by Octavia E. Butler
When I propose books for my book club, I try to pick books that will open up a conversation beyond the book itself. (We are a ladies’ speculative fiction book club, so we invariably end up talking about how much we hate Steven Moffat, but I can’t rely on that! He goes quiet sometimes!) I also try to propose as much diverse sf as I can. In proposing Fledgling to the group, I was hoping that we could talk about race in speculative fiction, vampires, and, of course, Octavia E. Butler, who I had never read before. And that wasn’t for lack of recommendations. But I thought I’d managed my expectations very well, starting out with her last novel before moving onto the novels on my list.
(What if I read her canon back to front? I have no idea what that would yield critically, but because it’s something I’ve never done before, I think it’s worth a shot.)
But Fledgling is, I don’t apologize for puns, an odd duck. The first half of the novel follows our heroine, the amnesiac Shori, as she tries to keep herself and her family out of danger; the second half follows her through the lengthy trial to bring the murderers to justice. The first half moves along swimmingly; the second half drags like nothing else. When it comes to pacing and engagement, it comes off as more of a worldbuilding exercise than anything else. We spend the bulk of the novel with the Ina, as the vampires are truly called, and their symbionts, the humans on which they feed and have a (you guessed it) symbiotic relationship with. The sexual subtext is brought to the surface, the mystery unmystified, and the danger decreased.
In short, the traditional allure of the vampire is removed as Butler painstakingly lays out how the Ina organize themselves, their symbionts, and their households. This is why the first half makes for more gripping reading than the second half—Shori is acting all on instinct, discovering truths about herself as they are triggered by other characters. This brings up the issues Butler wants to engage with organically, but, frustratingly, she switches to dragging it out of the worldbuilding as the novel wears on.
Fledgling is thematically rich, tackling racism, miscegenation, and the inherent power imbalance between symbiotic predator and prey. Shori is the only black Ina, a product of an experiment using human DNA and Ina DNA, to which some of the Ina object to to the point of murder. In particular, the murderer specifically calls her—in court—little better than a dog. It’s an odd moment, especially because Shori’s allies prep her for a barrage of microaggressions, which would have highlighted how institutionally racist the Ina are as an insular community. But Butler seems unwilling to let the “good” Ina be racist, instead framing some of the Ina as old-fashioned.
The symbiont system is a little more interesting. One symbiont calls it the closest thing to a functioning group marriage she’s ever seen. An Ina cannot survive without their symbionts, whom they feed on, both physically and emotionally. (Symbionts is always plural; one Ina usually requires about seven.) In exchange, the symbionts live longer, healthier lives and, for the most part, experience sexual pleasure from feeding. Symbionts are powerfully attracted to the Ina who bite them, but binding a symbiont is a big deal. The negotiations necessary to maintain peace in these households begin to read less like an interesting view into a racially charged vampire world and more like tips and tricks from a friendly poly family.
Time marches on. Fledgling is nine years old. Positing a kinship system that includes functional group marriages doesn’t seem out there to me, because there are people in the real world that make that work every day. That’s the point of speculative fiction—pushing boundaries in the hopes that, one day, we can look behind us and marvel that the boundaries existed at all. But that’s also why some speculative fiction dates poorly.
All of this said, Fledgling reads oddly mostly because Shori is physically a ten year old girl through the novel. It’s established later that she’s actually fifty-three—which is still a child by Ina standards. Her age makes the various sex scenes she participates in intensely uncomfortable to read. (Especially when her first, Wright, points out that anyone seeing them will assume that he’s a pedophile.) And I’m not sure why she had to be so young, when she functions like a mature adult throughout the rest of the novel. It’s odd and a little repulsive.
I rented this book from the public library.