Kindred | Study Guide

Octavia Butler

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Kindred | Context


The Science Fiction Genre

Kindred is unusual in the sense that it incorporates the science-fictional concept of time travel but does not use or describe the technology needed for such a feat. Rather, it is Dana's strong psychological and emotional motivation that allows readers to accept her physical transportation to the antebellum era. Readers travel along with Dana, accepting the pull back to the past that locks her and her ancestor Rufus in a time loop of shared survival. Scholar Robert Crossley, in his critical essay on Kindred, asserts that "Butler herself has repeatedly insisted that Kindred should be read as a 'grim fantasy,' not as science fiction, since there is 'absolutely no science in it.'"

Critical Response

Kindred, published in 1979, served as a breakout novel for Butler's career and added diversity to the science fiction genre. White men such as H. G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov dominated the science fiction genre in the 1970s; Samuel R. Delany was the only African American writing speculative fiction during that time. Butler broke down barriers in science fiction by being a black woman writer who placed black characters in lead roles. Butler's work has since been studied in various universities, with scholars and professors writing about and analyzing Kindred and her other works. Her work still resonates, and in 2003 approximately 40,000 to 50,000 people in Rochester, New York, read and discussed Kindred for the "If All of Rochester Read the Same Book" program.

Butler established herself as a unique writer of science fiction, one who draws readers into new worlds or past ones in order to expose the social and economic inequalities among various groups. Instead of creating a futuristic, dystopian, or interstellar world, Butler casts her glance backward to antebellum Maryland, at the time of slavery.

Antebellum South

The antebellum time period refers to the era in the United States before the American Civil War, which started in 1861. The term ante bellum is a Latin phrase that translates to "before the war" or "prewar." Historians differ on the start of this time period in American history. Some report that the antebellum period in the United States began after the War of 1812; others use the date of 1789, when the American Constitution was adopted and slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person in the House of Representatives.

No matter which start date is given to the antebellum period, blacks in this era were unequivocally viewed as property. However, in the years approaching the American Civil War, more whites and free blacks spoke out against slavery, building a strong abolitionist movement. The term abolition refers to the official end to something; abolitionists living in the antebellum time period believed in the legal end to slavery. Abolitionists voiced their views through gatherings with speakers or in published newspapers. Some worked together to establish the Underground Railroad, the secret system of safe houses and transportation that led slaves to freedom in the North.

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