Sci fi, fantasy and being female in a futuristic world.

Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling

Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling

Posted on by Lily

Spoilerific Review: Butler writes about a society of vampires far removed from the usual trope. Although they drink blood, the Ina live in gender segregated societies with polyamorous, part human, families. 

Despite the fact that vampires and innovative sexuality are two things high on my interests list, these were the features of the storyline that actually caught my attention the least.

Overall, I very much enjoyed reading Fledgling. It’s well structured, intelligent and creates an engaging society for our protagonist Shori to investigate. One of the notably brilliant features of this book is the exploration of racial issues, which I understand is fairly typical of Butlers work.

Shori is a black vampire, one of only a few, created through genetic engineering

Shori is a black vampire, one of only a few, created through genetic engineering to allow her to walk in the sun. More than that, she is part human to facilitate these genetic changes. The book starts with Shori lying in a cave, burned over most of her body with a severe brain injury that causes total amnesia. We later find out this damage has been caused by another Ina family who continue to make attempts on her life, citing racial purity as their motivation.

The component of this storyline that I find most intriguing is the way that Shori learns to navigate both cultures that she is apart of; the Ina, and humanity. Her first symbiont, Wright, tends to be the voice of humanity and their perceptions as a counterpoint to Shori’s analysis of the Ina culture re-emerging around her. When she meets Wright and he realises what she is, our first review of what it means to be a vampire is through his unworldly eyes; he is most often the character who struggles with Ina traditions.

However, Shori is continually challenged for her right to be seen as Ina because of her genetic heritage – ultimately the Ina is the group she identifies with. Butler cleverly introduces both real-life examples of racial issues (such as the slurs that are hurled at Shori), alongside less literal examples (such as learning to be a mixed race Ina).

Shori is continually challenged for her right to be seen as Ina because of her genetic heritage

I do, nonetheless, have some criticisms. Fledging leads us somewhat into shock and awe territory – it seems that wherever Butler can take a social construction and turn it on it’s head, she does – but not always with successful results.

When Wright picks Shori up a the beginning of the book, he notes that she looks to be between the ages of 10-12. In almost no time at all, they delve into a sexual relationship with one another. I’ve read many reviews of this book, hoping to be enlightened by an insight into this matter – while all reviewers note that they are uncomfortable with Shori’s sexual relationships, no one offers a suggestion as to why Butler made this decision for her character.

My best guess would be that Shori and the Ina culture are intended to be a lesson in respecting the differing traditions of other societies. Legally, America and most European countries put their age of consent around 16 to 18, but that certainly isn’t the case everywhere; is Butler arguing different strokes for different folks?

I can’t help but feel that she has poisoned a strong character

It’s later revealed that Shori is in fact 52 years old, which  appears as a sort of justification of her sexuality and weakens any point Butler was trying to make. However, it is repeatedly noted that Shori is still a child in the eyes of the Ina, despite the fact it’s apparently acceptable for her to be engaging in a sexual relationship.

My second guess would be, given Shori’s ‘real age’, that Butler is trying to make a case for basing sexual readiness on maturity rather than biological years. If so – she does it fairly half heartedly. I can’t help but feel that she has poisoned a strong character, operating inside an otherwise fairly positive depiction of polyamory, with a superfluous suggestion of paedophilia.

The real bone of contention for me is the control that Shori effects over her symbionts. The venom she produces in her bite binds her human partner to her, making them sensually accepting and easily influenced. This factor makes Shori, implicitly or explicitly, the driving force in these encounters; and I question the responsibility of imbuing a 10 year old girl with such forceful sexual agency. Although I am firm advocate of young people choosing to become sexually active when they feel ready, I have reservations that we can ever be sure an underage person has real influence in an adult engagement.  Particularly when they are, at best, 12 years old.

In an odd way, the book is also very heteronormative.

In an odd way, the book is also very heteronormative. Although Shori has multiple sexual encounters with both genders, the narrative often denigrates the idea of experiencing anything more than pleasure in a gay relationship. The Ina ‘mate’ for life with the opposite sex. Apparently this is at least partially for breeding reasons – but what about the Ina who don’t wish to breed? Who aren’t attracted to Ina of the opposite gender? In a world where extensive and successful genetic experiments have been undertaken; is there no facility for two Ina of the same gender to have a child?

The straightness of symbionts is often more explicit; they repeatedly express a preference for being bonded to an Ina of the opposite sex. It’s reinforced that, for those who aren’t, they can always choose a human mate of the other gender to partner with. Beyond the carnal nature of the Ina/symbiont relationship, homosexuality is typically invisible in Butlers world.

I am disheartened by Butlers handling of these issues; both topics represent an important discussion to be had, and both are invoked in a frankly careless way.

Nonetheless, I recommend you read this book, particularly if you are a sci-fi or fantasy author. This story is definitely imperfect and there are lessons to be learnt from that; but the value of Fledging remains in the relevant integration and analysis of every day racial issues, which we are still desperately lacking in both genres.

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