Kindred – Dang Good SF

Wow! Kindred was great! I give it all the stars!!!

This is so much closer to what I wanted to be reading for my Song Cycle Read-a-thon. When I made my initial list, I had a lot of Important works on there. One of the things I love about SF is that it is firmly rooted in the time it is written; it extrapolates from contemporary technology and culture and asks “what if?” At its best, it shows me other ways to look at things, gives me a road map of what I might do in a given situation, places me gently in the shoes of the “other”. Because Important SF books are often only permitted into the canon once they are old enough to be respectable, the starting point of the extrapolation may be woefully behind our current mores. Look at the central thesis of “Herland”, which seemed to be arguing against the prevailing culture which worshipped women as mothers in lip service only, by saying “what if we truly worshipped Motherhood?” instead of “what if women’s contributions to family, society, art and commerce were acknowledged and respected?”. Of course, I am looking at this through the lens of someone who learned to love reading at the opposite end of the 20th century in which “Herland” was written, but I think whether a text holds up in the canon of Important Feminist Literature or should be included as contextual reading for Women’s History is a debate we might wish to have.

So onward to Kindred, with a little background on the author. Octavia Butler was an African-American author born in 1947, and raised in Pasadena. She came from a working-class background and worked to put herself through community college with an Associate of Arts with a concentration on History. While she took some writing classes through UCLA extension courses, she was largely a self-taught writer, working temp jobs and attending writing workshops while continuously writing. She sold short fiction as well as novels, and her prose is transparent and lovely. Her works all fall under “Speculative Fiction”, but rather than concentrating on technology and science, they often focus on what makes us human – both good and bad – what makes us form communities, how we organize ourselves in hierarchies, and how science might change the way we already relate as a society.  In 1995, she was the first Science Fiction writer to win a Macarthur Foundation “genius” grant. Butler described herself as “…a pessimist if I’m not careful, a feminist always, a Black, a quiet egoist, a former Baptist, and an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.” Sadly, Ms. Butler passed away in 2006, but she left us lots of wonderful books and stories.

“Kindred” is a story of time-travel, but it’s also a story of American history. Edana Franklin and Kevin Franklin have just moved into their first home together in Southern California. In the midst of loading up the new bookshelves, Edana (or Dana, as she prefers) becomes dizzy, falls to the floor and finds herself transported to a rural area where a red-headed boy, Rufus Weylind, is drowning in a river. Dana resuscitates the boy, and is met with immediate suspicion from two white adults, one of whom aims a gun at her. She reappears in her new home, to a shocked Kevin. These episodes continue, each time the child is in mortal danger, and Dana quickly realizes that she is being transported back to a Maryland of the early 1800’s, and Rufus is a distant ancestor.

I don’t want to spoil the plot, because this is a great book that is also highly thought-provoking as well as entertaining. While there are no other similarities, I found myself feeling the same way I did when I first read “To Kill A Mockingbird” last year; why did no one who told me this was an Important book also tell me it was a wonderful book? But while TKAM was a meditation on race relations through White memoir, “Kindred” is an undeniably African-American perspective. A story can have many inspirations, and Butler herself cites a few. In an interview with the New York Times, Butler referred to her mother’s work as a maid, “…I didn’t like seeing her go through back doors. If my mother hadn’t put up with all those humiliations, I wouldn’t have eaten very well or lived very comfortably.” Additionally, the seed of Kindred may have been a discussion she heard when attending Pasadena City College in the mid-sixties, when she heard a male classmate criticize previous Black generations of “subservience” to whites. She didn’t see it that way – “They were fighting, they just weren’t fighting with fists, which is sometimes easy and pointless. The quick and dirty solution is often the one that’s most admired until you have to live with the results. I wanted to write a novel that would make others feel the history: the pain and fear that black people have had to live through in order to endure.”

Kindred delves into all layers of ante-bellum society; Dana and Kevin are an inter-racial couple in late 70’s California. Rufus Weylind, who inadvertently summons Dana each time he is near death, is the child of a plantation owner. He is also one of Dana’s ancestors. Dana gets to know many members of slave society but is always held slightly apart due to her tenuous position in the Weylind household. We see all the compromises people without power are forced to make, and how even some of the relatively weak people like Rufus’ mother, do not hesitate to “punch down” and hurt those with even less power.

But I’m making this sound like an Important book – a virtuous plate of steamed broccoli when you’d rather add some more cheese to the mashed potatoes – but I promise it’s also a great read. Lots of suspense, etc. But I will spoil one thing – Dana and Kevin survive. You learn this in the first chapter, so it’s not too much of a spoiler. I know it is often difficult for me to read a book if I know it will be incredibly depressing (see, Steinbeck’s “The Pearl”) so knowing that our protagonists at least survive was enough to take the edge off of some of the suspense.

