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.

11 comments:

Inkberrow said...

I've heard good things about Ms. Butler, and now from you too Keifus, so I'll assume this is higher-end stuff. But I must object to the suggestion that this book in 2005 was "slightly ahead" of the now-tiresome wave of vampires, werewolves and zombies in books, teevee and film, complete with oh-so heavy subtext concerning race, tribe and human society. The X-Men and Underworld film series alone predate 2005, and it's not as if they were groundbreakers themselves.

Heck, there's nothing new under the sun, say Stoker, Hugo, Shelley, and Grendel's journalling mother. And why stop at wondering how ever-precious African-Americans might react to Tales of Institutionalized Socio-Cultural Difference? I myself heave sententious sighs over the fellow who's got a buck fifty less in his wallet than I do. (Boy do I hate that guy with a buck fifty more, though!) My joy at seeing you back in the saddle, Keifus, is unaffected by this rant.

Keifus said...

Yeah, I looked up when "Twilight" was published (2006), and went with that as the moment it all went (ahem) batty.

Thanks, Ink. It's been six months, I'm surprised anyone even saw it.

Inkberrow said...

Zouy Lou e-mailed me you had a new review up. It's about time too. A writer writes, and that includes Keifus. We're far from "it all went batty" between your reading and Octavia Butler, whose work I've never read. Nor is a recent genre or motif unworthy just because it makes my ass hurt. By the by, how many books are on your current list for purposes of review here?


switters said...

[deleted]

So I guess what I'm trying to say is: If vampire saliva were an opiate, and I knew a vampire...

Inkberrow said...

THAT'S why I've been constipated for the last thirteen years!

Keifus said...

You guys are the best. You know, I wouldn't even have a path to follow Inky into TMI-town if it weren't for that commercial currently unsettling me out of my Sunday football torpor. Have you seen this one? Apparently it's supposed to be addressing constipation, and not the giant terrifying presence that follows pain-killer users through every waking moment of their lives. Maybe for their next ad, they can make an evil monkey named Opioid, who smiles with toothy detachment at the chirpy piano music as he rides that poor woman's back everywhere...

Yeah, so two more on the queue (and both of these are also heavier than I really wanted on the deep questions of coersion and free will), and then a third that I'm interested to start reading.

Inkberrow said...

I cannot in good conscience accept the moniker "the best" anywhere besides the marital bower, Keifus, though it is my decided pleasure to be, er, regular here. I hope Tuck's Medicated Wipes do not mean to you and Switters what they have come to mean to me.

My goodness, I have seen that very commercial more than once, and it bothers me. It tasks me. First off, simply the way it looks, the drawing, the lines, plus then the content, make me expect the words "Robert Smigel's TV Funhouse" to emerge at any moment. Then the horrible be-legged capsule Opie has no face, whereas the doctor's instructional figure has no genitals, even if the small bowel is pleasingly rendered.

Meanwhile, one entry every several months is unacceptable, sirrah. To the extent I'm empowered to evaluate and direct your priorities, that is....

switters said...

Watching American football brought to me live from London, I'm told buying a Dodge means I'm as revolutionary and heroic as Catnip Everclear. And the circle is complete.

Keifus said...

Catharsis Innerclean: giving up everything in the battle to free the last mu receptor!

switters said...

2nd Ink: 5 months (if I'm counting right) is too long. (I broke down and bought the entire Aubrey/Maturin series.)

Inkberrow said...

Yes, besides Keifus' already-existing reading list, plus Aubrey/Maturin, I'd like reviews of the Balzac oeuvre as well as Trollope's Palliser and Barsetshire novels. Keifus will need to take a leave of absence from work instead of from this blog.