Science fiction has handy gadgets, amazing technology, and futuristic dilemmas. It features lasers, spaceships, and aliens. It takes place on far-flung planets, unheard of galaxies, and ships traveling at light speed. It has plots with chase scenes, dramatic confrontations, and stunning vistas.
By any of those measures, Kindred by Octavia Butler is not science fiction. Though it does indeed have time travel, a feature we usually associate with the genre, can you really call it science when it happens without a ship or gadget and without any sort of will or warning? There is no attempt to discover, as in Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, what causes the incidents. No attempt to link it to genetics, to make it seem plausible and rational. It simply is. There is no mission, no sense of adventure, no sort of enjoyment or fun. The object is to survive.
One day Dana disappears from her home to appear on a riverbank where a boy is drowning. She saves his life, and in thanks, is faced with the barrel of a rifle. She's traveled from Los Angeles in 1976 to Maryland in 1812. It's an act she will continue to repeat, as she--a black woman--is again and again drawn back to the life of Rufus Weylin--the son of a plantation owner.
Taken from her present without warning, and trapped in the past until her life is seriously threatened, Dana has to learn to live in the harsh world of plantation slavery. It is a world where violence and cruelty are everywhere, and escape and agency are impossible. As her stays in the antebellum South grow longer, Dana and her husband find themselves questioning what is real, and if it matters as long as they survive. Playing the part of the slave, Dana struggles to deal with the simultaneous necessity of adapting to the nineteenth century and the horrific consequences that happen when she does.
Octavia Butler's recreation of antebellum Maryland is harsh and vividly rendered through Dana's eyes as she struggles to balance the world she has known and the one she has been thrust into. Inhumanity and integrity are constantly juxtaposed as Dana chooses to save Rufus, a boy of his time who will grow up to own other humans. Dana struggles to keep her sense of self-worth even as she carries out her duty. Kindred, by telling the story of one woman's time on a plantation, manages to encapsulate all the bitter truths about all who took part in slave society, and leaves us wondering just how much else of that time we have forgotten.