Paradoxes

Something you see often enough in science fiction (putting aside whether Kindred actually is science fiction, or fantasy, or whatever) is time travel and its attendant paradox. Actually there are a number of flavors of temporal paradox, but the one I’m thinking of is the one in which, when going back in time, you might change things that would change your present and thus potentially impact you and your ability to go back in time to begin with.

If Dana goes back in time and changes enough about Rufus’s life, he might not turn out to be her progenitor, which in turn would prevent her from going back in time to make those changes. This is familiar territory for Marty McFly.

On page 51, Butler brings up another paradox as Dana and Kevin talk about her return from her second visit to Rufus. Recall that their theory is that, as a threat of Rufus’s death is what calls her to him, the threat of imminent death to her is what brings her back home. Dana says:

For instance, I would have used your knife against that patroller last night if I’d had it. I would have killed him. That would have ended the immediate danger to me and I probably wouldn’t have come home.

In short, in order to remain alive in order to attempt to return home, she may have to do something that will prevent the thing that enables her to return home. It’s a paradox.

A little later, on page 68 in my edition, Dana reflects on the man Rufus is likely to become:

As I hurried up the steps and into the house, I thought of Rufus and his father, of Rufus becoming his father. It would happen some day in at least one way. Someday Rufus would own the plantation. Someday, he would be the slaveholder, responsible in his own right for what happened to the people who lived in those half-hidden cabins. The boy was literally growing up as I watched — growing up because I watched and because I helped to keep him safe. I was the worst possible guardian for him — a black to watch over him in a society that considered blacks subhuman, a woman to watch over him in a society that considered women perennial children. I would have all I could do to look after myself. But I would help him as best I could. And I would try to keep friendship with him, maybe plant a few ideas in his mind that would help both me and the people who would be his slaves in the years to come. I might even be making things easier for Alice.

It’s horrifying, isn’t it? Dana not only must fight to stay free and alive in an environment inimical to that imperative but also bears the burden of trying to make things better for those who will both follow her (as time traveler) and produce her (as ancestors). She must be extraordinarily careful lest she change the past in a way that negates her future present (this stuff is hard to write about intelligibly). And she must grapple with how difficult it is to be the guardian of a child raised in a society that enslaves Black people and infantilizes women. It’s sort of an ethical double-bind wrapped within a temporal paradox.

I read this passage after listening to an episode of a podcast titled Hear to Slay, by Roxane Gay and Tressie McMillan Cottom. They label it “the Black feminist podcast of your dreams,” and it is very well worth listening to — fun, incisive, serious, and informative all at once. I’m a few episodes behind and today was listening to the February 1 episode entitled “It’s Our Country Too,” in which they chat with country music artist Rissi Palmer about country music and Black country music. They talk some about why Black women often do hard, extra labor, and in short, it’s so that others who follow can have it easier. Palmer came back to country music on her own terms in spite of getting screwed by the industry. At about the 30-minute mark of the episode, she says “I keep fighting, and I keep caring about it, because, while I’ve figured out a way to have a career and a life and be happy outside of it, people that look like me, and anybody else, if that’s what they want, they should be able to have it.” This seems to me to be directly related to what Dana’s doing in Kindred. Of course she is trying to survive, but she thinks too (and foremost) of Rufus’s safety and upbringing, of those generations between Rufus and the Dana of 1976, and of her husband Kevin (a white man). She is serving, to borrow a relevant phrase from Hurston, as the mule of the world, carrying the burdens of others.

Like many people in marginalized groups, Butler is carrying the burden herself, describing awful, painful details of enslavement in order to tell a story about the past and the legacy of being Black in America. Activists and other Black people who speak on social justice take on this burden not to improve their situations but to improve the situations of current and future others. This too strikes me as a sort of near-paradox: In order to put a stop to the horror and the damage it causes, people are made to immerse themselves in the horror and suffer the damage it causes.

A Confession

Purple neon lights that read "Is This Just Fantasy"
Photo by Mudassir Ali from Pexels

I have a confession to make. I’m a recovering genre snob. When I was young, I read mostly genre stuff — Grisham and Cornwell and Grafton and Rex Stout and King (though I reckon he’s considered literary by now). Then I went off to college and got real big for my britches. I read some philosophy and a lot of Victorian capital-L Literature (ignoring the fact that favorites like Hardy and Dickens were sort of the pulp of their time). I read Shakesepeare and Milton and for a while entertained ambitions of becoming a scholar of non-Shakespearean Renaissance drama. I tried to like the Modernist poets, and it turned out late in college and after that I did like the big postmodern tomes. Science fiction and fantasy, though? Meh, those were for people who preferred beach reads, not for a literary dynamo like me.

Occasionally in adulthood, I would condescend to read something non-literary. I read a lot of Martin’s Game of Thrones series, though whether I did so out of real interest or in anticipation of the television series I don’t recall. When trailers for the Narnia movies and the Lord of the Rings movies came out, I read those. When I learned that Philip Pullman was a heathen like me, I read his Dark Materials books. But these were just little side ventures. I dipped into these and then got right back to reading the great pillars of the canon.

