus: “A delightful amalgam for the sophisticated reader” (Ms magazine.) So I’m a “sophisticated reader”! Ha.)

It’s from the omniscient perspective of Snowman, one of the few human survivors left after a multi-wave disease pandemic has hit the world. Nature is taking over the infrastructure and the buildings that  remain (although not maintained),  but there are few people left (if any) apart from a small group called the Crakers. As the book progresses, you learn about the Crakers’ history and how the world got to be in this state.

The perspective shifts in time from the present to the past, to Snowman’s childhood and young adulthood, and in doing so, you are introduced to the characters in the title, Oryx and Crake.  Snowman was not his original name – the new world necessitated a new name. Perhaps the man’s choice of “Snowman” for his moniker reflects his view of his life being temporary in nature/ of hanging by a thread?…

It’s not a story that you can daydream your way through, as you do need to concentrate to keep things straight, but it’s one of the more rewarding reads out there. I think it’s best to read this in big chunks so that you can get sucked into this alternate world – it’s just as bleak (ethically and morally) as The Handmaid’s Tale, but different. In this book, life is evolving post-pandemic and the earth is changing. Perhaps there is an element of hope more than Offred had? It somehow seems to be a more bearable world than that. (Interestingly, Texas is mentioned during the narrative as a place that has dried up and blown away a few years ago…)

Puzzlingly, there is a very subtle theme of toast throughout the story – why is that? Is it a reflection of society as it was then – a natural product that has been charred by society into something else? (Don’t know. Making that bit up – technique courtesy of long-ago grad school.)

“Had he been a lunatic or an intellectually honourable man who’d thought things through to their logical conclusion? And was there any difference?”

(With ref to Crake, one of the lead characters.)

This was a brilliantly told story with magically unpredictable twists and turns as the story progresses. (I love it when the plot is not obvious.) It was an excellent read.

As an aside: In the Acknowledgements page, Atwood mentions that one of the characters (called Amanda Payne) was named after a real-life person in England who had won an auction to get this privilege (of a character self-named in an Atwood book). (The money went to a non-profit called the Medical Foundation for Care of Victims of Torture (UK).) Isn’t that a great way for a famous author to raise funds and awareness for a cause they believe in?