There are very few Afro-American science fiction writers, and even fewer of them are female writers, but they all have one thing in common: They write excellent fiction. Butler is not only no exception, she is one of the standard setters, and this work is a prime example.
This is a story of Dana, a modern Afro-American writer married to a white writer, who is drawn back in time to live with Rufus, plantation and slave owner in the period of 1815 - 1830, and also her distant ancestor. Though the mechanism by which she is forced back in time is never rationally explicated, this is almost immaterial, and Dana (and the reader) must simply deal with the transfer as a fact. But she is always drawn back at those times when Rufus is in danger of losing his life, from a near drowning to a contemplated suicide. When she helps him out of sheer humanitarianism, it leads to her having a rather strange position within his household, neither wholly slave nor anything close to being the equal of the whites. From this position, she can observe all the interactions between owner and slave, and at least initially be somewhat shielded from the worst of the living conditions of the slaves.
That shielding will not last, as Butler develops a powerful theme of how unbridled power leads to abuses that crush lives and hope, and just as much imposes character changes in the wielder and the recipient of such power. As a stark portrait of living conditions in that time, as a diatribe that exposes just how much has been conveniently forgotten about slavery and its demeaning, demoralizing effects, this work will evoke emotions of shame, rage, and empathy with all who are, through no fault of their own, caught in situations with very limited choices. This theme is just as much an indictment of male dominance as it is of slavery, just one more example of power wielded inappropriately.
The character of Dana is vividly portrayed, as she slowly changes from modern American to someone who accepts compromises of principal in the name of survival, till she is a person who can barely recognize who and what she was before these incidents. Rufus and his father are also very well delineated, and the personal interactions of Dana, Rufus, and several of the slaves drive much of the plot action. Somewhat less well shown is the character of Dana's husband, and his motivations and actions don't ever seem to gel into a full-bodied person, a pity as this could have been the third pole of her theme, the reaction of a modern, liberal white to these conditions.
Butler's prose is more than adequate to her task, often lean and starkly descriptive, but there are places where I felt she should have added additional detail, dwelt on some scenes in greater depth, in order to better bring out the true horror of the situation.
Butler does not have the recognition (or the sales numbers) of Toni Morrison, but with this book she shows that she belongs in the same company. Whether this book is read as obviously well researched historical fiction, as science fiction that meets the prime criteria of that field as a literature of ideas, or as a novel of character, it is prime fodder for thought, while engaging all of your emotions.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat