Science Fiction That Isn’t Quite; or, Books to Read if You Loved KINDRED

This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of Octavia Butler’s  birthday. See all the posts here.


My first significant memory of Octavia Butler is from college, when I was in a class about representations and intersections of race and sexuality, and we read her Kindred. Kindred is a strange, beautiful, harrowing, painful book in which a black woman in the contemporary U.S. find herself repeatedly and inexplicably drawn back in time to an antebellum plantation.

Kindred by Octavia ButlerFor me, the “inexplicably” was so important that, when a friend in the class described the book as “science fiction,” I sidetracked our whole class discussion with a vigorous argument about whether the label applied.

Him: Of course it’s science fiction–it’s a novel about time travel by a writer who primarily wrote solidly in-genre books.

Me: But the time travel doesn’t involve technology, and that’s a big part of the point!

While I’ll admit that my dislike of science fiction at the time (irrational from the perspective of my current fannish self, but we’ll leave that aside for now) probably colored my response, it was primarily my attachment to the inexplicability of Kindred‘s time travel that drove me to fight. She didn’t travel through time by dint of a machine—there’s no science in this fiction—and that’s absolutely crucial. She didn’t choose to move across timelines but instead was pulled back to the past, it seemed, by virtue of living as a black woman in a country that hadn’t reckoned with its brutal history of enslavement or how that history echoed across time to drown out the present. Slavery was brought near not by technological machines but instead by the vast social machinery of white supremacy that powers the United States.

More than a decade later, with the wisdom that comes from old age, I’m willing to concede that I wasn’t exactly right to reject the “science fiction” label for Kindred. But my friend wasn’t right, either. We were both kinda wrong, because Kindred is a classic of science fiction that isn’t quite science fiction.

In the years hence, this tiny sliver of literature has become my favorite sub-sub-sub-genre. Over and over again, I’ve fallen hard for books that take the plot devices of science fiction—time travel, teleportation, layered spaces and timelines—and, well, remove the devices. All of science fiction is stories about social relations and cultural context (it’s not as though Butler’s other books aren’t social commentary, after all), but these sci-fi-but-not-quite-sci-fi books distill that function to its stark, sparkling quintessence by making the story first and foremost about people and strange ways we live in the world.

If you haven’t yet read Kindred, then for god’s sake start there. But if you’ve read it and were left intrigued, here are three of my favorite examples of this genre within a genre:

The City and the City by China Mville: China Mville is always a go-to when we’re talking about the quirky boundaries of genre, and The City and the City is no exception. This book is a little bit noir detective story, a little bit international spy thriller, and a whole lot of weird. It takes place in a version of our world where a city in Eastern Europe and a city in the Middle East somehow actually occupy the same exact space, layered atop one another even as each insists (on pain of punishment) that its residents refuse to see the other. By having a murder mystery and diplomatic crisis play out in this strange setting, but without worrying too much about the mechanisms that caused or continue the layering, Mville manages to build an engrossing story and striking exploration of bureaucracy, geography, and xenophobia.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid: This book, just released this March, is revelatory. As a civil war breaks out in an unnamed country, and conflict rages around a world at constant low burn, doors open that allow immediate transit between far-flung places. Slowly and then all at once, people in conflict zones use the doors to travel to London, to Greece, to Marin County, and beyond. Building a love story atop this premise, Hamid makes the doors both secondary—as with Kindred, this isn’t a book about the means as much as the meaning—and a crucial lens through which to see the human experience of the refugee crisis.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: Less sharp in its social commentary than Kindred or Exit West, Atkinson’s novel nevertheless manages to upend time travel tropes to offer a new way of looking at the world. The novel follows a woman whose life, whenever she dies, starts over from her birth. Remnants of previous timelines live on in echoes and instincts as she grows up, sometimes, to experience the London Blitz or Nazi Germany. It’s a beautiful, intricately structured book unconcerned with the hows of the protagonist’s situation. Instead, it uses its structure and its narrative to examine misogyny, global war, history, and—at a more meta level—how storytelling works.

 

Science Fiction Short Story Collections by Authors of Color

This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of Octavia Butler's  birthday. See all the posts here. Like so many fantastic genre writers before and since, Octavia Butler got her start when she sold the short story Crossover. Short story publishing has often provided authors of marginalized backgrounds with a better chance to get off the ground. Publishing a novel takes a greater commitment of time and money, so companies are more hesitant to pull the trigger on unknown authors with "non-traditional" backgrounds and stories. And yet, some of the most iconic works of fiction are only a few...Continue Reading

Fear and Butler in America

This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of Octavia Butler's  birthday. See all the posts here. I spent most of my life afraid of Octavia Butler. A 1988 copy of Kindred sat on my bookshelf for years. It traveled across the country with me. Twice. Actually, I’ve had two copies; I traded in the one I had when I found an older version with a more interesting cover. I sort of knew what it was about. Something involving a black woman from the present traveling back to the Antebellum United States. I knew it...Continue Reading

