These vampires aren’t sparkly. These vampires don’t turn into bats or sleep in coffins. These vampires are visible in mirrors, they are polyamorous, symbiotic, and their story in Octavia Butler’s 2005 novel Fledgling looks at issues of race, jealousy, love, addiction, interdependence, and justice. In short: Butler’s vampires are the next vampires that you should be reading.
It begins with amnesia. Shori, Fledgling‘s narrator, wakes up in a cave, in pain and with no idea where she is or what has happened. By her side, we stumble and crawl, learning about the world of the novel as she re-learns her story, her history, and her world. It makes for a jarring experience, yet a smooth transition into the world of the novel—jarring because there is a painful element of rebirth to this journey, but smooth because we are not dumped into the world all at once, but rather small step for small step, alongside Shori.
Though Shori appears to be a girl—10, 12 tops—it turns out that she is 53 years old—and a vampire. Still a child in terms of the physical development of her people, the Ina, but an adult in human terms, and sexually active. Problematic is that when she has sex with an adult human, it starts to look like child porn. Many reviewers have frowned long and deep at this element of the story. How could Butler sexualize a child?! But to say that is to ignore the reality of Shori’s species and situation. Let’s give Butler some credit: Shori’s smallness and her child-like figure are not specifically fetishized during the sex scenes, Shori explicitly discuss the issue with her sexual partners, and Butler makes it clear that this is sex between two consenting adults.
One blogger (Renee Martin of Womanist Musings) who expressed disgust at what she calls the “explicit pedophilia” of Fledgling argues: “Shori is a child by Ina standards, though she is over 50. Physically she looks human. Specifically, she looks like a black girl of around 10 or 11 years old. Let’s be clear here, she is a child and has the body of a child. She is specifically considered to be a child by all of the Ina, despite the fact that her age would make her the equivalent of a mature human woman.”
But this reading ignores the details of the text. Shori appears to be a human child, but she is not a human child. She is not human at all. She is a member of a different species with very different physical development and physical needs, as well as cultural standards that have developed to nurture those processes. While it is true that Shori is considered an Ina “child” in that she has not finished growing (in strength and power) and cannot yet bear children, in Ina culture she is also considered “of age” for sexual relations with humans, something that is also explicitly stated in the story. The point is, perhaps, that adulthood, maturity, and age do not translate directly between species. Though Shori has the stature of a human child—and it really bears repeating—she is not a human child. Combined with the fact that the novel talks explicitly and repeatedly about consent in both sexual and emotional relationships, the “explicit pedophilia” reading that so many reviewers have expressed feels to me like one that has allowed shock to obscure the details of the text.
A less talented author would have probably fucked this up big time. Butler makes us uncomfortable and that makes us think—probably more than we ever wanted to—about the problems of interspecies sexual relationships, of consent, and of what words like “adult” and “mature” mean. Given the potential for controversy the choice of Shori’s appearance obviously has, however, I do wonder why Butler chose it.
If anyone is getting duped into non-consensual sex here, it is the humans—that is to say, the “adults”—because it turns out that vampire venom is a lot like heroin. It makes you feel really good, and it is really addictive. Interestingly, Butler turns this into a complex vision of symbiosis and interdependence, showcasing both the ways in which it can be detrimental and demeaning and the ways in which it can lead to loving, healthy relationships. Again, the emphasis is on consent, trust, and kindness. The vampires who see their humans as lesser beings, who treat them poorly, are the obvious villains of this story, while the sympathetic characters explore the dimensions of healthy, happy interdependence.
The depiction of symbiosis and interdependence as positives were really interesting for me as a reader. Independence is so highly valued in western cultures that it is rare to hear someone talk about the value of interdependence, the necessity of it to remain healthy (think of the dependence of parent and child, or elderly and adult children, think of the discomfort we often feel in these situations and why). The Ina need their humans as much as their humans come to need them—withdraw from Ina venom will kill them, but it also extends their longevity and makes them immune to most sickness—and I really enjoyed reading a story where dependence was not equated with weakness.
Fledgling is a pretty sexy novel, yet Butler’s vampires aren’t your classic sexy vampires. They don’t swoop around in capes, white as the printer paper I forgot to buy at the office supply store yesterday. Shori, for one, is black, and it is because of this—her skin color is allegedly the result of a genetic experiment done by her parents, an experiment because Butler’s vampires can’t breed with humans—that she is both more powerful than any other vampires (she can stay awake during the day, for one, and go outside in the sun for a while, for two, if she covers up most of her skin) and the object of many of her peers’ scorn. But the sex scenes aren’t just sexy because Butler wrote them well, they are sexy because they are consensual, loving, and not exclusively heterosexual. And polyamorous!
Race in Fledgling
Martin has this to say about Shori’s race in Fledgling: “Shori is the only Black Ina – but except for skin colour, she is indistinguishable from the White Ina. There is no sense of differing culture or experiences—it’s black character for the sake of inclusion without Blackness as a culture. She is yet another example of a White girl painted Black. It’s further glaring in Shori’s case because her amnesia gives her no experience at all—this makes the White female Ina the ones who define what is and is not a womanhood/feminine—and they are actively educating Shori on how to be a ‘proper’ Ina Woman. This a pattern that is already glaringly established in real world history and is still active today.”
