Oct 29, 2010

Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

Fledgling opens with its heroine, a black girl who looks approximately ten or twelve years old, waking up with severe injuries and no memory at all of what might have caused them. But that’s not the only thing Shori (as she comes to find out she’s called) doesn’t remember. She also has no idea who or what she is, or of what her life was like before the fire that seems to have killed all those she knew and obliterated her identity.

Most readers go into Fledgling knowing that this is a vampire story, as it in fact is. But Butler’s vampires – the Ina – are unlike any others you’re likely to have come across before. I don’t want to say too much about them, though, as part of what kept me reading compulsively was being lost and clueless when Shori was lost and clueless, and then gradually gaining knowledge about her species’ form of life along with her. So instead of telling you more about the story itself, I’m going to move straight into why I found Fledgling so original, daring, and difficult to put down.

One of the first things Shori remembers about herself is that she’s the result of an experiment that mixed human and Ina DNA, and that’s why she, unlike others of her kind, has dark skin. Her skin is actually what saved her from the mysterious attack that killed her family, as it enables her to be awake and alert in the daylight. Shori’s skin colour, size, gender and apparent age lead many of those she meets to make immediate assumptions about her, and part of what Butler is doing here is using these plot elements as obvious metaphors for race and gender relations and power dynamics.

I think Fledgling might have felt a little heavy-handed if all Butler had done was use the figure of the vampire as an outsider to comment on racism and the historical fear of miscegenation – not, of course, that these aren’t things that still very much need to be talked about. But the book is all the richer exactly because she goes beyond that. A lot of what goes on in the story is not overt. On the one hand, we have attitudes towards race, the concept of “purity” and all its inherent dangers, the process of othering and attempting to dehumanise a group of people, and what it inevitably leads to. But on the other hand, we also have Butler’s very careful positioning of these categories in a way that exposes them as the artificial social constructs that they are, as well as her firm and clear rejection of essentialism of any kind.

Reading some other reviews made me realise that many readers weren’t too crazy about the prose in Fledgling. Personally I found it serviceable rather than beautiful, but extremely effective at doing just what it sets out to do. It’s not in her phrases than Butler’s genius lies, but in her careful manipulation of the reader’s assumptions, and in her careful consideration of everything her story implies. Butler is a cautious, deliberate writer, and nothing gets thrown into the story without its repercussion being examined.

One of the reasons why I immediately connected with Fledgling was because I loved Shori from the very beginning. Even when she’s at her most desperate, she never ceases to be compassionate and to have a very strong sense of justice. In an excellent essay I found via Jodie at Book Gazing, I came across a great quote about what Butler often does with her female characters:
Though Butler's heroines are dangerous and powerful women, their goal is not power. They are heroines not because they conquer the world, but because they conquer the very notion of tyranny.
I love thinking of Shori and of some of the other Ina in these terms. Their strength is very much the strength they do not use, and their power over humans comes with a great deal with responsibility. There’s a lot of extrapolations I could make here about social power and the responsibilities attached to it – and you know, this could all be very patronising in a be-kind-to-weaker-creatures sort of way, but Butler’s point is exactly the opposite. Power and strength are so often arbitrary that we most definitely shouldn’t put those who have them in a pedestal. Furthermore, privilege should never go unexamined, regardless of its source and our perception of how legitimate or not they might be

In an interesting twist, Butler puts a character like Shori in a position of both great vulnerability and great strength. She’s an outsider in many senses of the word, among humans and Ina alike. And yet, what many would see as her weaknesses are actually a source of great strength. She’s also someone whose mere existence extends the definition of what is acceptable, what is “normal”, what is human (or Ina), which is exactly why she makes so many uncomfortable to the point of violence.

Then there’s the whole issue of memory loss, and what it implies about the dangers of not only not remembering your history, but not being aware of your own ignorance – for individuals and communities alike. Along with Shori’s memory goes her sense of identity and of belonging, but instead of giving up, she reclaims it by getting to know those who once meant something to her all over again, and by asking them to re-teach her her past. Instead of blindly trusting blood ties, she puts her faith on the kind of emotional ties that require work to be developed, and on the kind of sense of identity that comes with a careful study of your own history.

The last thing I wanted to mention was the Ina – symbiot relationship (symbiots being the humans the Ina suck blood from, but unlike what happens in many traditional vampire stories, the Ina do not harm them in any way and in fact develop very close emotional ties with them). What Butler is in fact writing about are polyamorous families, which was very interesting if only because it’s not something I’ve come across in fiction very often. I loved the fact that she actually explored the emotional consequences of Shori’s relationships with her different symbiots, the affective dynamics, the potential pitfalls and power imbalances, the sources of tension and the sources of joy.

