Fledgling by Octavia Butler
Review by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)
Aside from Toni Morrison, this is the only author on this list who I was already familiar with before taking them on as a horror author. I’ve read a lot of Octavia Butler’s work already—all except for the Patternmaster series and Imago. I thought I might cover one of these already-read novels, but decided to wait before covering her until I read her most relevant-to-horror novel, Fledgling.
Full disclosure, I adore Octavia Butler. Her fiction is fantastic for so many goddamn reasons. Fledgling, while certain different in terms of scope and tone, nevertheless stands on its own two feet among Butler’s bibliography.
Some context: Fledgling was written for fun. While suffering writer’s block working on the third Parable novel, Butler started reading a lot of vampire fiction. Thinking she could add her own touch to the well-trodden mythology, she started this novel.
Fledgling shares many of the concerns established in earlier Butler novels: transhumanism and non-traditional social, romantic and sexual relationships (Lilith’s Brood); race, “the Other”, communal living (Parables), etc. As it was her last properly finished novel before her death, Butler clearly knew what compels her to write genre fiction. These subjects aren’t handled in quite the same detail as her previous novels, as again it’s pretty clear this was written with a more entertainment-driven focus in mind, which on one hand might be a disappointment. But on the other these themes fit so fluidly into the story I can’t help but wonder if any more attention would come off as heavy-handed. In any case, while comparably one of Butler’s lightest novels, Fledgling is still a lovingly crafted and compelling riff on familiar themes. And in overlaying those themes upon something as well-established as vampire lore, Butler creates a unique and personal spin on what has become so cliché.
Sidenote: there are tragically no instances of Butler’s daddy fetish in this novel.
Anyway, Fledgling is about a woman named Shori who wakes up with amnesia in a 12-year-old body. It is evident from that start that she is not 12-years-old though, as she demonstrates a maturity and intellect well beyond that age. She is also not just human either, as she has extraordinary physical strength and speed and can compel others by biting them. Soon it’s revealed that Shori is an Ina, an ancient blood-drinking species who live in communal spaces isolated from most human societies. Ina live in unique partnerships with a number of humans, from whom they drink non-lethal amounts of blood for their nourishment. In return, the Ina’s saliva creates extraordinary pleasure for the human.
(Spoilers for the first half of the novel in the next paragraph)
Shori is even more unique than an ordinary Ina, however, in that she is a human-Ina hybrid. Perhaps related to this, Shori’s Ina family is being massacred. While most Ina cannot withstand the sun, as in the vampire myth, Shori’s human blood and dark skin enable her to resist sunlight for short periods of time. This ability has apparently saved her from death. After gaining support from humans and Ina alike, Shori seeks to learn what has happened to her family and why.
One cool thing I noticed in this novel is how it doesn’t use vampirism as an allegory for racial discrimination or sexual “deviancy”. This is a ploy often used to make an uncomfortable topic more accessible, or otherwise turn it into subtext so that you don’t have to read into it if you don’t want to. See the X-Men. But no. For those familiar with Butler, you know that she is pretty damn unflinching when it comes to difficult topics. Racism is addressed concurrently along with the otherness of being an Ina. It’s a really welcome approach in a genre so ready-made for allegory. Ina discomfort with Shori’s hybridity can be interpreted as an allegory, sure, but it doesn’t overshadow racism. Again, they work concurrently.
Fledgling is an interesting novel structurally. It’s never just one thing. At first, it is a straight-up amnesia-fueled mystery. Dark and erotic, it moves from there to more thriller-like proportions, as Shori and her human “symbionts” are attacked and threatened by outside forces. Then, finally, it turns into something like a courtroom drama. Throughout, its tinged with horror tropes. This might turn some off, as they might expect it to stick to one formula, and hearing long speeches and discussions as a finale might be a bit disappointing to those expecting vampire fights and action. I think it works logically within Butler’s universe, but it’s worth mentioning.
Fans of vampire fiction might be disappointed because it’s a subversion of the genre as much as it is a celebration of it. It’s playful and fun, sure, but Fledgling plays by its own rules and isn’t here to cater to your expectations. Butler fans might be disappointed by Fledgling‘s relative simplicity to her other works—while still grappling with her trademark subjects, it’s not quite as complex as her earlier novels. Still, I really enjoyed this novel. I think both of these parties can stand to bend their expectations of quality a bit and enjoy themselves too.
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