Kindred is thematically expansive; on its surface the novel is a sci-fi yarn about a modern black woman beaming back mysteriously to a Maryland plantation where she saves the life of her white great-great-great-great-great grandfather on several occasions. We never know the agency responsible, or the mechanics, or the reasons for these temporal teleportations--we simply accept this alternate reality, content to ride a marvelously constructed book to its dread conclusion.
And by conclusion I mean the end of the plot only; there are no easy conclusions to Butler's thematic meanderings. Kindred is about the complex inter-relations of history, about moral ambivalence, about perception, about race, history, memory, the past as present. I could go on. Dana, who in 1976 is married to a white man named Kevin, accidentally takes him back with her to the nineteenth century on one of her trips. They try to fit in, try to create lies to make their sudden appearance sensible to the locals. They watch kids playing a game where they sell each other off at an auction. The reader thinks about this, about the changes from then to now, about the way things maybe should have changed even more, and wonders what s/he would do in the past in such a situation. Dana's husband Kevin says:
"Look, I won't say I understand how you feel about this because maybe that's something I can't understand. But as you said, you know what's going to happen. It already has happened. We're in the middle of history. We surely can't change it. If anything goes wrong, we might have all we can do just to survive it."
Kevin, the white man, admits he can't possibly see America's past the way his black wife sees it. She can't see it the way he does. They're both living in the past and unable to change it. And yet they also both live in the present and could just as easily transpose this attitude about the past to 1976. Dana is several times tempted to let her white ancestor die for his injustices, but she knows she has to keep him alive so she can exist someday. This is a troubling lesson about privileging the Self over others, and explains a lot about the politics of slavery, about the relations between the slaves as they negotiate their own positions on the plantation, and about the relations between black and white. The most monstrous humans in Kindred show humanity in surprising ways, and the heroic characters are degraded more than once. Dana is mystified by the (then future) examples of Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman. What possibly could explain the existence of such souls, able to act solely without thinking of the consequences to Self? Her novel is brilliant, and deserves its reputation. I'll be reading more of Butler's stuff down the road.