Friday Reads: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

An original and eerily prophetic writer, Octavia E. Butler used the conventions of science fiction to explore the dangerous legacy of racism in America in harrowingly personal terms. She broke new ground with books that featured complex Black female protagonists—“I wrote myself in,” she would later recall—establishing herself as one of the pioneers of the Afrofuturist aesthetic. In 1995 she became the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, in recognition of her achievement in creating new aspirations for the genre and for American literature. This first volume in the Library of America edition of Butler’s collected works gathers her 1979 masterpiece, Kindred, one of the landmark American novels of the last half century; her final novel, Fledgling; and her collected short stories.

In Kindred, Dana, a Black woman whose husband is white, is pulled back and forth between the California present and the pre–Civil War South, where she finds herself enslaved on the plantation of a white ancestor whose life she must save in order to preserve her own. Gripping and suspenseful, the novel uses the conceit of time travel to plumb the mutilating structures of slavery and the terrible cost they continue to exact.

A woman wakes up covered in burns in a mountainside cave with no knowledge of who she is or what has happened to her. In time she discovers that she is a vampire, and that there are others like her. Among the long-lived Ina, though, Shori is something new: an experimental birth, containing African American human DNA that gives her brown skin and the feared and fearful ability to go out in sunlight. Part murder mystery, part fantasy thriller, Fledgling is Butler’s incomparable take on the vampire novel.

This Library of America volume also includes eight short stories and five essays—including two previously uncollected—as well as a newly researched chronology of Butler’s life and career and helpful explanatory notes by scholar Gerry Canavan. Butler’s friend, the writer and editor Nisi Shawl, provides an introduction.

Gerry Canavan is an associate professor in the English Department at Marquette University, specializing in 20th- and 21st-century literature. An editor at Extrapolation and Science Fiction Film and Television, he has also coedited Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction (2014), The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction (2015), and The Cambridge History of Science Fiction (2019). His first monograph, Octavia E. Butler, appeared in 2016 in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series at University of Illinois Press.

Nisi Shawl is a founder of the diversity-in-speculative-fiction nonprofit the Carl Brandon Society and serves on the Board of Directors of the Clarion West Writers’ Workshop. Author of the story collection Filter House, winner of the 2009 Tiptree/Otherwise Award, and the novel Everfair, a 2016 Nebula finalist, Shawl edited Bloodchildren: Stories by the Octavia E. Butler Scholars (2013) and coedited Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler (2013).

Source: Library of America

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