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(Review) Why Black People Don’t Time Travel

Reading 150Edana Peterson is a writer who works temporary jobs to make ends meet; during one of these jobs, she meets a white, blue-collar worker named Kevin Franklin and falls in love with him. Kevin rejects his racist family in order to marry Dana — not something that’s easy, but it was especially so back in 1976. As the newlyweds move into a small place together, Dana gets dizzy while having a conversation with her husband. The room begins to spin; her vision blurs. And suddenly, she’s in a river with a drowning child. She saves him, and in reward for her trouble she’s attacked by the boy’s mother and nearly shot by a white man wondering what she’s doing off of a plantation.

This is the first of a half-dozen incredible trips back in time and across the country for Dana, the protagonist of Octavia Butler’s seminal work Kindred. Over the course of the novel, she learns that she’s being pulled back through time to save a young man named Rufus Weylin, who turns out to be an ancestor living in slavery-era Maryland. However, Rufus’ calling her have massive and long-lasting effects on Dana and Kevin; the first-hand experience of American slavery leave deep and lasting scars on both of them that they struggle to deal with.

Kindred is essentially a fictionalized slavery narrative that does something vital — it recovers the true extent of the slave’s experience and contextualizes it for modern-day audiences. One of the greatest disservices that have been done to American history is the sanitization of this period. So many stories set during this period are “lightened” so that audiences don’t lose their stomach for the tale while still hopefully learning how difficult it was. But what that does is distance ourselves from the very thing we need to be connecting to — no matter how difficult it is, knowing exactly what happened to black Americans during slavery and who perpetrated these horrors is essential in understanding the social and psychological impact it had on the people and institutions of modern-day America.

Both Dana and Kevin see themselves as progressives of the time, but the forced confrontation of the reality of their history is still hard to take. Their experience gives them no choice but to re-examine the idea they had about slavery and the choices that people under that brutal regime had to make in order to survive. Kindred illustrates just how people could possibly come to accept the abuses they endured and why they did it; it gives shades to those “Uncle Tom” and “contented mammy” characters that were caricatured in stories like Gone With The Wind; and it restores agency to so many other people trapped in the huge social ecosystem of the Southern plantation. The slaves that Dana meets when she’s transported through time don’t belong to merely a few stereotypes; their rich inner lives shows us the vast array of responses to their enslavement and how those decisions came about.

Perhaps more than anything, Kindred makes me understand just how much black women in particular suffered under white patriarchal supremacy in the antebellum South and how much they continue to do so today. They were perceived as nothing but property by all of society, and were subject to the base desires and whims of their masters. When all of the world was arrayed against you, you had to think very carefully about how you rebelled; it wasn’t simply a matter of worrying about your own life, because you had to think about the lives of your children and family as well.

One of the most fascinating things about the novel is how the shared experience of Dana and Kevin affects their relationship. Even as they become separated across time and space, what they have to endure changes them. Kevin has to disabuse himself of several notions about the struggle of black Americans in both the slavery South and the more “enlightened” times of 1970’s Los Angeles. When he returns to his “world”, it’s clear that he can’t really absorb what happened and move forward. Combined with Dana’s trauma, the couple must struggle to build a life together as best they can. The novel ends on that difficult, unresolved, yet hopeful note.

I think that’s the ultimate lesson of Kindred; fully facing a difficult history will change you in ways that are irrevocable and possibly damaging, but ultimately necessary. We can no longer go on as a society thinking that we don’t have the scars we do. If we don’t pay attention to our collective wounds, they will continue to fester and grow infectious, poisoning the very life-blood of our society. This unwillingness to look at the legacy that was left for us by our ancestors results in the continued abuse against minorities of those in power; the persistent inability of our legal system to properly recognize how those abuses have been perpetrated, largely unbroken, to this day; and the unchecked, raw anger and resentment that so many of us black Americans feel for our brothers and sisters with different ideas, lives and stories as well as the broader society that we’re all struggling to integrate into.

Kindred teaches us that clear understanding of our history is difficult but also healing. We are not whole people; we’ve done and endured terrible things. Facing that teaches us to better grasp the decisions of others within that system, see how its consequences are still baked into our society and have more compassion and empathy for our ancestors and each other. Realizing the hell we were all in simply gives us better orientation to get ourselves out of it.

So, if you can, read Kindred. Precisely because it is difficult, and will change you.

