Review: Octavia E. Butler: Kindred, Fledgling, Collected Stories

Octavia Butler has been on the top of my too read list for many years. I do not know why I hadn’t gotten round to reading her just yet, but I know that I couldn’t pass the opportunity when I saw this collection. I have only read the two novels so far, but they pack quite a punch. I have to take a break from it to think, but I look forward to reading the short stories and the essays to better understand Ms Butler.

Her writing style is uniquely her own, drawing you in intimately through the thought and emotional process of the protagonist. There is very little scenery description, and that sucked me right into the prose as I have aphantasia and therefore little patience for descriptions of things I have trouble visualising. The stories are very personal, exploring contradicting and difficult emotions, always making you face the power struggles of the world, advocating communication and making you horrifically aware of the barbaric injustices of the past and of today just because of a person’s skin colour.

I could not put down her books, and even though the pace was deceptively gentile, the tension was there to keep you wanting to know how it all ends. In both Kindred and Fledgling the hero is a black woman, and her life being threatened arises directly from that. While Kindred is a time travel book (can you imagine the horror of being a modern dark skinned woman transported back to the slave period in America?), Fledgling is about the first darked skinned vampire thanks to genetic modification integrating human genes into her vampire none-human body.

Both books deserve a lot of analysis and debate, but while Kindred was just plain amazing, I had a lot more trouble with Fledgling. I can understand that Ms Butler wanted the most symbolically powerless form of person imaginable as a hero: a black female child with amnesia. And obviously she wanted to turn all the world’s prejudices on their head, giving that child power. Including sexual power. And that’s where I could not sit happily reading that book.

I know it is metaphorical, I know Shori, the vampire child, is not meant to be human at all, but an alien creature who has a different biology/needs/culture (which by the way is amazingly well created and believable), I know she is actually over 50 years old, but only a child in her species too, looking like a 10 year old human. And sexualising a child is monstrous (obviously, why do I have to state that out?). That is the reason I do not know how to feel in general about Fledgling. So much of it is important in the xenophobia fighting front, the pansexual community also claims the book as important to them, but at the same time Fledgling builds and integrates in its storyline, and as a positive at that, something I am horrified with. Paedophilia is a horrendous crime still very much in existence, and not enough is done to fight it effectively. I am now the bearer of a terrible dilemma that right now I do not know how to deal with, and even after finishing the novel, and its powerful ending words, I cannot say if it was good or not.

It aims, I’m sure, at making readers uncomfortable but I can’t help but think if could have been achieved that in a little less shocking way. One that wouldn’t further hurt people that have been powerless victims too. I don’t want to end the review that way. Because Kindred was excellent on all levels, and held some essential messages, but I feel a little sucker punched, and I think there should be a fair warning to any reader. I will keep reading the stories, but I do think I might need a little pondering before I can go on. I’ll write a review of those.

In any case I recommend Kindred very highly, especially to Americans who need to face and accept their history so they can learn and become advocates of all human’s freedom, and not keep perpetuating that slave culture through the refusal to all-heartedly accept that Black Lives Matter and the use of foreign sweatshops. Whatever shore those practices continue on devalues all of our humanity. Ms Butler’s books looked at hard topics and in every single case she knew and showed coming to a decision about what to do was difficult and not unanimous, but the conversation had to be kept open.

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