Fledgling – Octavia E. Butler 4/5
Thanks to NetGalley and Library of America for the ARC.
Octavia E. Butler had a 7-year break in publishing new works before she gave us vampires in Fledgling in 2005.
Fledgling follows the experiences of a young woman who wakes up in a cave in a forest with strange injuries – burns all over her body, her skull is cracked in several places and she has no memories. We see all this from her perspective. We see her try to wake up, attempt to regain strength, hunt and survive. Once she is feeling a little bit better she starts exploring her surroundings.
She is found by a young man while she was walking down a dark road. Once she is joined by another human, we see that she appears to be a young teenage girl and that she is dark skinned. He offers to help her but she knows somehow instinctively that she should avoid both the hospital and the police. The two struggle in the car and she bites his hand. We learn with her that she is a vampire and that there is something different there. The result of the bite is very surprising – for both of them. She realizes she wants more of human blood (previously she had fed on animals), and the guy experiences a really strange pleasure from her bite.
What follows is her attempt at finding out what happened to her, her family and friends. She meets relatives, well meaning strangers and people wanting to complete what started this whole thing.
This book offers a truly unique type of vampires in my opinion. I have read a few different fantasy books that centre around vampires. I’ve even read a couple of nonfiction analyses of the vampire myths and legends. This one is different from anything I’d come across. Vampires here have some of the standard traits – feed on blood, are practically immortal, can regenerate, need to sleep during day, are hurt by the sun. All of that is also present here, but Butler also adds her own touches – vampire venom is addictive to humans, vampires are a separate species from humans and there is no way of turning humans into vampires, vampires mate and procreate in groups, vampires usually live in single sex familial vampire settlements with each vampire having 7 symbiots (humans they feed on), symbiots are paired with only one vampire and they aren’t passed along between vampires…
Butler also gives us a wonderful insight into the familial traditions of vampire communities, and at the same time gives us a look at the more intricate connections that make up that entire society. It is a truly wonderful look at families, communities and history.
All of this could be interpreted, and I am sure many have done so, as a study of the segregation present in today’s society, not just on racial basis, but also on basis of gender. Butler’s women characters in Fledgling are strong, single minded and independent, but also feel a deep need for connection with others. The connections our young protagonist builds are not limited to heterosexual or platonic ones, neither are they “age appropriate” some might say, but I see it more as a way to question our presumptions.
What many have noted as a criticism of this work is the fact that the main character who is 53 appears to others to be a young teenage girl, clearly not yet 18. This causes trouble because she develops a romantic and very explicit relationship with the young man (23) that saved her. He is aware that the age is a problem and is very vocal about that as he sees her naked body for the first time, which means that we are aware of that as well. Very aware. I understand why this is seen as problematic by many, heck, even I had to stop reading when this first intimate scene was shown, but I feel that this is not enough to throw this book away as “paedophilia” as I’ve seen it described in comments.
This was my second novel by Butler, and I see the reason why these two were included in the Library of America collection. They can be seen as two book ends of her writing career. Kindred at the start of it and Fledgling at the end. Where Kindred talks about a woman who is aware of so much and is thrown among dangerous people in a dangerous time and she uses her knowledge to save herself, here we have a woman who is thrown into a dangerous situation with no memories. Two completely different characters who both need to find a way to survive, and survive they do. These books offer us a look into the psyche of a woman, a woman of colour in Kindred, and of an experiment, an experiment of colour in Fledgling. We also look at love connections, families, and the functioning of societies. All this in the guise of science fiction and fantasy. Wonderful reads and a writer I want to read more of.