REVIEW: Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

Nearly sixteen years after her untimely death, Octavia Butler is having a bit of a moment. Over the last few years, a concerted effort has been made to re-discover and re-claim the legacy of the first ever science fiction author to receive a MacArthur fellowship.

It is not hard to see why this would happen… Though widely-respected and a winner of various awards during her lifetime, Butler’s name has started to fade from view for the simple reason that she was never one of the four or five (predominantly white and male) authors whose continued sales keep the lights on for genre publishing. The institutions of SFF publishing are barely interested in live mid-list authors, so why would they give a shit about dead ones? Especially when the dead mid-list authors in question write books as difficult, problematic and profoundly unfashionable as Fledgling.

I would not go so far as to say that Fledgling would not get published in today’s marketplace. I can definitely imagine the book getting a release through Aqueduct press or one of the other small presses that orbit the multinational charnel houses of genre publishing. I can see this book published and being roundly ignored until someone skims a review and decides to call it out in a self-righteous tweet storm initiating a dog-pile so violent as to be visible from low Earth orbit: People with picrew avatars would be crying about the book glorifying paedophilia while people with degrees in children’s literature would shake their heads, cluck their tongues and declare that only au author with little understanding of chattel slavery would write a book in which a young black girl builds herself a harem full of sex slaves. Then, a number of Hugo award-winners who hadn’t even bothered to read the book would talk about the harm it was causing and conclude that the book could not possibly have been written by a black woman because ‘Octavia’ is the number eight and the eighth number of the alphabet is H… H for Hitler!

This may seem somewhat uncharitable on my part but YA and SFF are developing quite the track record when it comes to dishing out punishment beatings to anyone with a marginalised identity who chooses not to write about their experiences in an empowering and morally-uplifting fashion. In fairness, nobody has yet tried to retrospectively ‘cancel’ Butler but it is interesting to note that attempts to raise the profile of her work often choose to focus on her earlier work and gloss over the last novel she wrote before her death. This, it turns out, is a real shame as while Fledgling may not be for everyone, it is more thought-provoking and complex than any Hugo-winner in recent memory.

The novel opens with its protagonist waking up with no memory of who they are or where they came from. Vaguely aware that they resemble a child, the protagonist wanders down to a construction site where she encounters a paedophile. The two of them talk for a few moments and register their mutual attraction, at which point the young girl climbs into the man’s car and drinks his blood before accompanying him home for sex and a life of chemically-bonded submission.

The book’s protagonist (in true anime fashion) turns out not to be a pre-teen girl but a 50-year old vampire whose clan were burned alive for their attempts to build a Blade-style human/vampire hybrid who could go outdoors in the daytime. Though completely without memory, the book’s protagonist (named Shori) has a strong set of instincts that compel her not only to seek her family, but also to build herself a kind of harem.

One of the recurring motifs in Butler’s fiction is the idea that, in order to survive, humanity is going to need new kinds of social structures that will allow humans first to escape the malign social hierarchies of the past, and then to re-develop themselves as a species that prises tolerance and cooperation over dominance and oppression. While Butler’s earlier and more widely-celebrated works are all about humanity’s attempts to rebuild themselves, Fledgling can be read as a rejection of utopian longing.

One of the most striking things about Fledgling is that while it may be not only about vampires but about vampires waging war with each other and falling in love with humans, its tone is very different to anything published under either the horror or the urban fantasy rubrics. Indeed, if I had to say what most reminded me of Fledgling, I would point directly at Arthur C. Clarke’s hard science fiction novel Rendezvous with Rama.

Rendezvous with Rama is a story about a group of astronauts landing on an object that just happens to be passing through the solar system. Having gained entrance to the object, the astronauts discover alien machinery that starts disgorging life as the object gets close to the sun and starts to warm up. The astronauts delve deeper and deeper into the object, realise the scope of its technological achievement but remain completely ignorant as to the object’s mission or purpose. Frustrated in their attempts to make contact with an alien intelligence or even discern comprehensible motivations, the astronauts are forced to leave the object before it gets too far from Earth. Having never so much as acknowledged the presence of human visitors, the object puts itself back to sleep and drifts out into the blackness of space. While Rendezvous with Rama is often viewed as an old school story of competent men exploring space-things, the novel itself is dripping with existential despair. Clarke may have been writing at the time of Heinlein and Campbell but his sensibility was far less humanistic. Rendezvous with Rama is a story about ancient processes that are utterly indifferent to human emotion. The characters on the ship are filled with hopes, dreams, and desires but the object they encounter has no desire to engage. The tone of Rendezvous with Rama is as cold as the vacuum of space because, at the end of the day, the universe is indifferent to our feelings.

Fledgling resembles Rendezvous with Rama in so far as both are primarily in the business of speculating about inhuman systems. In the case of Rendezvous with Rama, the systems are weird alien technologies that create and destroy alien creatures whereas in Fledgling, the systems are the urge to dominate, bond, and breed. Rendezvous with Rama is all about humans getting accidentally caught up in an alien process and the exact same thing is true of Fledgling.

