Science Fiction of Fantasy? – Part Four
By Kyra Brue
One of Butler’s most famous works is her science fiction/fantasy novel, Kindred. The story is about a young black woman named Dana, who is living in southern California in 1976. One day, as she and her husband are unpacking their belongings in their new home, she begins feeling dizzy and before she knows it, she is sitting in a field in an unknown time and place. At first, she is quite confused, but when she sees a small child drowning in a river a few feet away, she springs into action to save the boy. Once he is safe, and her life is threatened by the boy’s father holding her at gunpoint, she is transported back home. These trips from 1976 to the 1800’s continue to occur throughout the story, getting longer and longer with each visit. By her second visit, Dana officially learns that she is in 1815 and that the child who she saved from the river is her great-great grandfather, and son of a slave master, Rufus. It appears that every time she is “summoned” to him, she must save Rufus from accidentally harming or killing himself so he can go on to father her great grandmother and avoid erasing herself from existence. The story deals with many different themes, like racial equality or inequality between whites and blacks throughout the two time periods in which she resides, the importance of gender roles, and of course, time travel. Since this novel is more intricate than it appears on the surface, the elements that make up this book go beyond the themes previously listed. The main protagonist, Dana, deals with a lot throughout her time going back and forth from year to year, and her psyche takes a hit or two before she is eventually set free from these forced field trips to the 1800s. However, she is able to prevail and become a stronger woman in the end, even though she also seems to become a harder woman as well.
When Kindred was first published, Octavia Butler said that she decidedly categorized the novel under the umbrella of fantasy, but through the years the novel has slowly shifted into being considered science fiction (Kenan). In an interview with Randall Kenan, Butler states:
I don’t like the labels, they’re marketing tools, and I certainly don’t worry about them when I’m writing. They are also inhibiting factors; you wind up not getting read by certain people, or not getting sold to certain people because they think they know what you write. You say science fiction, and everybody thinks Star Wars or Star Trek. (495)
This idea, while rather comical, makes sense. When you label something, it immediately gets grouped with the general ideas or, in this case, works that make up said group. It is almost as if you are locking that work in a genre “cage” and throwing the key away, so it will always and forever be a part of that genre. When looking at this book on the surface level, it is easy to assume it belongs with science fiction novels, solely due to its use of time travel throughout the novel. However, it is also easy to see this novel as being fantasy, like Butler originally decided it was.
Merriam Webster defines fantasy as being “a creation of the imaginative faculty whether expressed or merely conceived: such as a chimerical or fantastic notion.” Kindred as a whole matches this definition, due to the fact that I, also an African American woman in her 20’s, will most likely not become dizzy and be transported back to meet my slave master ancestor at any point in my life. If I do, I will be sure to write all about it, but more likely than not, that event will never occur to me or any other person, because as far as we know, time travel is not real, right? Since time travel is considered a “fantastic notion,” it makes sense that this novel is fantastic in nature, and therefore should be placed with fantasy novels, but there are reasons why it could be seen as a science fiction novel as well. Merriam Webster defines science fiction as “fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component.” This definition alone also matches with the element of time travel depicted in Kindred. Even though the average person considers time travel to be fake, there is scientific research on whether this is actually true. For example, in Chapter Two of Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe: The Physical Possibilities of Travel Through Time, Richard Gott argues that time travel is possible, and that Einstein actually proved this theory (33). Gott then goes on to explain that if it was possible for a scientist to break the sound barrier, then it is also possible for us to “send off an astronaut at… greater than 99.995 percent of the speed of light,” meaning we can theoretically send a person through time. According to the facts, it is possible for Kindred to be a part of both of these genres; however, it is ultimately up to the reader to choose whether this novel fits under science fiction, like I argue, or fantasy, as Butler imagined her book to be.
According to the publisher, Beacon Press, Kindred is currently classified as a Science Fiction/African American Literature novel. This information is interesting, especially when considering how strongly Butler seemed to feel about labelling Kindred as a fantasy novel. She directly states that “Kindred is fantasy. I mean literally, it is fantasy. There’s no science in Kindred” (Kenan). However, her categorization of Kindred as fantasy doesn’t necessarily mean that Butler is wrong, but perhaps that times have changed, and with it, so have the definitions of genres like fantasy and science fiction. The interview between Octavia Butler and Randall Kenan took place in 1991, so it is possible that the manner in which fantasy and science fiction are defined has changed in the 28 years since Butler declared the genre of this novel. To know this for sure, we must take a look back at how science fiction and fantasy were viewed approximately 28 years ago, give or take. By the end of the century, the first editions of popular fantasy novels like Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, which are now considered to be the most well-known fantasy novels of this generation, began their rise to fame. The type of fantastic elements that these novels embody are those of dragons, wizards, and other magical components, which play a part in how or why we think of these elements in connection with fantasy. In an article by Donna Bryson, while talking about how fantasy is changing, she alludes to the fact that fantasy oftentimes involves characters like dwarves, elves, and other mythological creatures. This stigma is what makes Butler’s idea of Kindred being a part of the fantasy genre even more far-fetched. Science fiction, on the other hand, was commonly seen as being all about aliens, dinosaurs, and interstellar adventures, both during the time period in which the novel was created and when this interview was completed. With the establishment of the Star Wars franchise in the 1970’s, Alien in the 1980’s, and then Jurassic Park in the 1990’s, the “scientific” elements present in each series have caused audiences to assume that science fiction isn’t science fiction if there aren’t elements that are considered to be “out of this world” throughout the piece. With that being said, the categorization of Kindred as science fiction can also be hard to visualize, even with the time travel element. According to Ace Pilkington in Science Fiction and Futurism: Their Terms and Ideas, the first known story to introduce the modern, popular concept of time travel was cleverly titled The Time Machine (1895) by H.G Wells. This novel was considered to be science fiction because of the novel’s time travel elements, so with that information in mind, we can understand why the publishers might have placed Kindred in the genre of science fiction, even if the time travel elements aren’t wildly “scientific.”
In 2017, a graphic novel adaptation of Kindred was developed by, “celebrated academics and comics artists Damian Duffy and John Jennings,” thus changing the way that the novel is perceived (“Octavia E. Butler”). Websites where you can purchase this adaptation (i.e. Amazon, Goodreads, Abrams Books, etc.) have the novel listed as science fiction, just like its predecessor, and with it being transformed into a graphic novel, it takes on a new impression. Graphic novels have become more respected in popular culture over the past few years and their ability to create a debatably more entertaining and vivid reading experience has boosted this claim. New York Times Book Review praised this adaptation, stating that it is “a worthy and powerful supplement to a classic” and Entertainment Weekly gave it an “A” (“Octavia E. Butler”). By taking the fascinating and adventurous story of Kindred and putting it into a different and exciting visual experience, the novel is able to be read and comprehended differently. For example, the race of Dana’s husband, Kevin, is introduced immediately instead of several pages into the novel because we can visually see that he is white. This amendment to the original novel takes away the surprise element that came with finding out Kevin’s race a few chapters into the novel. When first reading Kindred, I had assumed that Kevin was black because Dana was black, due to the stereotypes that society has imbedded in the minds of American’s for centuries. Additionally, because most of the words that describe the places and characters in the story aren’t included, the depictions of characters and places are already set. This takes away from the readers ability to imagine their own versions, or the original versions, of the story. When first looking at Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation it is clear that this story is not going to offer the same experience as the original work. However, this modernized and accessible version of the novel does help drive home the classification of the story as science fiction, because of the physical depictions of events that further prove that the time travel elements in the book are science fiction.