Review of “Fledgling” by Octavia Butler

Shori, a young member of the Ina race of vampires, has survived a massacre of her matriarchal community. She is rescued by a 23-year-old human male, Wright Hamlin, who takes off Shori’s dirty, wet clothes and estimates she is a child of about ten or eleven. Nevertheless, Wright is sexually attracted to Shori and is ecstatic to discover she is hot for having sex with him as well. And that’s just the beginning of this probable attempt to challenge our assumptions about how to get along that instead sounds to me more like a pedophilic reverie.

It turns out that Shori is sexually attractive to all sorts of adults, and neither she nor they resist the temptation to give in to their desires. Part of the appeal is that when Shori bites them, they become “addicted” to her via some chemical in her venom. But the adults in this story want Shori even before they get her venom. The venom just makes it impossible to leave her.

Shori not only appears to be a prepubescent child, but she is also, quite anomalously, black. All the other Ina are ghostly pale and cannot go out in the day. Shori, the product of genetic engineering experiments between vampires and humans of color, can withstand the sun and does not need to sleep during the day. In all other respects, however, she is like the vampires. But since the massacre, her memory is gone.

Shori’s amnesia helps her cope with the fact that she lost most of her immediate family in the carnage as well as losing her “symbionts,” or human lovers that vampires need to keep with them in order to feed upon their blood. Once a symbiont has been addicted to a particular Ina, that symbiont can die if the Ina dies first. [In science, symbiosis means a close and often long-term interaction between different biological species. Some symbiotic relationships are obligate, meaning that both symbionts entirely depend on each other for survival and cannot live on their own. There is also facultative symbiosis, meaning that they can but do not have to live with the other organism.] The Ina usually have around eight symbionts of both sexes, in order to get sufficient nourishment without killing any one symbiont. Wright in particular has a hard time at first with the idea of sharing Shori, but he, like the other symbionts, is now dependent on the venom, as well as that child sex he loves so much, and so he adjusts.

The symbionts are well-loved and are free to form relationships among themselves in addition to those they have with their vampires. Further, their immune systems improve from the venom and they can live longer than non-symbiont humans.

Shori collects new symbionts, starting with Wright, and soon finds other Ina to help her bring justice to the mysterious group that destroyed her family and that is still pursuing her and her new symbionts with deadly intent.

Discussion: It seems as though Butler is trying to subvert the usual expectations about optimal organizational patterns for human societies, but a couple of factors vitiate her effort, in my opinion.

First, while these communes seem all lovey and wonderful, they aren’t presented as naturally possible; rather, the humans are all addicted to the venom, cannot live without it, and therefore have no choice but to live with one another. I would have liked to see what would be possible without the deus ex machina venom.

Secondly, Shori, who turns out to be fifty-three in Ina years, only appears to be ten in human years. Physically she is totally pre-pubescent (as we learn from Wright’s apparently titillating inspection of Shori at the beginning). There is something quite unsavory about the adults who love picking up Shori, putting her on their laps (reinforcing the image that this is a prepubescent child), and then f&*@-ing her all night, with or without the venom (although of course, the venom makes it even better).

Thirdly, the author makes Shori black, and wants no one to see that as a barrier. But what makes this possible is that absolutely nothing about Shori is black except her dark skin. On the one hand, that may be Butler’s point. But on the other, it denies legitimacy to black culture, seeming to say that blackness is okay as long as you are white in everything but the fact that you don’t burn as much in the sun.

Fourth, Butler spends an inordinate amount of text time talking about the quotidian activities of the symbionts and the Ina, from the turkey sandwiches ingested by the humans to the endless discussions of the housing, history, and politics of the Ina. Charlaine Harris makes all of this fun, but Butler just makes me want to take a nap.

Finally, there is no growth in the book. The only characters who make changes are those responding to increasing dependency on the drug of vampire venom. This doesn’t denote inner growth to me; rather, it seems to me like a plot device was substituted for a fully realized story.

Evaluation: Very disappointing and kind of creepy! With all of her faults, I’ll take Charlaine Harris and Sookie Stackhouse for vampire stories any day!

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Seven Stories Press, 2005


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25 Responses to Review of “Fledgling” by Octavia Butler

  1. That does sound creepy! When I read that she looks 10 and he was sexually attracted to her, I felt sick. It does sound like the book gives you a lot to talk about, though. I haven’t read anything by this author, but I do have Kindred sitting on a shelf.

  2. Sandy says:

    Ugh. If I had spent my time (of which I have so little) reading this, I would have been one pissed off girl.

  3. you lost me at “vampires” and tied it up ay “2.5”

  4. Barbara says:

    Creepy is right! After reading this review, my head is spinning. Now I remember why I don’t read vampire novels.

    • No, no! This is not a “typical” vampire novel! I would hate to see vampires get a bad reputation from this one! (That is, whether or not they deserve a bad reputation should not be determined by this book!) :–)

  5. Trisha says:

    Yeah, the pedophilic attraction would really turn me off. Too creepy.

