The Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

I awoke to darkness.

There is no denying that this was an ambitious novel. From the outset, Butler makes it clear that she has a powerful, unique interpretation of the vampire genre and intends to explore it in depth. And that aspect of it, the world building, is truly impressive. What’s more, in every chapter of the novel, the reader discovers more about that world and we are gradually given the impression of a rich and ancient culture living parallel to our own.

However, I almost feel that, such was the strength of Butler’s vision, that she allowed to take over to the detriment of everything else. This isn’t quite the Silmarillion, but I found myself reading this book increasingly as I might an academic text rather than a work of fiction. In fact, it read as nothing quite so much as a philosophical thought experiment – and as one, it is fascinating: throughout the novel it keeps raising and exploring ethical questions through the medium of the narrative. Every chapter, I came away wanting to discuss what I had read with someone else. But the story itself and the characters felt lacking. It seemed Butler would take some effort to introduce each character and then, job done, leave them as just another agent in the text. The only character given any opportunity to develop was the protagonist, and even her journey felt a bit stilted.

As a investigation into the vampire genre and into human morality, it is well worth a read. But as a novel, I was left a little cold.

In depth discussion (spoilers):

It is certainly a commendation of the novel that I am really keen to discuss it. And the opening chapter was near-to-perfect. The chapter starts with our protagonist who, at the time, is nothing more than a voice, an appetite, an Id. Images and urges, feelings and disconnect is all we have on the page. Slowly, as it pieces itself together, recovers from whatever trauma it had, it becomes less a voice and more a character. Slowly it develops an ego. The poignant moment comes when the voice becomes aware of its own nakedness, and suddenly we move from appetite to something more self aware – we have the ego. It was beautifully done , and over the course of the next few chapters, the slow process of self-recognition is perfectly executed. It felt like an analogy of the Garden Eden and the loss of innocence (particularly as her loss of innocence moves through the needful taking of life to survive and finally to the wilful act of sexual pleasure). What also works really well here is the way that, as a reader, you start off with assumed greater knowledge than the protagonist. She has no memory or understanding, we almost certainly recognise from the start the various vampire tropes being explored. From my point of view, I assumed the first chapter depicted the birth of a vampire – a newly turned, recently deceased victim, with no knowledge of its prior life. What Butler then does is gradually subvert the genre and undermine our expectations.

The first shock of the novel is the fact that she is a child. Shori is depicted as a child, both in the lifespan of the ‘vampires’ (who I will now call the Ina) and in physical appearance, and this presents the first of the moral ‘problems’ Butler explores. Before we are given any background or explanation, it is made clear that Wright is attracted to her, for all she looks like a child. True, he is conflicted about it, but the moment Shori makes it clear that she thinks she should have sex with him, he drops all inhibitions. This is a fascinating move by Butler. As readers, we are told to imagine a fully grown man having sexual relations with someone who looks like a child. We are also told, fairly soon after this, that she is actually older than Wright – but then the fact that, as far as the Ina are concerned, that still means she is a child and not fully grown or capable of bearing children. Therefore, we get the fascinating mural dilemma: according to Ina society, the relationship is acceptable and normal, so how should we read it? Is a discomfort with the relationship legitimate, or merely the result of a non-rational “yuk” response? Or is the fact that Wright was attracted to her before he knew it was safe sufficient to condemn him (and, if not, what are we saying?)

Moving on, we are given a protracted exploration of the ethics of protagonist’s feeding habits and the way it binds the symbionts to the Ina (and visa versa). Again, this is a fascinating ethical question and is dealt with pretty well. Recognising the control and power she will have over Wright, she tries to give him a choice before it is too late. Later, when Wright discovers more about the life he is going to leave, he professes to regret his decision – as such we can ask here whether his decision was truly an informed choice. Furthermore, considering the doomed Theodora has barely had the opportunity to be fully bound to her and yet seems unable to give her up, we are left wondering whether any of them ever had any free will from the moment Shori starts feeding. All symbionts we encounter appear to be happy in their respective positions regardless of how the Ina treat them: whatever hormone is present in the Ina’s saliva is enough to bind humans to them both by a physical, mortal need and psychologically. Moreover, the narrative starts to explore how female Ina, and our protagonist in particular, give off powerful hormones which leave male Ina almost powerless before them. This entire society seems to be built up around control and submission. The implication seems to be that this is all consensual – but there we have another question: by consenting to submit to the Ina, the symbionts are also giving up their ability to take away their consent later on, where does that leave us on the moral question of freedom and control?