I could have read a whole novel that focused on the emotional dynamics between Shori and her symbiots to be honest, some of which I found provocative but intentionally so. I wonder if Butler would have ever return to the world she created here if she hadn’t passed away shortly after the publication of Fledgling. In any case, I loved that she treated it all with nothing but complete seriousness and respect. But in a novel whose main argument is that attempting to narrow down what is properly human is both futile and misguided, that’s not in the least surprising.

What other readers had to say:
Cynical Optimism, Book Gazing, Athyrium filix-femina, Capricious Reader, A Striped Armchair, Shelf Love (Jenny), Shelf Love (Teresa), Rat’s Reading, Park Benches & Bookends

(Have I missed yours? Let me know and I’ll be glad to add it.)

36 comments:

  1. What a great post Nymeth:) I've read lots of interesting and differing views about this book which has made me even more eager to read it. Some people had difficulties with the relationships Shori has which touched upon her perceived age. But it certainly looks like Butler uses the idea of the vampire in a very original way.

    ReplyDelete
  2. While I loved Kindred, there are certain books by Butler that I'm wary of. This one is leaning towards being my 3rd or 4th read by her. I want to at least read Wild Seed first.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I never reviewed Fledgling after I read it back in May and now I don't have to :p You summed up articulately and eloquently everything that I felt about it.

    The prose was surprisingly pedestrian but the subject matter not; the serviceable language never detracted from the thought-provoking storyline.

    I found Fledgling made for very addictive reading at a time that I required something to be sucked into (please do not excuse the bad pun!)

    ReplyDelete
  4. I like the issues the book explores, but I'm not sure that the book is for me because of the vampire aspect.

    ReplyDelete
  5. This was a fabulous post, Ana! I find a lot of what you say about the book intriguing. Especially your observations about the power of the main character. I am not normally a fan of vampire literature because I feel like it's been done to death, but there are just too many interesting aspects of this book for me to ignore it. I particularly am interested in the symbiotic relationship that the ina have with their food sources and the ployamory angle. I am going to be adding this one to my list and grabbing it. Your reviews are just so perceptive and persuasive! It's dangerous for me to visit here. Dangerous, I tell you!

    ReplyDelete
  6. I think I've only read two vampire books so far in my life, and I wasn't a huge fan of them; but this one sounds so in-depth and intricate, especially in the character relationships. I just might pick it up. I read several books by Butler many years ago, but not for a long time. I didn't know that she had passed away.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I've been meaning to read Butler for so long, and I think I'm going to start here.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Sounds like a great book! I linked your review over at Kate's Library as part of my Friday Five!

    Happy Halloween!

    ReplyDelete
  9. After reading your review, I'm kicking myself for not buying this book when I spotted it at a book sale last week! I've enjoyed Butler's books in the past, but she can go to dark and violent places, so I was afraid this one would be too gory for me. It sounds great, though!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Another review that sent me straight to my library's website. I've put in a request; this sounds like a very good read.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I'm so glad to hear this is good. I love Butler and bought the book when it came out however many years ago and then she died and I haven't been able to read it because it is the last book she wrote and there will be no more. Silly, I know, but there it is.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Sakura: I think Butler made that choice deliberately to jolt readers out of their comfort zone - not merely for shock value, but because it ties in with so many of the book's other themes. I hope you read it soon, as I'd love to discuss it more with you!

    Amanda: I think Wild Seed will be the one I'll read next! It sounds really good.

    Claire: It's a pity you never reviewed it, but I'm glad we are in agreement! About the writing, I really didn't mind it being so plain because there was so much behind it idea-wise - and personally I prefer interesting ideas conveyed in serviceable prose to beautiful writing with no substance to it :P

    Kathy: Don't let it discourage you! Honestly, this one is so original that it doesn't really feel like a vampire book as we've come to think of it.

    Zibilee: lol, I'm sorry :P And as you know I could easily tell you the same.

    Jeane: It was only a few years ago, and it's such a pity! She wasn't old at all, and I bet she still had many amazing stories inside her.

    Clare, I'd love to hear what you make of this.

    Kate: Aww, thank you! And Happy Halloween to you too :)

    Avis: (<-- See? I won't get it wrong ever again :P) I hope you'll be able to find it again! Don't worry, other than one specific scene the book isn't really gory, though she *does* take readers to dark and uncomfortable places.