This is where my reaction to Fledgling and my disagreement with Martin become complicated. I am white; Martin is black. As a white reviewer, my opinions on the race issues in Fledgling are not the most important opinions on the subject—the opinions of black reviewers are. Yet as reviewers often disagree, I have no idea if my disagreement with Martin’s reading is due to my failure to understand the race issues at play or a disagreement based on our methods of textual analysis. I haven’t had time to figure out which of the hundreds of reviews of Fledgling have been written by black reviewers, so I haven’t been able to form an informed opinion on our disagreement. If anyone can point me to other reviews written by black writers I would be much obliged.
White culture dominates the public eye in the West, is often painted as if it is the only culture there is. In Fledgling this experience is made literal: Shori is the first and only black vampire. Butler shows us Shori’s discomfort at this, at having to learn how to be a woman from her white cousins because it will help her survive in this world. She is uncomfortable with her lack of knowledge and often with the people she is forced to get it from. This situation makes it easy and perfectly accurate to call Shori a “White girl painted Black,” but I think Butler’s intent was not to recreate a prevalent stereotype, but to break it open for all to see by making it literal, the same way she does with the issues of sexual consent and polyamory in the novel. Western culture acts as if there is no black culture, and so Butler shows readers how horrible that feels by creating a world where there is no black (vampire) culture and then showing us a black character dealing with that. Is Butler trying to make it easier for those who will never be isolated from their own cultural traditions by those of a loud and racist mainstream to understand what that experience must feel like? Or is Fledgling a total racefail?
Whatever the answer to those questions, Fledgling is a novel that makes most readers uncomfortable, and if it was intentional, we can probably agree on one thing: Butler has succeeded in writing a deeply disturbing book. Whether it makes us re-examine our assumptions about race or whether it, as Martin posits, is racist itself is a question I don’t feel qualified to answer.
The polyamory and the same-sex love
As you’ve probably noticed, there has been a lot of gasping and protesting in response to Fledgling, gasping and protesting that I think is more knee-jerk than close read. I feel compelled to respond to those reactions. I respect Octavia Butler’s brain and writing too much not to come to her defense. So I will refute Martin one last time, as her review contains all of the traditional complaints filed against this book. Fledgling is heteronormative, she says. Holy shit, I say. Did we really read the same book?
Martin’s impression stems from the fact that characters outside of the vampire-human symbiotic group marriages are constantly asking if various characters “mind” having sex with a same-sex vampire, even if they hadn’t previously identified as gay. People outside of the relationship only see the vampire venom that makes these characters, quite literally, addicted to their lovers. The addictive nature of vampire venom complicates the question of consent (which, again, is discussed openly and often throughout the novel), but it reminds me of being in love with anyone. You can’t stop thinking about them. You feel like you need them, need to be near them. You are destroyed if you are not granted those things. How much like addiction is human-human love? How much like withdraw the end of a love affair?
Once again, Butler has just made something that happens in the real world—the experience of love as an addiction, and not always in a positive way—literal so as to force us to examine the complicated nature of all of our thoughts about consent, love, and dependence.
Yes, the question “do you mind” shows the existence of a heteronormative mainstream world. But the Ina group marriages shows a world where same-sex marriages and polyamory exist in spite of such ignorant questions. (Just like the real world.) Butler has made literal an issue that gay humans have to deal with constantly. I.e. that hetereonormative folks cannot fathom that their love is real, that it isn’t a manipulation—the devil! addiction! insanity!—and so they ask questions that imply that same sex or polyamorous love could not possibly be real or exist outside of an outside influence. (Did I mention that this is just like the real world?)
Similarly ignorant characters also ask if the symbiant human characters “mind” the lack of monogamy in Ina relationships. Some human members of the Ina group marriages have trouble with jealousy, but this does not make the book pro monogamy (or heteronormative in the case of questions about gender in the group marriages)—it shows the reader what is feels like to be in a loving relationship that the dominant culture doesn’t understand.
Some of the characters do mind, do struggle with sharing their partner. Those who have been taught to see serial monogamy as The One True Way often feel jealousy in a polyamorous situation and have trouble coping because they have been told their entire lives that it is wrong/not possible/doesn’t exist. Most of the symbiant humans have never been in a polyamorous relationship before, and some of them have an easier time adjusting than others. But—just like in the real world exclafuckingmationpoint—if you fall in love with someone who is polyamorous, who can’t do a relationship any other way, you might try to adjust because you’re in love. People on the outside judge. People on the outside ask if you mind, or call the situation utopian, or shake their heads. People on the inside of the relationship try and talk and learn about their comfort zones. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they do not. Not everybody can or wants to adapt to a polyamorous situation, and the novel reflects this in all its complexity. Once again Butler delivers a nuanced portrayal of a real-life situation, polyamory, from multiple perspectives in the guise of a fantasy novel. Shit, Fledgling is barely a fantasy novel at all.
I could write a novel about this book. I could expand each paragraph to include quotes proving my point, could get into a word-by-word analysis of Fledgling. I am tempted to build an altar to the complexity and depth of this book. But, hey, you might just want to read it for yourself.
9 out of 10.5 awesome things.
Where I got it: Borrowed, epub