fledgling – Octavia Butler

Although I consider myself a fan of science fiction, I hardly ever read science fiction books. I watch science fiction on both small and big screens. Connoisseurs of the genre may point out that, I’m missing out on about 99% of what passes for science fiction by only experiencing it though television and film. I would like to read the classics of science fiction, as a remedy.

The science fiction I do read are mostly books by Octavia Butler (1947-2006). I first encountered Butler as an African-American woman writer and this is probably why I picked up her books in the first place. Since the best science fiction (well all science fiction, really) is about human society, I was instantly drawn to Butler’s use of speculative fiction to explore issues of race, gender, freedom, slavery, class struggles and social progress. Now, I’m wondering why I didn’t explore more science fiction literature once I had discovered Butler. But let’s not go there again :). fledgling (2005) was the last book she published before her tragic and untimely death in 2006. It’s a book about vampires. I am loath to go near any vampire literature or film, but the book was written by Butler so I had to read it.

In typical fashion, Butler has upended traditional vampire lore and created a new narrative for the genre. Her vampires are a completely different species called the Ina, who have co-existed and co-evolved with humans since time began. The Ina, as in traditional vampire lore, drink blood and must sleep during the day. But the similarity ends there.

The book opens with this:

I awoke to darkness.
I was hungry-starving!-and I was in pain. There was nothing in my world but hunger and pain, no other people, no other time, no other feelings.

This narrator turns out to be Shori. She’s been injured and is suffering from amnesia. Over the course of the book, Shori will learn who and what she is. This, of course, means that the reader learns about the ways of the Ina just as Shori herself is discovering the ways of her people. I loved this about the book. I have to say that I bonded with Shori. Sounds funny, I know. But there is something precious and touching about a narrator who is as clueless as I am regarding the ways of the Ina.

The Ina are tall and white and are catatonic during daylight hours. Shori’s Ina mothers experimented with genetics and spliced the genes of an African-American woman into Ina genetic material and created Shori. Shori, unlike other Ina, can function during daylight and she appears, even for an Ina child of eleven years (roughly 53 in human years), to be relatively stronger than her peers. And therein lies the conflict at the heart of fledgling. Transformation in most vampire lore deals with the creation of the vampire. In this book, one is born, not made, an Ina. However, the creation of Shori effectively transforms and improves the Ina. The fact that she is black threatens some Ina families. And Shori must fight to defend and protect herself and the very idea and implications of her existence.

There are other sub-plots and themes in fledgling that are also fascinating. The Ina live in mutual symbiotic relationships with their human partners. They need human blood to survive. They don’t typical kill humans unless under duress. But one bite from an Ina makes a human addicted to their venom. Each Ina needs 8-10 human symbionts for blood nourishment. Butler uses the Ina-human relationship to explore issues of sexuality (hetero and same sex), slavery, free will and love. It is clear that once bitten, a human cannot resist an Ina. Hence, there is a degree of coercion built into the Ina-human relationship. And yet, it appears that most symbionts are happy. This, of course, flies in the face of current popular thinking about free will, independence and happiness in a love relationship.

Like other Butler heroines, Shori’s size belies her power, a power she does not abuse but instead uses as a tool against oppression and for the survival of her kin. She is practical, methodical, sympathetic and loving. She reminded me a lot of Dana in Kindred, another of Butler’s novels.

fledgling was a delight to read even though certain parts were very uncomfortable. I confess that I found the first part of the novel more engrossing than the second. Only because the latter half involved a procedure quite like a courtroom scene. I would have liked to read the sequels and prequels to the book. But alas, that will not be. I recommend the book and I hope that I’ve dropped enough hints about Butler’s body of work. If it’s been too subtle then: I think you are missing something special if you have not read a novel by Octavia Butler!

