A Tunnel in the Sky

Like templetongate.net on Facebook  Follow @templetongate on Twitter
-Site Search

by Octavia E. Butler

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted December 27, 2022

Buy from Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.

It has been said that Octavia Butler was the first black woman to write science fiction. Not sure that is completely accurate, but she was certainly the first prominent one, and the most influential up to the current era of Jemisin, Okorafor, Hopkinson, etc. While many of her books are science fiction, she always considered this one to be fantasy. It involves time travel, but it is not through use of a machine or any other scientific means. The protagonist has no idea how and why it is happening, and they have no way to control it. The effect was used in order to tell a specific story, to place a modern-day black woman into the past to experience things her ancestors had to endure. The book is very good, but highly emotional, gruesome and depressing at times, but I can't imagine how it could have been any different. In these days of anti-intellectualism, and anti-education, it is likely on some school district's banned list. That means the people who most need to learn its lessons are those who will ignore it, or try to suppress it.

Dana Franklin is a writer living in Los Angeles in 1976. She is inexplicably drawn back in time to a Maryland plantation in 1815. The length of her visits to the past do not correspond to how long she is away in her present time. The first time no one else witnesses it, but on the second occasion her husband Kevin sees her disappear right in front of him, and while her perception is that she was gone several hours, he reports her return was only a matter of seconds, a minute at the most. She is not just a passive observer of the past, she becomes wrapped up in the lives of several slaves and their white owners, and it doesn't take long to discover she can be hurt in the past, and those injuries follow her back to the present. Kevin, having seen her disappear and reappear out of thin air, easily accepts her story, but also gets to experience it himself when he is holding her during one of her trips. Dana slowly develops a theory, based on memories of stories told by her mother, grandmother, and aunt, and by going through an old family Bible, which listed several generations of ancestors, their births, deaths, marriages, etc. She is sure one of the girls she meets is an ancestor, and if that is correct, that slave's future child had been fathered by a white man.

Thus Dana comes to the conclusion that her trips to the past are to save the life of Rufus Weylin, in order for him to survive long enough to father her ancestor. Once that child is born maybe her ordeal will end. The trouble is Rufus is very careless and prone to accidents. The first time, when he is about five years old, he is drowning. The second time he has started a fire in his bedroom, the third when he falls from a tree and breaks his leg. How many times will he put himself in danger before he wises up? Or will he continue to be reckless knowing Dana will always come to save him? He recognizes Dana each time, even though for him several years have passed, while it's only a few days or weeks for Dana in 1976. On more than one occasion Dana contemplates killing him to end the cycle, but always stops herself since his child has yet to be born. She hopes to help in his education so he grows up differently than his father Tom, who is not only a harsh taskmaster to his slaves, he is also belligerent and cruel to Rufus and his wife Margaret. Something else that doesn't help is that the girl who is to bear his child hates Rufus, and would not come to his bed if not for the fact she would be severely punished, maybe sold off to someone even more cruel otherwise.

The book's prologue shows Dana's last return to her present, where she has to deal with the most severe injury suffered yet. Since she can't explain how the injury occurred, Kevin is the suspect. There is a parallel between Dana's life and that of her ancestress Alice; she hasn't had any children yet, but Kevin is white, so they have had to deal with a certain level of scrutiny and discrimination. Dana had a hard time fitting into the past, being subservient as a black woman should, free born or not. Kevin had an equally hard time holding his disgust in check when he was expected to participate in the subjugation of slaves. A very powerful indictment against slavery, and the notion of white supremacy. No matter how many times stories of this nature have to be told, they will always be relevant, since those notions of superiority are still very strong. They don't want true history to be taught, since if it is they will feel uncomfortable. The more uncomfortable the better as far as I'm concerned. Stories of this nature must be taught, and the forces against the truth must be shouted down.

Related link:
My review of the TV adaptation on Hulu.


We would appreciate your support for this site with your purchases from Amazon.com, Bookshop.org, and ReAnimusPress.


Octavia E. Butler

June 1979

Finalist for Locus

Purchase Links:

A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.