Octavia Butler–described by Vibe as “do[ing] for people of color” what William Gibson did for “young, disaffected white” speculative fiction fans–unfortunately passed away in 2006. But before she did that, she wrote a dozen or so novels and a couple collections of short stories, primarily science fiction. She described herself as primarily a novelist at one point, although she started as so many authors do with a short story publication in the early 1970s. Over her career, she won a handful of major awards, including Hugos, Nebulas, and a MacArthur Genius Grant. She is primarily known for tackling social issues unflinchingly through her works, and Fledgling, a solo novel published about a year before her death, is no exception.
Fledgling is Ms. Butler’s foray into the vampire-novel genre. The main character–also the narrator–is Shori, a young vampire who survived a vicious attack on her family that left her very much injured and suffering from amnesia. The rest of the story details her fight to save her family, and her re-learning of what exactly she lost by not remembering the rest of her life.
I probably should have been tipped off by the quote from Gerald Jonas of the New York Times on the back of the book, saying that, “[Butler] never asks easy questions or settles for easy answers.” Since I was not, and being that I know I’m not the only person who wouldn’t want to be blindsided by this, I should mention that Shori, the main character, is 53 years old in actuality, but looks like she’s ten or eleven. Before we learn that she’s fifty-three, she engages in consensual (on her end, at least; it might be considered ‘dubious’ consent on his end) sexual activity with a 23-year-old man. He doesn’t know she’s actually fifty-three, either.
Now, again: she’s fifty-three, and more importantly, she’s a vampire, who are in this mythos an entirely different species that may have evolved simultaneously with humans on Earth. (They call themselves the Ina.) It’s perhaps ridiculous to apply my moral code to them, but of course, Butler intended this discomfort. It’s intended on multiple levels; Shori makes almost everyone in the story uncomfortable for many, many reasons.
She’s actually an experiment in genetic engineering: the Ina want to be able to go out in the daytime, so they are experimenting with including human DNA along with theirs. Shori has human DNA that makes her shorter than most of the female Ina. She’s also dark-skinned–that is, her human DNA is from a woman of color. Some of the older Ina are not sure she qualifies as a proper Ina. She’s also precisely at the stage in her development where she’s starting to make sexually-mature male Ina uncomfortable because they crave her as a mate (in a sort of Lolita fashion, only actually biologically explainable). She makes humans uncomfortable because she is stronger and faster than they are, and in some cases makes them uncomfortable because they desire her even though she looks like a child. Basically, no one is comfortable around Shori, and why should Ms. Butler let the reader be any less unsettled?
Ms. Butler uses this book to answer the question of what are the Ina, through two major methods: Shori’s amnesia, and Shori herself. The amnesia allows her to be told things she probably should already know, and thereby the reader can learn these things. We learn history, language, and basic societal structure this way. Shori herself provides for more metaphysical questions: is someone who doesn’t look like how we expect, maybe because of some DNA changing or manipulation, still a member of that group? The Ina are largely tall, thin, pale white people. Shori is thin, but short and dark, and it is actually at least partially her looks that cause the conflict.
This is actually the first book I’d ever read by Ms. Butler, which is a shame, and I’ll definitely be looking for more. Her writing style has been described as spare, and that’s certainly true, but that doesn’t mean that she leaves any words out. It was an easy read in terms of language, but a little difficult in terms of questions raised. This is a vampire book, I think, that would definitely be interesting to those who don’t like vampire books commonly, but I’d definitely say it’s for older YAs and adult readers due to the need to handle the sexual content in a mature fashion. 5/5 stars.