Any long time readers of this blog know my deep respect for Octavia Butler. She takes the genre of science fiction and turns it into literature that not even the most pernicious lit snob can say is anything other than high quality. Kindred, Butler's best known work, is perhaps the clearest example I've yet read of the way that she combines issues of race, gender, and class into her work.
Kindred is the story of Dana, a black woman living in California in the 1970s. Through some process never fully explained, Dana is transported back to the early 1800s whenever Rufus, her white great-great-great-great (you get the idea) grandfather is on the verge of getting himself killed. Unfortunately for Dana, this unknown ancestor is also the son of a slave-owner in Maryland. This means that once she is back in time with him, she must adjust her life to the customs of the time, acting the part of a slave. As Dana travels back and forth between the past and the present, she learns more about what it meant to be black and powerless in the United States than she ever wanted to. What was abstract to her and her white husband in 1976 becomes terrifyingly concrete in the world of 1830s Maryland.
Kindred is a bit of a cross-over novel, as the science fiction aspect of it is not nearly as important as the story itself. Perhaps that's why it is her most popular novel, because you don't have to be a science fiction fan to enjoy it. But I suspect it has more to do with the examination of race and slavery than with a genre preference. Through Dana's experiences, Butler shows the brutality and cruelty of slavery. Dana, with her 20th century moral superiority, begins by "acting" as a slave, but after being whipped, beaten, forced into the fields, and nearly raped, she comes to realize how easily people can be made slaves. Take away a person's humanity, and they will believe they are less than human. Value a person only because of the work that they can do or the price that they will fetch, and they will start to define themselves that way, even contribute to their own captivity.
It is this idea that is perhaps the most striking in Butler's work, especially given the 1979 release date. That close to the heyday of the civil rights movement, it must have been a risk for Butler to create the characters of Rufus, who while not likeable does at least become understandable as the slave owner's son, and eventual slave owner himself. Even though Dana hates what he does, she can't quite bring herself to hate him, though he certainly gives her ample reasons to do so. But Dana's relationship with Rufus, and the various attitudes of other slaves on the plantation, demonstrate that slavery and people's attitudes towards it were not as clear-cut as history books would make them out to be. To be sure, the institution of slavery is abhorrent, but those living within it sometimes had to do things that should not necessarily be judged by 20th (or 21st) century standards. Butler clearly shows how insidious the effects of living under such a brutal system can be, from the need to run away again and again, even after the most horrific beatings, to the need to try and secure your place by serving up another slave's transgressions to your masters, even though you know what the consequences for them will be. In the end, Dana is able to retain enough of her 20th century self to free herself from the bondage imposed on her by the involuntary time travel, but not without scars, both physical and emotional, that will leave a permanent impression on her, and on the reader.