The book’s protagonist Shori is driven entirely by instinct and her instincts scream for her to start assembling a group of humans to serve as her symbionts. It turns out that while vampires can feed from anyone, they prefer to feed from people with whom they have bonded as a result of a cocktail of drugs that exist in their saliva. Once chosen, symbionts get to live for an extended period of time but the bonding process not only makes them naturally submissive, it also functions like a drug in so far as spending too much time away from your vampiric master results in painful premature death. Butler makes it quite clear that the human attraction to vampires is narcotic and she further complicates the book’s emotional economy by having Shori bond with a paedophile.

One of the things about paedophilia is that while non-paedophiles will describe it in terms of rape and compulsion, paedophiles themselves will often talk about what they do in terms of love and romance. In fact, this is the entire point of Nabokov’s Lolita. You can find a similar process of semantic slippage in descriptions of cult-like structures such as the Manson Family where the cult leaders will talk about being a family and loving their followers while any outsiders would correctly view the relationship as one grounded in fear and exploitation. For example, members of the Family would often talk about how Manson encouraged them to move beyond jealousy and to embrace sexual openness whereas in reality what this meant was that Manson got to fuck anyone he wanted and women under his control could be pimped out for money and favours. A similar disconnect runs through the pages of Fledgling as while Shori may speak of love and attachment, in reality she is using sex and drugs to keep herself in human food sources.

The plot of Fledgling is rather slight. Having secured herself a regular food source, Shori starts to investigate her past and learns that she was once part of a family that was, in turn, part of a complex vampire society. Butler spends pages exploring the nature of the hierarchies that emerge from vampire social structures and so Shori is forced to contend with a variety of weird biological imperatives that are dealt with through the construction of complex (found) families and households each with their own internal structures and pecking orders. For example, male and female vampires are not allowed to live in the same building and the vampire’s desire to dominate humans combined with humanity’s natural submissiveness to vampires means that human resources have to be managed in a number of complex ways including using sex and the narcotic effects of blood-drinking to smooth things over with human slaves who are expected to subordinate all of their desires to those of their owner.

As one might expect given that Butler was African American, a lot of critics have chosen to interpret Fledgling in terms of real world racial politics. This does bear some scrutiny as Shori’s status as a hybrid and an outsider is manifest in the fact that she has a greater amount of melanin in her skin than her stereotypically pale East-European relatives. There are moments in the book when Butler drops the N-word and members of more traditionalist clans openly refer to Shori as a mongrel because of her mixed-heritage. However, I think it would be simplistic and reductive to read this book as a simple story about a black girl in a predominantly white family.

In an essay published in 2001 as part of a UN-sponsored conference on racism, Butler located racism in a set of ancient psychological flaws:

“Of course, not everyone has been a bully or the victim of bullies, but everyone has seen bullying, and seeing it, has responded to it by joining in or objecting, by laughing or keeping silent, by feeling disgusted or feeling interested….

Simple peck-order bullying is only the beginning of the kind of hierarchical behavior that can lead to racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism, and all the other “isms” that cause so much suffering in the world.”

For Butler, racism is a symptom of the human instinct to build social hierarchies. Under this view, racism, sexism, and classism are really nothing more than clubs wielded by those in power to defend the status quo. This certainly scans with the plot of Fledgling as while older vampires do insult and degrade Shori by making reference to the colour of her skin, it is clear that the problem is not that Shori is black… it’s that she is a hybrid Vampire who can go outside during the day and whose feeding mechanism causes humans to experience a good deal more pleasure. Shori is not a social threat to the Vampire establishment, she is a biological threat in so far as she can out-compete them for human resources. Indeed, the novel is full of vicious battles that Shori survives at which point she casually bonds with all her antagonist’s surviving symbionts. Thus, what presents as racism is actually an expression of a deeper, more existential fear.

Fledgling is a profoundly cold and misanthropic piece of writing in that it presents every human emotion as a flattering gloss on a deeper and darker biological urge. Yes, the book touches on racism and toys with conspiracy theories about racial replacement but the core message of the book is that we are all driven by an innate desire for hierarchy. Some of us will express that desire as domination dressed up as love and some of us will allow ourselves to be farmed as long as we’re kept in sex and drugs but while we all participate in these structures in different ways, we all rationalise our participation through reference to such romantic notions as love and family.

Fledgling is not an easy book to love. Aside from its hanta-black worldview and its ice-cold tone, the book feels as unfashionably inhumane as any work of hard science-fiction. Reading this book, I constantly found myself marvelling at the tendency to gloss over the emotional realities of the character’s lives and the entire chapters devoted to info-dumps about vampire social structures. I mean… I enjoyed the book and I am glad that I read it but doing so required me to engage with the book in a manner that is no longer that common in genre writing. Despite having enjoyed a post-mortem elevation to the role of beloved literary ancestor to today’s genre authors, Butler’s descriptions of vampire society have a lot more in common with the ice-cold inhumanity of Hard SF than anything published under the auspices of the so-called Rainbow Age. Fledgling may not be horror strictly speaking but it remains one of the coldest books that I have ever read.

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