Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review: Fledgling, by Octavia E. Butler

[This morning, I upended a mug of coffee all over my grandfather's old desk, splashing my computer, a small stack of books, and all of the usual office detritus.  I mean, usually I reserve that sort of thing for work, where I can dramatically imperil valuable documents instead of 1950s scholastic-grade oak.  But apparently I've grown weird about books, and maybe this was nature's way of telling me to write a couple of those up and put them away.]

Fledgling, in 2005, was published just a little bit ahead of the modern wave of attractive, socialized fictional vampires.  It's similar on its face to all the Twilight clones, but unlike most of the selections from the Paranormal Romance section, this one still feels like an innovative concept, turning a traditionally supernatural relationship into an evolutionary one.  (And unlike I imagine those selections to be, this one is very well written.)  The Ina, as they're called in the book, have been on the earth for as long as humans have, existing in symbiosis with select human individuals.  They live longer than us (and believe themselves wiser), have very low birth rates, and are gifted with more intense strength, dexterity, and senses (especially scent), with the attendant animal-like compulsions to feed, breed and sleep, which, as with their sister sapients, they arrange their society to accomodate and govern.  They're light-sensitive, they require human blood for nourishment, and with proper care, they can heal like Wolverine.  So standard vampires, more or less, except with a more compelling backstory, and a more interesting relationship to people.  Their venom is intoxicating--it feels gooood for us humans to let blood--and it creates dependency, basically mood-altering people into a state of loyalty, contentment, and (not counting the addiction) physical health.  The Ina maintain long-term partnerships with their symbionts, ranging from something rationalized as mutual benefit, to the relationship of an ant to an enslaved aphid.

And now enter the protagonist Shori, a pubescent Ina (looks 12, but is in fact in her fifties) who possesses some genetic advantages due to experimental interbreeding.  Notably, she has dark skin that protects her in the daylight, but she's also improved in her Ina-ness compared to the rest of them--faster, stronger, more desirable scent, more intoxicating saliva, an objectively better specimen. 

You will have perhaps noticed that in a few strokes, Butler has transformed an overused fantasy trope into a complicated question of race, power, sexism, sexuality, consent, agency, and morality. 

It's a highly accessible read, too.  In the opening pages of the book, Shori wakens from a near-death injury, without her memory, amid corpses, ashes, ruins.  What happened to her?  What's her place among her kind?  It's a fairly linear (if somewhat episodic) path to answer those questions, and the prose doesn't wander too far off into the philosophical depths, even though Butler's given herself every opportunity to do so.  Shori herself is a sympathetic outsider, and her personal stakes are high enough to keep the plot chugging.  Focusing on the better people of either species, and pushing the really incorrigible brand of racism onto the snooty vampire elite, dodges a lot of the challenge for readers.  (Or at least for white readers--I'd be very curious to know how this book reads from an African-American perspective.) 

But the thing is, this story would have failed without a strong and nuanced understanding of those big themes, and they provoked a strong emotional reaction in me.  I left it disappointed how the adult Ina couldn't avoid the same traps of prejudice and patriarchy that have ruined so much of human history.  I liked Shori, but I couldn't let go of how damn patronizing she was toward her harem, or how her first symbiont was not a willing addition to it, how his intellectual antipathy toward obedience and revulsion at sexualizing a child's body had no chance against Shori's vampiric love juice.  I was affronted by the idea of people as pets, either abused or loved.  I was mad at the Ina for not creating a better society, and then angry, yet again, at my own damn species for the same reason.  It seems like a small novel to contain such big currents, but then, that's what makes it good.