Pictured: Fledgling by a bottle of Poison Girl, with dark purple flowers.
My love for Octavia Butler is deep and all consuming. I’m closing in on reading her entire oeuvre as soon as I nail down the Patternmaster series. She has stories about gene trading aliens, pregnant men, the destruction of America under a demagogic leader, among other thought experiments. She does with sci fi what should be done with sci fi: Explore social phenomenon and test the boundaries of human social expectations.
Fledgling (2005) is no different in this regard. It isn’t my favorite book of hers by any means (that award goes to Parable of the Talents), but it’s just so darn interesting that I’ve returned to it many times. The story follows a young vampire named Shori, who wakes in agonizing pain, nearly burned to death, and blinded, in a cave. As she heals and makes her way out into the world, she has to solve the murder of her family and try to navigate a society she has no memory of in order to get justice or her people.
Fledgling was supposed to be Butler’s “fun” vampire novel, and it was the book she wrote just before she died. (Too soon!) In spite of that, the novel continues to explore the concept of power in hierarchical societies, as well as biological interdependence through a completely original imagining of how vampires and their humans may interact. While some of this novel’s prose isn’t as polished as Butler’s other novels, the conceptual development is more than worth the read.
Fledgling puts more effort into worldbuilding than any vampire novel I’ve ever read. This is in part due to the fact that Butler ditches most of the spooky supernatural mythology in favor focusing on a potential simultaneous but separate evolution. The vampires, the Ina, have been on Earth since humans were roaming around in hunter/gatherer tribes. They share long lives, fast healing, keen senses, and an aversion to sunlight with vampires. This is more or less the end of the resemblance, except for the ability to control others, but that control comes from a biological connection with their symbionts rather than a mystical glamour. A venom coming with the vampire’s saliva that causes a physical addiction between the vampire and human and physical changes between mates. They separate their communities by gender, but take human symbionts of any gender. And they have to take many symbionts, in order not to take too much blood from any one symbiont. Pansexual, polyamorous vampires.
The Ina have mythologies and theories regarding how they came to the planet, with differing positions and beliefs. The world is well realized enough to support a full series. (Oh, how I wish there had been sequels. RIP Octavia Butler.)
Again, pansexual, polyamorous vampires. A pretty intriguing concept in a genre that has morphed from blatant homoeroticism to a narrow vision of heteronormativity. And beyond this, the humans within a family might have relationships with each other. There isn’t a huge amount of thought put into how an species as intensely sex-segregated as the Ina (based on biological urges) might consider same-sex within their own species… However, Ina don’t even think much about gender outside of having to mate someday or taking care of someone else’s children. The only thing really preventing homosexuality between them is the fact that women tend to live in communities of their own female relatives/men with their own male relatives, and visit between. That, and this only being one novel that could only explore our lead’s life with her own symbionts and her reaching for safety, justice, and family.
One thing that I really ought to warn about is that there is some matter of dubious consent going on. I think it’s meant to make you uncomfortable. Because she doesn’t have her memory, Shori can’t tell Wright that he’ll be addicted to her before it was already almost too late for him to try to leave her. At the same time, she looks, to him, like a prepubescent girl. While he knows this would be wrong, and the reality is that she is more than his equal and is closer to 50 than 12, it can still be cringy that the narrative is skirting that close to pedophilia. While Shori is not fully mature, within her culture, sexual mores are quite different, and what would be considered unconscionable in human culture is nothing more than the obvious arrangement for a species that need to feed and connect with their symbionts.
It’s kind of a deliberate mindfuck.
Again, Fledgling retreads concepts that Butler has delved into before. The way the Ina are explored alongside humans in a complex family unit upon which humans become dependent is reminiscent of the Xenogenesis series, but it extends the human “fatal contradiction” of having an inclination to both hierarchical dominance and interdependence through the Ina rather than just the humans. The Ina claim that racism isn’t a part of their society… but as the story unfolds, um, it clearly is. They aren’t so apart from human failings as they believe themselves to be.
Prejudice, racism, social structures, gendered behavior, all of these things are explored simply through the way the narrative stretches around the Ina and how human symbionts interact with them.
In addition, the story itself centers around themes of rebirth, justice vs vengeance, and the disabling loss caused by racialized violence. Shori is a heroine who is driven, weirdly ethical, and smart, but she is at the same time permanently maimed by her losses. She can never get back what she has lost. It is irrevocable. The only way out is forward.
Although I’m not thrilled with some parts of the narrative, the end, at the very least, does provide some measure of justice for Shori’s murdered families, though it is frustrating to get there.
I’ve read this book three times now, and my conclusions are the same:
1) I wish Octavia Butler had been able to give this book another draft to work on the repetitive prose. It may just be partly Shori’s means of narration, but it can grow irritating.
2) I wish Octavia Butler had been able to give us another installment in this universe.
3) Holy SHIT this concept is fascinating. Why don’t more people try to consider how different vampire societies might be from human?
4) Fucking suck it, Silks. And you too, Dahlman. Go eat a bag of moldy dicks and sit in the sun. (You’ll understand if you read.)
This review was previously posted at Midnight Voss’s Blog.