Eventually I sired children, and eventually they grew out of board books and strictly little-kid books. I read aloud to them religiously, often for an hour or more a night. We read the Harry Potter books of course, and the Lemony Snicket books. We read bits and pieces of other series. I was exposed to a lot more fantasy and sci-fi by reading to my kids. I read aloud fully half of the Wheel of Time series before wanting a change of scenery. I read Lord of the Rings a few times. We read a lot of McCaffrey’s Pyrne series. And we read the first several books in Brandon Sanderson’s pretty marvelous Mistborn series together. In a fit of nostalgia (for I had read these when I was young), I dipped back into Rex Stout and some of the hard boiled detective fiction writers a few years ago, and having seen that sometimes fantasy and sci-fi and detective writing could be engaging and lovely and not just pulpy after all, I started going out of my way to read more of it in earnest and for my own sake rather than for that of my kids.

N.K. Jemisim was an obvious contemporary pick. Her Broken Earth trilogy is great, my favorite (especially the first two books) of all of hers. Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series (YA books) are worth a read. LeGuin of course is worth a read; I’ve got a lot more of her to read yet, but I especially enjoyed her Earthsea series. In other kid’s books, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series was a treat. Some of William Gibson’s books I enjoyed, and of some of Dick’s. Stephenson is spotty for me. A few years ago, my son wanted to start playing Dungeons & Dragons, which I had never gotten into as a kid. I learned how to play and started reading some relevant fantasy, notably R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt series, which I enjoyed quite a lot. I had read Dune not too long after college and reread that again (to my son, but also for myself) in the last couple of years.

So, I have become, if not a convert, at least a willing and open-minded reader of genre fiction. I’ve found a lot of these books a real pleasure to read, and many of them aren’t as light or noncerebral as I might’ve imagined when I knew everything during and shortly after college.

Still, I find myself instinctively assuming that fantasy and science fiction will be light or easy reading — more craft than fine art — and I think that colors how I approach them. That is, instead of automatically looking for what’s ingenious or lovely in the writing, I think I find myself looking for what’s simple or straightforward in the writing and perhaps sneering a little at it. Because I think of genre fiction as being driven by plot more than by aesthetics or capital-L Literariness, I’m more likely to read right over elegance or economy of language in these books. When reading McCarthy’s The Road, I might think of the language as spare and solemn and thus evocative and fitting given the austerity and general quietude of the book. But I might unfairly read similar prose in a genre book as merely utilitarian or simplistic by default.

These are the biases I’ll have to self-consciously push against while reading Butler’s work. She is a writer of genre fiction in my mind, and I’ll have to keep nudging aside my tendency to dismiss in her writing what I might see as significant in the writing of an author I’ve been told writes literary fiction. The first step to recovery, it’s said, is to admit that you have a problem. I here admit it. I’d like to recover. And I hope that reading some of Butler’s books along with a community of careful readers will help me pay attention in this fiction to the things I might look past otherwise and help me put aside once and for all my ridiculous knee-jerk snobbery.

Octavia Butler

A few weeks ago, I asked about spinning up another group read, and based on the comments and my own interests, I’ve decided to host a group read of some Octavia Butler books, Kindred, Parable of the Sower, and Parable of the Talents. I read the second of these a few years ago and felt pretty meh about it, enough so that I didn’t read the follow-up. I’ve not read Kindred. My hope is that by reading these along with you smart folks, I’ll learn what I missed in Parable of the Sower and make sure I give the other two a fair shake.

Pictured above are the editions I’ll be using, but each is broken up conveniently into sections and subsections, so it shouldn’t matter too much which edition you get. Any who have written here before are most welcome to do so again. If you’ve not written here before but think you could add a neat perspective, please reach out to me in the comments or at infinitezombies at gmail. I would love particularly to include the perspective of a person or people of color (generally, not just for these books!).

If there’s interest at some point in a discussion via Zoom, perhaps we could do that (I’m sure we all need more Zoom in our lives), but I’ll play that by ear. I might also set up a Discord server if a few people express interest in such a thing.

Here’s a proposed reading schedule:

DateBookSection
March 1, 2021KindredRead through “The Fall”
March 8, 2021KindredRead “The Fight”
March 15, 2021KindredFinish the book
March 22, 2021Parable of the SowerRead 2024 and 2025
March 29, 2021Parable of the SowerRead 2026 – 2027 (through ch. 18)
April 5, 2021Parable of the SowerFinish (2027 ch. 19 – end)
April 12, 2021Parable of the TalentsRead 2032
April 19, 2021Parable of the TalentsRead 2033
April 26, 2021Parable of the TalentsRead 2035 through ch. 18 (2034 is skipped, apparently)
May 3, 2021Parable of the TalentsRead 2035 ch. 19 – end

If anybody more familiar with the books than I am suggests that that schedule is too ambitious or moves along too slowly, I may adjust it. Dates are the dates by which I’ll figure it’s safe to write spoilers about the given sections.

Hope to see y’all as we dive in come March. If you’ll be reading along and have the means and a local or independent book shop you can patronize, please do. Bezos is doing just fine without us.