Love means never having to say … I’m hungry
With winter’s deep chills settling in, the Beamers settled down to wrestle with Octavia Butler’s final work, Fledgling, the story of a young, amnesiac vampire who has to rebuild her life after her family (or families) are slain. Taking a first-person perspective, the novel effectively drops the reader into a world and a society that the Beamers liked to describe as “creepy”. It is a love story, though perhaps not one appropriate for Valentine’s Day with chocolates and roses as much as for Guyana with Kool-Aid.
In Small Packages come Large Gifts?
Shori Matthews is the title character, a young woman apparently 10-11 years old, who is actually a 53-year-old vampire (or “Ina”). She survives an attack that wiped out all of her mothers and their community, and so she must initially fend for herself, forming her own community of “symbionts”, humans bound to her by chemical/psychological attractions that bring pleasure and, to Shori, nutrition. Finding her father, Shori seems to be safe, only to have his community destroyed, forcing her and her small sym band to flee to the household of her promised fiances.
Ms. Butler puts together a detailed and convincing foreign “vampire” world, one where the elders are older than Columbus’s discovery of the Americas and yet they have adopted cell phones and genetic engineering. Shori, in fact, is a product of gene splicing, adding human genes to her Ina heritage to produce a vampire who can survive sunlight (if still at risk of burns) and stay awake during the daytime (where other Ina are comatose after sun-up). Our discussion of vampire biology brought out a lot of the questions that Ms. Butler did not answer, either from choice (authors are fond of setting up mysteries) or from circumstance (her untimely death occurred not long after publication in 2005, preventing any continuations). Liz felt that skating over details of the genetics was probably for the best, letting the book escape severe nit-picking for its askew biology.
The Family that Preys Together
But, we still puzzled over some of the basics, such as Ina mating (were the multiple marriages that the Ina favored a product of biology or of culture? What was and for how long did Ian gestation occur? Was the prevalence of tall/blond/pale Ina an integral part of their genetics or an accident of more recent (i.e., ten thousand years ago) origins?). We noted their obvious differences: beyond the blood-sucking, Ina have enhanced senses, which changes some of the descriptive passages from “sight” to “smell” focus, as Nick observed. And the overall benefits of Ina biology (extremely long lifespans, rapid healing, regrowth of limbs, low-to-no incidence of disease), all of which are shared with their human symbionts, make for an attractively seductive package, one that drew Beamers like Kathy to wonder if accepting the Ina lifestyle would be a good life choice.
But, there are also clear (if muted) disadvantages. Since the characters are all chemically euphoric at times, their own allegiance to Ina society is rather suspect, even as the novel allows for much defense of the Ina way of life versus the mainstream human (afflicted with violence, poverty, oppression). With all its benefits, the Ina lifestyle never quite loses the “creepiness” that threads throughout the book. Kathy, for all her admiration of a long, emotionally secured life, never felt comfortable with the blood-sucking, even as the repetition of it made it look and feel almost commonplace.
Fran found that repetition to be specifically off-putting, particularly with the sexualized nature of the interaction involving much biting and licking of wounds (all for preventive and healing reasons, but still …). My crowning moment of squick came with the death of Theodora, the latest of Shori’s acquisitions. The focus of handling her death is less on dealing with the loss of a loved companion and more on avenging the insult to the community; this is a cult, I realized. The Ina households, for all the bright, cheery, loving family-oriented moments, are a bunch of Jonestowns, focused inward and cut off from the “outside” world. Which is how the Ina like it.
In a Mirror, No Reflection
Ms. Butler is thus able to draw in the reader and leave her alienated as well, a very neat trick. But not all Beamers fell for it. Carol and Alan both found themselves unengaged with the characters, even if (for Carol) the plot and the mystery did help carry the book to its conclusion. Shori as amnesia victim left her a blank slate for Alan, one that did not get filled in any interesting ways, though Chris liked the mechanism of amnesia allowing for exposition in a somewhat natural way (Shori could seek explanations for anything, even actions that came “naturally” to her). I felt that the formal diction of the characters (all the Ina speak in long, complete sentences), perhaps not surprising for characters who average 300 years of age, tended to make them seem a bit distant. Still, that formal language could be used to good effect. The climactic trial scenes had a certain amount of drama and allowed for some needed insight into Ina history. It also revealed some basic wrongs embedded in their psyches, too, such as racism.
It is not surprising to see Ms. Butler use genetic mixing and fear of the Other in her fiction. Donna noted several examples in other works like the Xenogenesis cycle (Dawn, Adult Rites, Imago). Our questions, though, centered around how the Ina would/could adopt an attitude toward strictly human differences. To me, it seemed like humans arguing against brown cows in favor of red-and-white ones (Guernseys good! Jerseys bad!). Donna thought that the historical arguments brought up at the trial about Ina who saw African slaves and thus were taught racism, would be a legitimate channel of transmission. Kathy felt it could be subsumed into the overall racial superiority complex (the eldest Ina making a “welcoming” speech including a statement about treating humans “with kindness and firmness”), but we did point out that slurs against Shori were always phrased as color-based (“black mongrel”) to include not just her human heritage but specifically its African basis. So, even Paradise comes with front-of-the-bus and back-of-the-bus seating.
Gone Too Soon
The overall impression was of a book that was well-written enough to help even the squeamish over the disturbing early chapters (including the awful discovery, one that shook Liz along with the rest of us, that Shori ate a human being after she first awakens and desperately needed protein). So, while the ratings fot the book all hit 6 to 8, the sense of recommending the book, particularly with its various “triggers” (like pederasty, as Nick warned, with a seeming 11-year-old getting all frisky with adults), made us pause and consider. We could pass a copy along, but we did feel the need to say “Handle with caution”.