 

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Book Review: The End is Nigh

Reading 150The End is Nigh (The Apocalypse Triptych, Book 1)
Edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey
Self-Published

My love of all things apocalyptic doesn’t know many bounds; chances are, if there’s the whiff of the end of days surrounding a project, I’ll at least have to give it a look. This has lead me astray in a few cases, especially once we got more and more apocalyptic projects off the ground (I’m looking at you, Revolution), but generally there’s always something worthwhile in apocalyptic work. Either we’re looking at the breakdown of society, revealing our relationship with it through that deconstruction; or we’re uncovering something surprising about us as people as traits emerge free from the binding of societal expectation. Really great apocalyptic fiction strips down complications to get to something fundamental, essential; they tell us what lies underneath all of us when you clear away everything that puts us into the positions we’re in.

When I heard about the Apocalypse Triptych, I was really excited. Not only do we get a great set of stories about a host of different apocalyptic scenarios, but we get a bunch of authors taking the scenario three each phase of the end: the tipping point where a problem spirals out of control; the point where civilization loses its fight against this threat; and what happens afterward, when the dust has settled and the survivors look out over an unrecognizable world. The triptych collection contains a collection of triptych stories, which I certainly haven’t seen done before.

The End is Nigh is the first collection in the series, focusing on the discovery of the threat to civilization. The threats range from the relatively common, like the impending asteroid in Jake Kerr’s “Wedding Day” or the disease apocalypse of “Removal Order” by Tananarive Due, to the truly weird — like the mass suicide depicted in “BRING HER TO ME” by Ben H. Winters or the slow but steady removal of our atmosphere in “Houses Without Air” by Megan Arkenberg. But whatever the cause of our demise, each of the 22 stories brings something new to the end. None of the stories ever feel like a retread of something we’ve seen before, even when dealing with well-worn tropes in the apocalyptic sub-genre.

Take “Wedding Day” for example. Kerr centers the tale around a couple who want nothing more than to get married before the asteroid hits, even though it might mean one person might have to give up her ticket to have a fighting chance in a shelter. The already-engrossing story edges towards the political, as the couple in question are lesbians who are caught in a sort of legal twilight that never had time to get sorted. It’s heartbreaking to see these two stuck where they are, all forward momentum stopped by society crumbling around them. Had they been married, one ticket would have saved both of them or some other arrangement could have been made. As it stands, the nature of their relationship makes things exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

In the bio-apocalypse of “Removal Order,” Due’s protagonist is a young black girl who’s trying to take care of her cancer-stricken grandmother as the medical system falters under the strain of an epidemic ravaging the neighborhood. So often we see these apocalypses through the eyes of people in positions of power who are either able to fight the inevitable or connected enough to escape it. Due’s tale reminds us of all the people who are screaming and dying in the background, those who don’t necessarily have a chance. It’s fascinating to see the familiar landscape of medical disintegration through those eyes.

The diversity of the protagonists aren’t all outright political; in “Spores” by Seanan MacGuire, the same-sex relationship is treated as normal, almost incidental, and the focus is instead on our hero’s struggle to deal with her obsessive-compulsive disorder during the first bloom of a killer that will quickly spiral out of control. Ken Liu’s “The Gods Will Not Be Chained” features an Asian family struggling to deal with the death of their father, and “Heaven is a Place on Planet X” by Desirina Boskovich sees the end through the eyes of a woman in a place of power over others, but still helpless in the face of what’s coming.

Even zombies get an intriguing twist. In “Agent Unknown” by David Wellington, a member of the CDC tracks down the spread of an illness that seems to make its victims hyper-violent, mindless killers. The answer to the riddle is effectively chilling, and sets the table for the inevitability of the fall of mankind. Almost every story here is a winner, particularly if you’re read a lot of apocalyptic fiction; either the cause of the end is scene through eyes that make it new again, or the mechanism for the destruction is so strange you have to wonder how they were even thought of.

The result is a collection of stories that are consistently surprising, engaging and tense. Some of them are clearly setting up for a continuation of the story in later volumes, so they don’t so much end as stop — “The Fifth Day of Deer Camp” in particular feels like an incomplete story, while “BRING HER TO ME” ends in a place that makes you impatient to continue the tale. “Break! Break! Break!” by Charlie Jane Anders is strange and full of energy, but by the time the story ends you’re left wondering if it even counts as pre-apocalyptic at all. These are all definitely worth reading, but it’s clear the structure has suffered in the attempt to break up the tale into three distinct parts.

Even still, the creativity on display in The End is Nigh is well worth the price of admission; I’m really looking forward to seeing how these stories continue and discussing the best, most frightening scenarios with people. If you’re looking for a mix of end-of-the-world stories that are challenging, involving and decidedly left-of-center, then this is the collection for you.

Interested in buying The End is Nigh? Go to the homepage for John Joseph Adams to get it in trade paperback or a variety of e-book formats!

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2014 in Novels, Reading, Reviews

 

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