Fledgling: Love and relationships examined through vampirism

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsFledgling by Octavia Butler speculative fiction book reviewsFledgling by Octavia Butler

In some ways there are superficial resemblances between Fledgling and the last vampire book I read, Let the Right One In: both books have as their star apparently pre-pubescent vampires who have ‘complicated’ relationships with their human companions. In John Ajvide Lindqvist’s case it was a Renfield-like adult who was enamoured of the vampire-child for whom he obtained blood and the young boy who becomes a part of her life. In the case of Butler’s book the vampire in question, Shori, isn’t even only apparently pre-pubescent… according to vampire physiology she is in fact still a child, though that still translates to her being much older than her appearance would suggest (around 52 years old in fact). Despite this fact the relationships she has with the humans around her bear all of the appearances of a pedophilic relationship, at least from the outside.

You see, in Butler’s take on the vampire mythology the Ina (what vampires call themselves) are not undead. They don’t actually know what they are, whether it might be an off-shoot of humanity or an alien race, but they are incredibly long-lived, are harmed by direct sunlight, and require blood (preferably human blood) to survive. So far Butler follows the myth pretty closely. Where she deviates to the greatest extent is around the relationships that they have with their ‘prey’. Far from being nocturnal hunters out to slaughter as many human cattle as possible to feed their blood thirst, these vampires actually maintain a group of humans (called symbionts) who share their lives with the Ina and, in exchange for the benefits that Ina venom provides to humans, they give the vampire their blood, as well as personal and emotional companionship.

What benefits does the venom in Ina saliva provide? Well, longer life, for one: human symbionts live about twice as long as normal humans. They are also immune to most illnesses and tend to stay young through most of their lives as symbionts (depending on when they were ‘turned’ of course). The sex is also great. The mere act of being fed upon seems to provoke a reaction in the symbiont akin to the best sex you’ve ever had, and the Ina also like indulging in sex-play with their symbionts and the fact that they aren’t cross-fertile is just icing on the cake, right?

What’s the down-side? Symbionts become addicted to the specific venom of their personal Ina, and will soon go crazy and die without it. They also end up having an attachment to their Ina that is so close they cannot refuse a request (or order) made by them. Also, if they are the jealous kind, they will likely have an uncomfortable life in the Ina’s family since one Ina generally requires at least seven or eight humans to be his or her personal symbionts (or harem if you will) so there’s a lot of sharing… of everything… going on.

How does this all play out when the Ina in question is apparently an eleven year old Black girl whose first symbiont is a white male in his mid-twenties? I’ll let you decide. All I can say is that I enjoyed Fledgling from most angles. Butler’s idea that vampires would be more likely to shepherd the humans they require for survival instead of going on nightly gratuitous killing sprees made a heck of a lot of sense. I’ve always wondered what those vampires in stories where they are coming out of hiding and hunting down humanity are thinking: who are they going to feed on once they wipe out the human race, and why create an imminent resource shortage even if they plan on doing something about it in the long term?

Fledgling opens as Shori awakens in pain and confusion in a cave and immediately succumbs to her base instincts in order to survive. As she continues to hunt, feed, and heal she comes more to herself, but still has no memory of exactly who, or what, she is. Eventually she makes her way down to a nearby community that has been utterly destroyed in a fire. There are no bodies and she has no memory of the place, but thinks it may have something to do with her. Deciding to look for other people in the hope that they can help her, she eventually comes across Wright and finds herself instinctively attracted to him and ends up making him her first ‘symbiont’. Together they must learn exactly who and what Shori is and their questions lead them into dangerous territory, for it turns out that Shori was an experiment of some members of the Ina/vampire community: an attempt to graft Ina with human African-American genes in order to combat their natural weakness to the sun. Not all members of the Ina community were in favour of this and so Shori’s quest of discovery also becomes a fight for survival as she slowly tries to regain a semblance of what she was before her ‘accident’.