Fierce: The Short Fiction of Octavia Butler

This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of Octavia Butler's  birthday. See all the posts here. Fierce. That was my reaction when I read the work of Octavia Butler for the first time. This is a woman to be reckoned with.  I don't say that just because she is a black woman writing in a genre that is dominated by white men - even more so than literature as a whole - and that is nothing if not impressive. I say it because she does something with her writing that so many authors attempt...Continue Reading

A Smurfette in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Octavia’s Legacy

This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of Octavia Butler's  birthday. See all the posts here. Women writers have interesting barriers. The Mary Sue and Tor.com have discussed how female SFF writers, and SFF female characters, can easily become overlooked or forgotten. We don’t receive as much coverage due to implicit bias in our culture. This is ironic since according to history women like Mary Shelley have created the science fiction and horror genres. Tor.com mentions that the women that leave a legacy are the Smurfettes of the world, the token female authors that...Continue Reading

LUMINESCENT THREADS: Knowing Octavia Butler Through a Community That Loves Her

This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of Octavia Butler's  birthday. See all the posts here. Do you often write dead letters - that you pen down in your journal on nights when you’ve been defeated - to your favourite author? I have done this, and I’m sure, dear Reader, that you have too. We have all bared our secrets and mysteries to our favourite authors at some point. A good thing about this habit is, of course, that at some point, brilliant people like Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal might want to consolidate and...Continue Reading

Is it Possible to Misread Octavia Butler?

This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of Octavia Butler's  birthday. See all the posts here. "Bloodchild" is one of Octavia Butler's most haunting, disturbing, and memorable stories, and is also one of the greatest things she ever wrote. And I know that I am not alone in having completely misread the story and entirely missed what Butler had accomplished. The titular tale in Butler's one and only short story collection, "Bloodchild" describes a future where humanity has developed a complicated relationship with a race of insect-like creatures known as the Tlic. The Tlic chooses...Continue Reading

Why Octavia E. Butler is Essential SciFi Genre Reading

This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of Octavia Butler's  birthday. See all the posts here. I'm not really sure when I became a huge fan of Octavia E. Butler, but I do remember the first novel of hers I read: it was Kindred. I had been loving sci-fi novels at the time, but everything I picked up after The Hunger Games felt stale and repetitive (Christ, did we really need a whole Divergent series? Sorry, not sorry). I picked up Kindred because it sounded genuinely original, and it is: I couldn't put it down and...Continue Reading

Writers Inspired by Octavia Butler

This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of Octavia Butler's  birthday. See all the posts here. Octavia Butler inspired many writers -- especially writers of color -- by showing them that they could be writers, that there was a place for their fiction. That their dreams were worthy of following. These writers' stories about Octavia Butler's influence shows how important the Own Voices movement is in publishing. We need books written by black women, with black women on the cover, prominently displayed on bookshelves. We needed them yesterday, but today will have to do. Thankfully, for...Continue Reading

Science Fiction That Isn’t Quite; or, Books to Read if You Loved KINDRED

This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of Octavia Butler's  birthday. See all the posts here. My first significant memory of Octavia Butler is from college, when I was in a class about representations and intersections of race and sexuality, and we read her Kindred. Kindred is a strange, beautiful, harrowing, painful book in which a black woman in the contemporary U.S. find herself repeatedly and inexplicably drawn back in time to an antebellum plantation. For me, the “inexplicably” was so important that, when a friend in the class described the book as “science...Continue Reading

Discovering Octavia Butler’s FLEDGLING And Rediscovering Genre Fiction

This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of Octavia Butler's  birthday. See all the posts here. I discovered Octavia Butler because of Betty Smith. Really! Ok, so what happened was: I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn many, many, many times, for the obvious reasons. It was about a girl who loved to read, and while my family was not as poor as Francie’s we were not well-off. We were both Irish! (Well, I’m a quarter, but it counts in my head.) And, like Francie, I often spent hours and hours in my local...Continue Reading

5 Science Fiction and Fantasy Women of Color Authors to Read After Octavia Butler

Already read everything by the majestic Octavia Butler? In honor of her birthday, check out these other science fiction and fantasy women of color authors who are writing innovative, mind-blowing novels today. N.K. Jemisin https://www.pinterest.com/pin/333055334936518827/ Honestly, if you’re a fan of Octavia Butler and you haven’t read N.K. Jemisin yet, where have you been? Since the publication of her debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in 2010, Jemisin’s ground-breaking, unique fantasy novels have only been getting better. To date she has three series to check out: the Inheritance trilogy, the Dreamblood series, and the Broken Earth series, the third novel...Continue Reading

An Octavia Butler Reading Pathway

This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of  the birthday of Octavia Butler. See all the posts here. Today at Book Riot, we're celebrating Octavia Butler day. If you're not already a Butler fan, we hope that our posts have piqued your interest! If you're interested in reading Octavia Butler's work but don't know where to start, this post is for you! These books will give you a great introduction to Butler's writing. Start with ... Kindred. This is where I started with Butler, and of all her books that I've read, I think it...Continue Reading

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