It's made clear from the start of Fledgling that we should not expect a comfortable read. Within moments of waking in darkness and hunger and pain, with no memory of how she got there, our narrator is approached by some large noisy creature. She waits until the creature is touching her, then pounces. She tears out its throat and feeds on its blood and terror. Perhaps our narrator is not quite the helpless victim we first assumed. It gets less comfortable from there. This is Octavia Butler, after all.
Fledgling is Octavia Butler's first novel in seven years and her last before her tragic recent death. In it, Butler applies her usual brand of social commentary on race, gender, prejudice, and relationships to the vampire story and produces a work both disturbing and thoughtful. As with most of Butler's work, Fledgling is less about the world and story the characters live in than it is about our own. Butler has used other genre tropes in the past in much the same way with works like her time-travel novel Kindred, the near-future Parable novels, and the postapocalyptic Xenogenesis series.
After that initial violent outburst, we follow Shori Matthews, our narrator, out into the burnt out ruins of a small community. She has nowhere to go, and no idea who or what she is; the first person Shori encounters is a local man, Wright. And that's when Butler really pushes buttons. Through her encounter with Wright, we learn that Shori appears to be a young black girl, about 10 years old. We also learn, in the first of many disturbing scenes, that she is a type of vampire, but that her vampirism involves very intimate and carnal contact with her "victims". Highly eroticized, definitely sexual, the mix of feeding and pleasure-giving between Shori and her humans simultaneously enthralls and creeps out at the same time, throughout the book.
Over the course of the novel, we discover, with Shori, that her people are called Ina. They are a separate species from humanity, but rely on relationships with humans to sustain themselves. The Ina are a people with their own culture, conflicting creation myths, and attitudes. Shori slowly makes contact with and delves into Ina society, while at the same time creating a family of humans around herself. She discovers that she is the result of genetic experimentation, different from the other Ina in that she can remain awake and move about during the day because of her partially human DNA. Her Ina family have been killed and the perpetrators, horribly offended by the creation of this partially human being, will continue to hunt her and those she loves until they can be stopped.
The first half of Fledgling moves quickly, as Shori begins to unravel her past and the events that led to her situation. The second half slows down considerably as the perpetrators and Shori face off in an Ina trial. Shori, an Ina child of 53 years, grows into her own as the trial progresses. She learns to think her way through situations instead of reacting impulsively and begins to utilize her Ina talents effectively to achieve the things she wants—security and revenge.
While the mystery of Shori's past, the attacks on her and her families' lives, and the eventual trial tell a decent story, they are all merely backdrop for Butler's true interest—which, as mentioned, is social commentary. Butler tackles a wealth of issues in Fledgling, but none more so than race/prejudice and the dynamics of relationships and free will. Shori is a perfect viewpoint character for such an exploration, allowing Butler to examine the issues from both human and Ina perspectives.
The motive behind the attempts on her life, for example, has nothing to do with Ina politics or greed and everything to do with racial prejudices. Shori is everything the typical Ina is not: she can walk during the day, she can go out in the sun, she's part human, and she's black. She is the embodiment of miscegenation. She is an outsider to the Ina, an "other" to humanity. She is called at various times a dog, a dirty little nigger bitch, a murdering black mongrel bitch, and more. Shori's family—the ones who mingled Ina and human genetic material—are burned for their "crime" by racial purists. Despite the great and positive advantages that the mingling of Ina and human, especially black human, have given to Shori, there are those who are appalled at the concept of such a mixture. Interestingly, the prejudice seems to come from the Ina alone and not the humans. The humans mix comfortably, and the only humans we see acting in a prejudicial manner towards Shori are those under the direct control of other Ina.
Shori also serves as an ideal guide to examine relationship dynamics and free will. Ina each develop what they call a symbiotic relationship with a group of humans, usually numbering seven or eight. These relationships involve frequent contact, intense intimacy, and the sharing of blood and pleasure. The Ina believe the relationship is a mutual one, but Butler never stops wrestling with the validity of that thought. The saliva of Ina is addictive to humans, and within a few feedings, a human is bound to its Ina. While there are benefits to the human, longer life and better health, those benefits serve the Ina as well by providing a long-term food source. No matter how much the Ina may claim that the relationship is mutual and symbiotic, the Ina can and does exert ultimate control, and nowhere is that made clearer than in the case of Shori's own growing family of symbionts. Because of her appearance, any Ina-type relationship with humans is going to be difficult. The taboos surrounding sexual relationships between adults and children, between races, and between members of the same sex should give her chosen symbionts pause as they begin to establish their bonds. Yet other than a few half-hearted words, none seem to hesitate in giving themselves up to Shori. She establishes relationships with both men and women, ignoring their sexual orientation, age, and true desires. Her growing family must learn to deal with each other, with jealousy, with weaving their own desires around Shori's, and must generally learn to navigate difficult relationship waters.
Fledgling is certainly not a perfect book. The pacing in the second half of the book is quite slow at times, and the dynamics of the Ina trial did not sustain my interest well. A large number of Ina families and characters are introduced and discussed over a number of pages, but play no significant role in the situation or outcome. And Shori's physical appearance, while making for an interesting conceit, played a far weaker role than it probably should have in the story's action. The ending of the book also seemed rather anticlimactic. Shori's security issues are dealt with, but the social issues and questions raised within the book are left internally unresolved and unanswered. Despite these flaws, it's a fine example of Butler's work, full of thoughtful studies of different social structures, human dynamics, and our own biases and expectations.
Rob Gates is the editor of Wavelengths, a review journal for genre works of special interest to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people.