As I have started to explore here, there are countless discussions to be had about the moral dimension of this novel and I really wanted to like it. However, the storytelling felt far too clumsy for my liking. For example, at the beginning, when our protagonist is trying to decipher her life, she chooses a name for herself: Renee. In part, as the novel makes clear (and Shori herself uses as an argument against many of the other characters), the character we encounter is entirely separate from Shori as she was before the attack, as such, the naming of her as Renee seemed significant. One almost expects a discussion on dead naming here – “I am not Shori, I have no memory of her and I expect you to accept me in my new life”; yet within a couple of chapters, her father has informed her of her true name, Shori, and this has been accepted without question; the naming is supplanted and even Wright accepts it without any real protest: the entire naming is is forgotten about within a chapter.

If that had been the one instance, I might have let it lie, but Butler’s narrative is full of instances that feel superfluous or lack conviction. One of my biggest complaints here was when the murder plot against Shori starts to be explored. The moment they sit down to try and work out what has been going on, they almost immediately hit upon the idea that it must be to do with the fact that she is a genetic experiment. Nothing prior to that in the narrative gave us any indication that there was any reason to suspect that was a motive – our characters know nothing about Ina society, Shori does not even understand the basics of race. Yet, for some reason she becomes utterly convinced that the reason her two families, who she can’t even remember, were killed was because she is black. Furthermore, Wright, who knows even less about the society (lacking her innate knowledge) immediately agrees. The fact that it was so quickly jumped upon so early on in the story made me wonder whether it was misdirection but, no, that sudden guess in chapter 10 proves to be the unquestioned truth of the novel.

Characterisation-wise, Butler clearly has an idea about what each character is like, but then she leaves it at that. There is very little character development, including from Shori, and most feelings and conflicts are described matter of factly and then set aside. Wright’s journey and conflict is interesting enough: we get the moral conflict he encounters over Shori’s childlike form, his dilemma about leaving his job and community and he dilemma about the mind control. We even get a pretty interesting discussion on toxic masculinity through Wright – at one point Wright essentially tries to rape Shori in a seeming attempt to assert some kind of traditional patriarchal role, later we see Wright battling with his discomfort at their being another man in Shori’s life (he can cope with sharing her sexually and emotionally with women, but really doesn’t like the idea of sharing her with another man – how sweet!), and I must say I appreciated the way Butler takes apart those traditional feeling regarding a man’s possession of his partner within the narrative. But that was it. Once that character journey was done, we barely return to Wright at all. Her two surviving female symbionts, Brook and Celia, are referred to so generically that I couldn’t tell them apart, and the new boy, Joel, seems to have no narrative point beyond being very pretty and giving Wright a reason to huff around for a bit. As for the huge cast of tertiary characters, including the villains, they were utterly two dimensional. Meanwhile, once Shori had guessed the cause of the murders, the entire narrative felt like one, inevitable serie of events punctuated by moments of exposition about the nature of Ina society.

Overall, I got the impression that Butler was painting a picture of a society that was essentially idealistic and escapist. This, in itself, was a marvellous exploration: this was a society free from sickness, almost entirely self-sufficient and content in itself. The only drawback the society had was the mutual enslavement of all its members: no one member, including the most powerful Ina, arguably has free will. Just as each symbionts is tied to their Ina, the Ina cannot survive physically or emotionally without their symbionts. Butler provocatively suggests that such a life could be a model for utopia and the narrative seeks to demonstrate how many of our moral hangups quickly become irrelevant once the stakes have been changed. I really liked the ideas explored here, but, ultimately, the telling of them were so frustrating as to make me reluctant to encourage others to read the book. And that truly is a pity.

That said, I may well return to it in a few years, and that in itself suggest that perhaps the Fledgling was a success.

So, what do you think? If you’ve read the book, is this a fair assessment? Average ratings for the book are very favourable, so am I being unfair? I’d be fascinated to know your thoughts.