So in conclusion, I highly, highly recommend this book. It will make you think (here – start with this one: “A Handmaid’s Tale” is not a future dystopia – for Black women, it is part of their history.) You’ll end it smarter than you started it. And once you’re done, you can go visit an exhibition of her papers at the Huntington Library.

Advertisements

Exciting News!

Update:

I am about 2/3 of the way through Kindred (you guys this book is so good!). Expect my review by the weekend.

I MET MY FUNDRAISING GOAL! That means a live-blog (not tweet – I have a really hard time marshalling my thoughts into 140-character sentences) of “A Handmaid’s Tale” prequel, “Fascinating Womanhood” (it is not actually a prequel). I promised swear-free coverage of that terrible book BUT have established a stretch goal of $350 to unlock my vast reserves of profanity – and believe me, this book is going to need every colorful Anglo-Saxon word at my disposal.

I will be testing out my phone/Bluetooth keyboard combo this weekend, because I’d really like to do the live blog at Ballona park, with my less-lazy Vox sisters, and I have neither the data plan for my tablet nor the thumb dexterity to express the horror that is “Fascinating Womanhood” on my phone.

Herland – What Makes a Woman?

Warning – Here Be Spoilers!

This book has been around for about a century, and there’s a good chance you were assigned to read it anyway. “Herland” does not have any Shyamalan-like twists, so reading this review will not mar the experience for you if you haven’t read it. In fact, it might help prepare you for a few random… let’s call them Speed Bumps Of Problematicalness (or SBOP).

I did not do a lot of research on this book. I knew of author Charlotte Perkins Gilman mainly from her short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which I found Poe-like in its ability to convey the horrific claustrophobia (and gas-lighting! whee!!) of its setting in clear prose. It was one of the first stories with that particular thread of horror that spoke to me, with a specific accurate viewpoint from the feminine experience.

This book is not a horror. It begins as a gentle satire of the colonialist narrative, told in first-person by a member of a three man exploration team from America who have just learned that a mythical land of women is in fact a reality. Humor and enlightenment are derived from the men and women trying to explain their cultures to each other.

First off, within about three pages I was unable to un-see this as a Star Trek away mission, with Jeff, a “Southern Gentleman” who views womankind on a pedestal as “Bones” McCoy, Terry, a hot-headed womanizer as Kirk, and Van, our narrator who believes he is the most unbiased and logical, as Spock. I found this to be an enjoyable way to read the story, and I would encourage anyone else similarly afflicted with fan-fic brain hamsters to do the same. It sure helped when I ran into some of those SBOPs, and I could conveniently blame them on Gene Roddenberry.

The Away Team are quickly captured by the women, and held in gentle captivity while a group of elders learn how turn of the century American society works. The men are more than willing to tout the wonders of mid-stage capitalism, proud of their masculinity and drive, while Van realizes with each boast that “our” society is much less advanced than Herland’s.

We never learn what the women call their own utopia, but the men refer to it as “Herland”. The women have a society going back about 2000 years, when a patriarchal system, wars and natural disasters convened and geographically cut them off from neighboring countries. The men all died off and the population began to dwindle, until one ur-mother produced five daughters via parthenogenesis. Each of these  five daughters bore five more daughters and so on, until the place was quite well populated. Rather than struggle, conflict and competition which the Americans believe makes their society superior, the women of Herland work cooperatively in a socialist Utopia.

Reproduction happens when a woman really, really wishes for it. As it is explained, the land could not support a five-fold increase with each generation, so at a certain point, the women agreed to only have one child, for the good of the community. Those who had “unsuitable” qualities, such as being quarrelsome or otherwise bad were forbidden by the state to reproduce. Eventually, they voluntarily took themselves out of the gene pool.

Sooo… you can see where these SBOPs start showing up. While the faults of post-Victorian society are well-explored, Herland is always presented by the narrative as a clearly superior Utopia. And yet there is a thread of eugenics (a popular, even respectable idea in the early years of the 20th century) woven through this story that made me deeply uncomfortable. The women are described as “Aryan”, with none of them darker than a tan white lady. They refer to the people in neighboring lands as “savages”.

Attempting to ignore the racism, I was still looking forward to how a matriarchal society would differ from the Victorian motherhood ideal exemplified in this article (go ahead and click through – I’ll still be here when you’re done) http://pictorial.jezebel.com/child-free-and-loving-it-a-turn-of-the-century-look-at-1794004492 Unfortunately, Herland seems to suffer the same narrow view of femininity as turn of the century US.

