Seven Stories Press, 2005, 317 pages
Shori is a mystery. Found alone in the woods, she appears to be a little black girl with traumatic amnesia and near-fatal wounds. But Shori is a fifty-three-year-old vampire with a ravenous hunger for blood, the lost child of an ancient species of near-immortals who live in dark symbiosis with humanity. Genetically modified to be able to walk in daylight, Shori now becomes the target of a vast plot to destroy her and her kind. And in the final apocalyptic battle, her survival will depend on whether all humans are bigots-or all bigots are human.
Octavia Butler died in 2006. I am sure she had many, many more books in her, and the world was robbed of her talent. There is a reason she is still a towering presence in the SF community, and it's not just that she's the one black female author most SF fans can name. She was, in every sense, a genius, and her books show it, and they show it in a way that does not make itself apparent in her prose but in the meaning of her words. Her books might be thought of as "issue books," which is to say that racism and sexism and classism and other social justice issues are always a big part of the narrative, but they never read like A Book About Racism or Why Slavery Is Bad. The issues are there, not hidden at all, not even a little bit subtle, but they are ingredients in the story, not the story itself.
Fledgling was Butler's "vampire novel," and she takes all the vampire tropes and subverts the hell out of them. It is probably not her best work: at times, it read almost too simply. Butler's prose is always sparse, but in this book, the sentences are often little more than simple declaratives. I think this was deliberate, as it's told from the point of view of Shori Matthews, a "child" who spends the entire book in a state of amnesia, trying to figure out the world around her. Her reactions and perceptions are very direct and straightforward, though not to say dumb or without nuance.
This book could sit comfortably next to YA novels for the simplicity of its prose and easily digested pages. Oh man, Octavia Butler's books are perfect for the YA crowd, because they have all the glittery sex appeal and speculative gloss that dominates the genre, while being approximately a thousand times deeper and better-written than anything that combines "vampire" with "YA."
The thing that puts Fledgling firmly outside the realm of YA, though, is that there are a whole lot of problematic sex, power issues, and racial bigotry, and Butler never hands you any answers. You have to actually think and process what's going on, which hardly any YA book makes you do.
Shori, the main character, is not really ten: she's 53, and she's a vampire. But she has the body of a ten-year-old girl and she has no memories and does not even know what she is. Some guy happens to be driving down the road when she's staggering along, injured and amnesiac, and he invites her into his car. Already he seems to be enamored of her when she bites his wrist.
"It doesn't hurt anymore," he said. "It feels good. Which is weird. How do you do that?"
"I don't know," I told him. "You taste good."
"Do I?" He lifted me, squeezed past the division between the seats to my side of the car, and put me on his lap.
"Let me bite you again," I whispered.
He smiled. "If I do, what will you let me do?"
I heard consent in his voice, and I hauled myself up and kissed the side of his neck, searching with my tongue and my nose for the largest blood source there.
Then she bites him, and he fondles her (and is disappointed that she doesn't have breasts, so apparently he's not a pedophile by nature?), and they go to his home and have sex.
So, if anyone else wrote a book in which a ten-year-old having sex with a grown man is presented in a positive light, I'd go "Eeeeeewww!" and back away slowly. But I'm willing to give Octavia Butler the benefit of the doubt, and read on.
Later, Shori still doesn't know what happened to her, only that everyone she was living with died in a fire that left her so badly injured that she recovered with no memories. She has figured out a little bit more about how her powers work, and Wright has figured out a little bit more about what he's gotten himself into.
He was beginning to understand his relationship with me — as I had already begun to understand it. "Because I bit him, he'll obey me," I said. "He won't hurt me if I tell him not to."
He fingered the place where I'd last bitten him and stared down at me.
I took a deep breath. "I think you can still walk away from me, Wright, if you want to," I said. I wet my lips. "If you do it now, you can still go."
"Be free of you?" he asked.
"If you want to be free of me, yes. I'll even help you."
"Why? You want to get rid of me?"
"You know I don't."
"But you want to help me leave you?" He made it a flat sentence, not a question.
"If that's what you want."
I took a deep breath, trying to stay alert. "Because I think... I think it would be wrong for me to keep you with me against your will."
"You think that, do you?" Again, it wasn't a real question.
So I didn't bother to answer it.
Butler leaves everything lying beneath the surface. Shori has already bitten Wright multiple times and he's thoroughly... smitten? Enthralled? In love? with her. Technically, what she says may be true, he could walk away now and she could break her hold over him, but how likely is it that he would make that choice? Does he really have a choice? Does Shori really believe he does, or is she just rationalizing to herself that she gave him a choice?
You may be able to gather that I found this book rather disturbing. I was not entirely sure what Butler was trying to get across with the human-vampire relationships. I half-suspect she just wanted to make you uncomfortable, but I also suspect she was thinking about how messy power dynamics can be in real-life relationships, where people often have choices that are not really choices, or choose relationships that are objectively bad and unhealthy and yet somehow work for them.
Shori eventually meets up with other vampires. They call themselves Ina, and they are actually a second species, living among humans. Butler's worldbuilding is both detailed and sparse, like her writing: through the very smart device of an amnesiac Shori having to be told everything about her people, we learn about the history and biology and culture of the Ina, who are really very much like humans, just with many of the traits of traditional vampires. Ina themselves don't know their true origins; they have a religion with a creation myth involving a Goddess, but like humans, most of them don't really take it seriously anymore. The more scientifically-minded among them believe that humans and Ina must be parallel branches of evolution, while the more woo-woo Ina have come up with theories involving their being the descendants of space aliens.
Now, another writer would build on this and turn Ina society into this big complicated hive of factions and feuds and conspiracies and enough material for a twelve-book series. Butler just mentions the details of the Ina-human symbiotic relationship and Ina law and their language and books that go back 10,000 years in passing, telling us only what Shori learns as she learns it. She creates an entire race and carefully maps it to every vampire trope there is in a believable manner, makes them all interesting individuals who are as varied and non-stereotypical as humans, and all of this serves only as the background for what amounts to a courtroom drama in the final third of the book.
So, great vampire story. Great story, period. Not quite as deep or profound as some of the other Octavia Butler novels I have read, but still thought-provoking.
I found the writing a little too simple at times, even given that it was meant to represent the thought processes of a memory-impaired child. As if Butler had stopped even trying to do anything clever with language.
I did not quite buy the "racism" of the bad-guy Ina. Racism against humans, and against a "mongrel" half-Ina hybrid, maybe, but we are told earlier (admittedly, by other Ina) that they don't think about race the way humans do, and from what we can see of them, that seems to be true. Ina are all tall and pale, but they don't seem to particularly care about human ethnicity; we see humans of different races as symbionts, and the Ina don't distinguish between them. So when Shori's enemies start hurling human racial epithets at her because of her dark skin (the result of having a human mother), it strikes a discordant note, as if Butler just wanted to make the bigoted Ina extra-bigoted: "Not only are they Ina racial supremacists, but they hate n*****s too!"
And lastly, like I said... sex with a ten-year-old. Okay, a fifty-three-year-old. Who has the body of a ten-year-old. Shori boffs all of her symbionts and basically betroths herself (and makes out with) much older Ina males, and it's all treated as perfectly normal. Which it is, for Ina, but if ever there was a book that would be hard to put on screen, it's this one.
Verdict: Octavia Butler
And boy am I sucking at my Mount TBR challenge. This is only the second book I've picked off of it this year.
Also by Octavia Butler: My reviews of Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents.
My complete list of book reviews.