    Belle, I really hope you'll enjoy it!

    Stefanie: It's not silly! There are many authors I'd feel that way about myself.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I"m adding this to my TBR right now. I loved Kindred and this sounds fabulous.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I will have to look this one up some time ...sounds great!

    ReplyDelete
  15. I've had this one on my swap.com list for a while now. It sounds like such an intelligent and meaningful book.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Thanks for letting me know that it's not really gory -- though one specific scene is sometimes all it takes. The last book I read of hers was Clay's Ark -- the one really disturbing scene in that one made me a bit wary of her books. Still, this one sounds SO intriguing!

    ReplyDelete
  17. The whole vampire thing is getting a bid tired, but this novel does sound thoroughly unique and very rich. I will look for it!

    ReplyDelete
  18. Brenna: I honestly can't decide which one I like best; they're both so good! I hope you'll think so too.

    Staci: It really is :)

    Trisha: Yes, absolutely. I think you'll enjoy it a whole lot.

    Avis: yes, sometimes a scene is all it takes! But even in that one scene she never gets too graphic, at least!

    Stephanie, I agree, but this is really not like most vampire books out there - you'll see!

    ReplyDelete
  19. I loved Kindred so much, but then I tried a few other Butler books and just didn't connect. I did not try this one, however - probably because I was scared off by the vampire aspect (this was before my Charlene Harris phase!) so I must revisit Butler and get this one. I really like what you had to say about the symbolic aspects of the story.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I know nothing about this book but your review definitely intrigues me. It's going on my wish list. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  21. I like vampire tales and symbiot relationship got me really interested about this book. Great post, Ana. I'll try to find this book for my next year's reading.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I don't really care for vampire tales but I love that this is more than just vampires. I'm definitely going to add this book to my TBR pile. I've read great things about the books Butler wrote. I'll start with this one.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I think serviceable is the perfect word to describe Butler's prose. I found it almost cold, but still very powerful. And creepy.

    ReplyDelete
  24. I have this one on my shelves, thanks for reminding me that I need to get to it soon.

    Also, I've so missed your thoughtful and analytical reviews. I'm so glad you're back Ana!

    ReplyDelete
  25. Jill: Don't let the vampires scare you off - I think you'd get SO much out of this one.

    Amy, I think you'd really really enjoy it :)

    Alice: It was so interesting, and so unlike anything I've read before.

    Vasilly: She was an amazing writer. Enjoy!

    Jill: Yes, exactly! And I don't think it's that she couldn't write better; it's that she *wants* it to work like that.

    Naida, I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

    Heather: Aw, thank you so much!

    ReplyDelete
  26. A great review, loads of interesting aspects. I am really interested in reading the book.

    ReplyDelete
  27. You know, I really think I want to read absolutely everything she ever wrote--all her books just sound so good! Fledgling and Kindred definitely top the list...gee, wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that you've reviewed them... :)

    ReplyDelete
  28. *squeal* OK I have never heard of (a) this book or (b) this author. Say what?! So I only read the first couple of paragraphs of your post but am adding it to my BM and PBS wishlist.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Caroline: Thank you! This is a book that seems to divide opinions - I hope you'll find it as interesting as I did.

    Debi: Both are really, really good! And you know that in this case it wasn't just me :P

    Christina: This is a reminder of why we *should* still write about books we think everyone has already reviewed to exhaustion :P Someone is bound to have missed the buzz! I hope you'll enjoy Butler!

    ReplyDelete
  30. I loved KINDRED but I am not at all interested in vampire stories and this sounds like it's much like that. I'm undecided on this novel, despite the fact you were so satisfied. I do want to try Butler again sometime, though.

    ReplyDelete
  31. As usual you have brought a new book and author to my attention. This sounds like the perfect book for me and one of my reading buddies to read at the same time since it sounds like there will be much to discuss.

    ReplyDelete
  32. I would love to read a whole book about Shori and her symbiots. How long would they all get along for? This review was excellent and got deep into every aspect of the book and brought up some I hadn't really noticed like the ideas about power needing to be kept from giving people invincibility to criticism.

    ReplyDelete
  33. You did this book so much more justice than I did... I agree I could have read a whole book exploring the relationships in the symbiont 'family'.

    It certainly could have had a sequel. If.

    ReplyDelete
  34. I do love books by this author, but for some reason I have yet to read this one. I'll have to add it to my list!

    ReplyDelete
  35. I'm not sure why I haven't yet read any of Butler's work. I think I need to make her a priority during my next round at the library.

    ReplyDelete

Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.