Herland denizens define gender by parental status; women are Mothers, men are Fathers. Even in references to non-human animals, they use Mother or Father where Female or Male would otherwise be used. The idea that a woman in Herland would not want to have children is not even countenanced. Every women wants to be a mother (unless they are so aberrant that they self-eugenicize) and that is each woman’s highest purpose. That the raising of the children older than one year is held in common seems to generate a lot of debate in the book, as if Gilman was trying to convince the reader that pre-school or daycare was not so radical an idea. However, I remained much more disturbed by the exaltation of Maternity Above All that was continuously praised throughout. I felt quite judged by an author who had been dead decades before I was born.

The next SBOP that I tripped appeared when the men were released from captivity and allowed to be selected by women as mates. Our hero, Van, spends so much time attempting to convince his partner, Ellador, that sex was a positive thing (at least I’m pretty sure that’s what he was referring to, with all the florid language about “the highest form of love”, and whatnot) and then learning to enjoy a celibate marriage as diverting and even exhilarating, and that also made me uncomfortable. Far be it for me, a contented asexual lady, to knock celibacy as some kind of prison, but as I recall, sex was pretty much its own reward, even moreso if you believe pregnancy and motherhood is the literal best thing that could happen to you. All the “convincing” started to sound like coersion, like you don’t expect women to actually enjoy the act, but c’mon, it’s how we demonstrate love!  it won’t hurt at all, just lie back and think of Herland (I’m paraphrasing). As much as such entreaties indicate Van really wouldn’t know about a woman’s pleasure, Ellador is not unique in her lack of sexual desire. There is no lesbianism in Herland, not because Gilman would never have been published by suggesting such things, but because the women never experience sexual desire. I don’t want to get crude, but assuming we are all the same species with the same anatomy, I find this as difficult to believe as reproduction via parthenogenesis.

By the end, Terry (the Kirk) attempts to rape his partner, which is rather satisfyingly put down by a group of women, and is expelled from Herland. Jeff/McCoy stays in Herland, having settled happy and with a pregnant wife. Spock and Ellador join Kirk in exile, and I understand there is a sequel called “Ourland”, which will follow Ellador and Van’s relationship. I can’t say I’m super-psyched to continue the story, but I’m glad I read this. The writing was charming, and the central frame-work of the story – that of the civilized White Man bringing “enlightenment” to benighted savages, and being shown his own ass in the process – was amusing and reminded me of a family legend that Our People in Samoa are responsible for some of the more specious observations Margaret Mead made, because they were messing with her. As someone who comes from a long line of sarcastic folks with a problem with authority, I have to say on this point I heartily approve of Gilman’s perspective. So maybe rather than reading the sequel, I’ll re-write it as my very own, doubly derivative Star-Trek/Gilmanverse fic, with childfree women, asexual men, and lesbianism for everyone!

Next Up: Octavia Butler’s “Kindred”.

Vox Femina Read-a-thon Ahoy!

Greetings, Vox supporters!

 

As part of the Vox Femina Song Cycle, I am reading five gynocentric Speculative Fiction books and reviewing them here. A few notes before I post my first review:

I am not listing these books as feminist, although I will be viewing them – as I view everything – through a feminist lens. Not all authors may be comfortable referring to themselves as feminists, some may feel that womanist is a better descriptor, some may be uncomfortable with labels at all. (n.b. to any feminist who bristles at the term “womanist” – please google. Many WOC feel that traditional feminism as it has been practiced does not address the needs of WOC.)

So what makes these choices Gynocentric? I looked for books by women, with main characters who are women. Inasmuch as I only had five choices, I tried to make intersectional choices; books by WOC, LGBT and other under-represented voices. With one exception, I did not go with “Important Feminist SF Literature” titles that often books that were extremely relevant and prescient a few decades ago did not age well. I understand contextualizing a piece of literature within the era it was written, but I read SF for entertainment and escape. Reading something that I constantly have to contextualize is academic, not leisure, work. While I may go back to some of the Important works, this is not the place for it. Also, there are a couple of really awesome books that I am leaving out (Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Jemisin’s Fifth Season and Smith’s Orleans) that I super highly recommend, but am omitting because I’ve already read them.

Up tomorrow: A review of the most “important” of the gynocentric SF books – “Herland”! Did I enjoy it? Yes! Did I want to go back in time just to give Charlotte Perkins Gilman the epic side-eye? You’re damn skippy!