Any ick factor aside, I thought that Butler’s depiction of the relationships that developed between Ina and their symbionts was well done. There are obviously questions of freedom and choice involved here. After all, if you were chemically conditioned to love someone, to obey them, to be utterly devoted to them, what would it mean about any choice or any feeling you had for them? On the other hand, most symbionts are made aware of the implications of their union with an Ina before any final step is taken in the bonding… of course that might just be akin to saying they only give the addict a couple of doses of the drug and they aren’t yet technically dependent on it before asking them if they want any more. Still, I got the feeling that most of the relationships between Ina and symbionts were loving and ‘real’ and it was apparent that the Ina were just as dependent on their symbionts as vice versa, and not just for blood: the emotional bond seemed to go both ways.

So, does Butler turn love, devotion, and desire into purely biological responses and imperatives or could it be argued that even in human relationships they already are? How much of what we do and decide about those in our lives is truly ‘free’? How much is pre-determined by our biology, our experiences, and our background? Who can say what’s really behind that ‘spark’ that attracts you to one person and not another? It may not be Ina venom, but is it something any less chemically or physiologically induced? For some reason I just wasn’t as bothered by the venom element of the Ina-Symbiont bond. Maybe I’m just a submissive at heart.

There is of course also an investigation of race and purity in Fledgling. Not only is Shori visibly Black, a member of a human minority (though apparently to Ina that has no importance), she is a hybrid: a half-breed mix of Ina and human genes whose end is to produce a better, stronger Ina capable of overcoming the natural weaknesses and limitations of the traditional ‘pure breed’. So now we have Shori straddling an interesting dichotomy: on the one hand she is basically the product of a eugenic experiment (though one whose methods appear to have been benign) whose end goal is something that might be called a ‘master race’; on the other hand she is the victim of horrific persecution and bigotry for not being ‘pure Ina’ and her life, and that of those she loves, is in danger as a result.

Will you like Fledgling? I don’t know. I did, but I can see how many people would find it, as I mentioned above, problematic. Butler’s prose is fine, though nothing to write home about, and I found a few instances where I thought she over-described a scene (such as adding details about the kind of sandwiches and other paraphernalia they packed for lunch) in ways that seemed unnecessary. Overall, though, I found myself carried along with the story and thought that Butler did a very good job of both keeping the plot moving and doing it through the development of well-rounded and interesting characters. Ultimately Fledgling was for me a story about just that: characters and the personal relationships and growth that they experienced.

Published in 2005. Octavia E. Butler is one of the finest voices in fiction–period. . . . A master storyteller, Butler casts an unflinching eye on racism, sexism, poverty, and ignorance and lets the reader see the terror and beauty of human nature.-“The Washington Post Book World “Readers familiar with . . . “Parable of the Sower and “Bloodchild will recall that [Butler] never asks easy questions or settles for easy answers.”-Gerald Jonas in “The New York Times “Fledgling, Octavia Butler’s first new novel in seven years, is the story of an apparently young, amnesiac girl whose alarmingly unhuman needs and abilities lead her to a startling conclusion: She is in fact a genetically modified, 53-year-old vampire. Forced to discover what she can about her stolen former life, she must at the same time learn who wanted-and still wants-to destroy her and those she cares for and how she can save herself. “Fledgling is a captivating novel that tests the limits of “otherness” and questions what it means to be truly human. Octavia E. Butler is the author of 11 novels, including “Kindred, “Dawn, and “Parable of the Sower. Recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and numerous other literary awards, she has been acclaimed for her lean prose, strong protagonists, and social observations that range from the distant past to the far future.

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TERRY LAGO, one of our regular guest reviewers, is a Torontonian who, like all arts students, now works in the IT field. He has been a fan of fantasy ever since being introduced to Tolkien by his older brother when he was only a wee lad, though he has since branched out to enjoy all spectrums of the Fantasy genre and quite a few of the science fiction one as well. Literary prose linked with well-drawn characters are the things he most looks for in a book. You can see what he's currently reading at his Goodreads page.

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One comment

  1. I haven’t read this one, but I will now! This is what Butler does that I love — on issues that we tend to take for granted, she flips them around. She is always dealing with the moral questions of power, and it’s never a comfortable take with an easy answer at the end.

    Thanks for reviewing this!

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