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30 comments

  1. I remember really enjoying Kindred when I read that years ago. Can’t believe I haven’t read more of her work, and I don’t mind vampires, so if Ms. Butler wrote about that also, then it’s clear I’m going to have to pick this one up. Thanks for putting it on the radar. I didn’t know she had passed away in 2006 and feel horrible that I was out of the loop on the passing of such a groundbreaking and unique author.

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  2. I need to read this one. Parable of the Sower was a mind-blowing book. I read it abt six months after the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and I felt like Butler was psychic. Reading PotS before then, I might not have believed the world she painted. I think that’s the best part of scifi — the chilling prophesy!

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    • Yes, you do need to read this one. Although I think Kindred is a stronger book. Butler is amazing. She does not really stray away from the issues of human society. That makes her work quite compelling.

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  3. I read very little scifi- like you, I watch it on TV and in the movies but tend to avoid the books. My husband says I’m missing out on a lot nd it sounds like he might be right!

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    • It sometimes worries me how much I’m missing since I do enjoy watching sci-fi on TV. Have you read any Butler? Perhaps you could start with her work!

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  4. I really liked Kindred, but I am wholly averse the vampires. Even different kinds of vampires. I may have to read something else by Bulter, but probably not this one next…

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    • I am don’t like vampires but like I said, it’s by Butler so I had to read it. Have you read Butler’s Wild Seed or any of the Parables?

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      • No! I’ve only read Kindred. Which one would you suggest for the non-Sci Fi reader? (I rarely read sci fi or fantasy, but Kindred was perfect: I love time travel and history.)

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      • I would recommend you try Wild Seed next. While there are elements of sci-fi in the book, it’s really more a commentary on power and desire.

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  5. Hope this is a ‘back to business’ post. I haven’t read any book by Butler. Besides, science fiction don’t tick me, though I have very recently purchased The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov. I like the way vampirism has been used to reflect societal issues. I would be tempted to read. And like you I have watched a lot of sci-fi and vampire-related movies.

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    • That right, Nana. I’m ‘back to business’. It feels good to be back. I understand that sci-fi is not your thing. But I think that you will find Wild Seed by Butler interesting. It felt like an “African sci-fi” book, if there is such a thing. I will dig up my copy and send it your way. We still have lots to books to exchange!

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  6. I adore science fiction movies and tv shows, but I’ve barely read any science fiction books. Your review definitely makes me want to add some Octavia Butler books to my reading list! Thank you for bringing her to my attention 🙂

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    • Well, it seems that I;m not the only one watching more sci-fi that reading scifi. Have you ever given any thought to reading more sci-fi? I can’t recommend Butler enough. My favorite book of hers is Kindred. I also loved Wild Seed. Enjoy!

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  7. I watch more sci fi than read ,think only sci fi ever read is a couple moorcock asmiov and herbet which I enjoyed but felt had covered genre enough for me ,all the best stu

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    • I do want to read Asimov. Somehow, I;m convinced that I owe myself a reading of sci-fi classics. But I also do understand your desire not to cover the genre. For me, it seems so huge and diverse given that I’m not at all familiar with the genre in literature.

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  8. I suppose I’m a bit like you in that I watch more science-fiction than I read. I’m not sure why, either. I’d not head of Octavia Butler, but you’ve certainly enticed me to search her books out. Another one for the list!

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  9. I’ve read Kindred, which I liked a lot, and this book sounds really good too. Vampires, yes, but I’ve found not all books about vampires are the same. For instance, The Passage by Justin Cronin has very violent, hardly human vampires, while Soulless by Gail Garriger has vampires that are like a group of non-humans living together with humans and werewolves.

    I’m not so worried now when I read the word “vampires”. This is one I should definitely read and it’s going on my wish list. Thanks!

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    • Please do read this one as well. I think you will find the Ina interesting. And it may feel familiar since you’ve already read a book by Butler. You know, I didn’t know that The Passage was about vampires. I liked that Butler made her vampires a bit like humans. So I might read Soulless. Thanks.

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