2.20.2015

Octavia Butler: “Parable of the Sower” and “Kindred”

I am afraid that I didn't love these books as much as I had hoped to. I was really ramped up for reading some Octavia Butler, as I had heard every good thing in the world about them. I'd read Parable of the Sower in high school and didn't remember much about it. I wanted to give it another try, as well as check out Kindred, which is possibly Butler's most famous novel.

They're both good books for sure. Parable of the Sower is the first in a dystopian duology about a near-future crumbling America (rising temperatures have driven the cost of water and food up enormously; the central government exists in name only; anarchy reigns) and follows a young woman  — a teenager, really — who ends up founding a new religion. It explores issues of morality, change, and race.

Kindred is about another young woman (slightly older — early twenties) who finds herself drawn back to the antebellum South in order to save the life of her slave-owning ancestor so he can father a child by his slave and, thus, ensure that Dana (the narrator) is born herself. This book explores race as a much more primary theme (obviously) with the nature of love thrown in as well.

I found Sower more thought-provoking and interesting but Kindred more compelling as a story.

Sower is a more complex story in a lot of ways. There are many more characters, more moving parts, just a lot more going on. I found the heroine, Lauren, a little irritating (we follow her from about age 15 to age 18 and she is ridiculously, preternaturally, more mature, intelligent, and on top of things than everyone around her, which I found a bit exasperating), but I liked her more than I didn't. I would have liked some more world-building; there's some, but not what I had hoped for given the praise I heard for the book. The reasons for the collapse of civilization are left more than a bit unclear, for one. There wasn't as much plot as I'd hoped for, either. It was about surviving in a dystopian near-future (and founding a new religion), which you might think would be Enough Plot for me, and probably it should have been, but . . . I wanted a bit of something else driving the forward momentum of the story.

This could have been done in a number of ways — introducing a bit more self-doubt in Lauren would have been particularly compelling to me, as it would give her an internal challenge to overcome. Alternatively, she could have stolen a bit of character development from one of the secondary characters — one of these had an interesting arc wherein he really struggled to accept the brutalities of a dystopian reality (for instance, he struggled with the idea that he had to injure or even kill others). If this had been Lauren's arc, I also would have been more compelled by her. But I wasn't, because she was so smugly right all the time.

I think if I was more into dystopians as a genre I would have been really into this (and if you are into dystopians, you should definitely read this; it was way ahead of the curve, sort of the ur-dystopian, like 1984 or Brave New World), but I just wasn't. Again, I want to reiterate that this wasn't a bad book by any stretch of the imagination. It was smart and well written and thoughtful and everything good . . . I just wasn't into it, and I was disappointed because I really wanted to be.

I liked Kindred more but I still wasn't entranced by it.





Kindred is a lot more explicitly about racism than Sower is, which is why I wanted to like it even more. Essentially, a young black woman (Dana) is repeatedly pulled back in time to save the life of her white slaveholding ancestor.

As a story it clipped along at a much better pace than Sower. I found Dana a hell of a lot more sympathetic as a character than Lauren (unlike Lauren, she hit the sweet spot of Really A Good Person and Realistically Flawed), and I also enjoyed the secondary characters, particularly Dana's husband Kevin.

I think if I hadn't been reading a lot about racism and the legacy of slavery recently, I would have liked this more, as I've recently  read better things on related topics (have you read Citizen yet? Have you? Have you?) I felt like the whole point of this book was to juxtapose a modern Black feminist sensibility against the realities of the antebellum South, which is a needed thing because there is definitely romanticization of slavery that goes on and needs to be squelched.

However, if that's what the author wants to do, I'd rather they just do it (essays! poetry! research-based historical non-fiction!) and not do this weird time travel thing, which in this case just felt . . . odd, and out of place. There was no explanation for why the time travel was happening, not really, and not even enough curiosity or speculation about it on the part of the characters within the novel. I'm not a huge Outlander fan, but I'll say Gabaldon did some things right about that time travel. The time travel in the Outlander series is about as much a character as Claire or Jamie. The main characters are thinking of it, fascinated by it, etc. Dana is sort of BOOM! back in the past, and it seems disjointed, like . . . why is this here? what point does this serve? Couldn't there have been a different, less deus ex machina way of accomplishing the same goal?

Again . . . this was a good book. Maybe even a really good book. Well-written. Thoughtful. Topical. Smart. It ticked all the right boxes, and yet . . . I so, so wanted to be in love with this book, and I just wasn't. And that made me sad.