  6. BermudaOnion says:

    If Sooki is better than this one, I don’t think this is for me.

  7. zibilee says:

    While a lot of this review was fascinating to read, reading the book sounds like it might be a train wreck experience. I also am a little sqicked out about characters having sex with a protagonist who appears to be 10, and the boring aspects of turkey sandwiches would surely make my eyes glaze over. Again, the question I have about this book is what exactly is the point that the author is trying to make? It sounds like it was just sort of all over the place in some really weird ways, but I am glad that you reviewed it and that now I know!

  8. Your emphasis on the pedophilia aspect of this novel reminds me of EL Fay’s creeped-out post on it last year. Also very astute point about “white in all but skin color” being the only valid mode of blackness presented. It’s an insidious and all-too-common trap.

  9. I won’t even bother with this one….glad that you read it for me!! 😀

  10. Julie P. says:

    Thanks for the very helpful review. I’ll skip it too!

  11. Teresa says:

    You know, I read this book completely differently from the way you did, and I found it fascinating. For me, the lack of agency among the symbionts is the linch-pin on which the whole plot hangs.It turns the whole relationship into a bizarre sort of master/slave scenario. Some of the Ina’s defenses of their taking the symbionts’ agency sounded to me eerily like slave-holders’ defense of slavery. And the fact that Shori looks so young shows just how much the symbionts were led to do things they’d normally not do. It is very creepy—and disturbing, especially because Butler doesn’t come right out and say that the Ina life is wrong and even shows some ways that it would appeal (the added strength of the symbionts). But I think that’s meant to show how easy it is to get wrapped up and even support a dehumanizing system like slavery.

    All that said, I do agree that making Shori black might have confused the issues too much and distracted from the more interesting themes of free will and consent. And there were some points in the last half where I thought the story lost momentum–perhaps it was the turkey sandwiches.

    • It was totally the turkey sandwiches. If they had only used poupon!

      • And now for a more serious answer!

        I maybe don’t buy the slavery thing, because slavery was pretty bad, and being a symbiont was pretty good, agency or not. What mostly confused the issue for me was making Shori look ten. If she had looked 20 even, the whole pedophile thing would have been out the window. I would have thrown out the black thing too, although I thought it was pretty clever to postulate that melanin would enable vampires to tolerate the sun better. But without the age and race thing, we could have looked at the master/slave or agency/no agency scenario with a less-jaundiced eye.

  12. Teresa says:

    I think it was the way the Ina defended what they were doing that made me think of the slavery angle. (We’re taking good care of them. They’re well-fed. They’re better off with us looking after them. They seem happy.) It’s the kind of thing a “good master” might have said. To me, it was chilling because they’re talking about stripping people of free will for these “benefits.” It might look good on the surface, but is it? Can it possibly be?

  13. Margot says:

    This sounds way too weird for me. I was relieved when I saw your 2.5. My other thought was this: Looks like we are aiming for diversity in the vampire genre.

  14. Megan says:

    I’ve been meaning to read another Octavia Butler ever since I read (and loved!) Kindred. I don’t think this will be the one, though. It sounds weird at best, totally gross at worst.

  15. Jenny says:

    Oh God, I’m so relieved to find someone else who doesn’t love Octavia Butler right in the face. I had a lot of this brand of problem with Kindred — like Octavia Butler had brought things up and then not dealt with them in an interesting and meaningful way.

  16. Jenners says:

    You are reading (or at least reviewing) some weird-ass books lately!?

  17. June says:

    This sounds beyond weird, but I enjoyed your review. Thanks!

  18. Alyce says:

    Ew! This just sounds awful. I have no desire whatsoever to read this. I’ve heard good things about this author, but I’m not into that type of sci-fi.

  19. Aarti says:

    Ohmigoodness, this sounds really, really disturbing. I am sad because I read and enjoyed Butler’s Kindred, but this… well, I was turned off by the vampire thing in the first place, but why make her 10? I wonder if it’s supposed to symbolize helplessness or something… but who knows?

  20. amymckie says:

    Sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy this one. The age thing especially creeped me out as well, but I loved the interplay within the Ina communities on what it meant that Shori was black.

  21. Novroz says:

    I like the way you give your opion on the book. I have never tried doing such review.

    From your review, without seeing your points on the book, I don’t think I will put this on my TBR list. Then after reading you points, it definitely not my kind of book. But it’s a great review I should say.

  22. laura says:

    Why do we often placidly accept a 200+ year old vampire who looks 24 romantically entangled with a 16 year old girl (think buffy and angel, for example), but we squirm at the idea of a 53 year old vampire who appears to be 10 having a tryst with a 24 year old man? Which true age gap (ie mental rather than physical appearance) is more troubling? A 30 year age gap between two adults (“adult” by human standards, that is) seems much more appropriate than a 200 year age gap wherein one partner is a minor (in appearance AND in lived years). Perhaps Butler is intentionally trying to “creep out” the reader and, in doing so, commenting on the perception of age differences in vampire romances and the implications of romantically pairing human characters with characters whose physical appearance obscures their actual lived/experienced years.

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