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
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!
Published by Seven Stories Press, 2005