Fledgling by Butler, Octavia, 2005

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About two-and-a-half years ago the world lost one of the most interesting and original voices in SF. Octavia E. Butler slipped while walking out of her Seattle, Washington home, struck her head on a hard surface, and passed away shortly thereafter. It was a very sad day. Butler was the winner of a MacArthur Foundation grant: As in, the genius award, that gives people with worthy skills and abilities the gift of $500,000 so that they can benefit the country as they see fit. I'm not sure which of her prior works prompted that award, or if all of them did, but bet your bottom dollar she deserved it. The last book she wrote before her untimely death was called Fledgling, and was a vampire novel that did its best to stay away from hack concepts and tried, admirably, to introduce new elements of vampire lore. Four out of five stars.

As vampire books go, I'm not such a big fan. I had my day with Rice's Vampire Chronicles and King's 'Salem's Lot. I loved my copy of McCammon's Under the Fang, and will always have a copy of Stoker's masterpiece in my collection. But I realized early in life that zombies are much cooler in the books and movies than they ever were in Dungeons & Dragons, and my focus has ever since been on them for quality monster stories. But like Rice's books, Fledgling really is not a monster story. Instead of focusing on either the hunt/pray aspect of vampire/human interaction, or the mythology, as Rice did, or on the monster value which is what King did, Butler instead explores the symbiotic relationship of vampires and humans. Rice attempted to do this to a limited degree, but instead wound up with monster stories that were heavily draped with lore, first with LeStat, then with the Egyptian Queen Akasha. Like Rice Butler did build up a new mythology about vampires, but it was in no way a part of the main focus of her work, as it was in Rice's. You could almost call Fledgling one of the most gentle vampire books out there, if it weren't for all the vampire-on-vampire crime that occurs within the two covers.

The plot of the book is equally as important to Butler as is describing a new kind of vampire. In this book Shori, a vampire youth who appears 10 years old but is actually 53, wakes up in a cave badly burned and in serious need of flesh and blood. Major portions of her anatomy are gone, and her mind was working no better than a hungry wounded animal's. She finds sustenance, and after eating flesh, begins to heal. Vampires in this story heal wounds by eating raw flesh, and feed by drinking blood. Shori begins to regain her wits, and realizes that she has no memory of anything recent at all. She wanders to the road and flags down Vaughn who becomes her first thrall. As she goes through the next few days she begins to recall things like computers, phones, cars and the like, but has no memory of people or where she lived. It appears that her memory is gone for good, but she starts investigating and learns that she was a resident of a vampire and symbiont village that was located near her cave, but is now burned to the ground. After a search she learns that her father lives nearby. She returns to him, and is told that she is the first ever hybrid vampire. She is the product of genetic manipulation at the germ level, and is the daughter of an African American human mother and a vampire (called, "Ina") father. Shortly after she learns this the father's village is attacked and destroyed, and all vampires and symbiont that live there are murdered, just as they were at Shori's original village. Shori then goes on the run, and eventually learns that she is the target of certain groups of vampires that hate her for the color of her skin, and seem to be willing to do anything and everything to murder her.

The project that she is the result of was an attempt to breed a vampire that can go into the daylight. As a result of the manipulation Shori is the first ever black vampire. She in fact can go into the daylight, and has many other advantages over even other vampires. She is much stronger than usual, much faster than others. She can go into daylight when covered and not burn, and does fall into torpor at night. She has extremely potent venom (see below), and is maybe one of the most empathetic vampires in the entire book. Butler went far to create a new vampire lore in this book. The Vampires are a different race than ours, and reproduce sexually, as we do. They do not create new vampires by biting or trading blood. They prefer to have covens of symbiont that they draw a little blood from each day, and do not kill when they feed, ever. The vampires produce a venom that over a short period of time chemically bonds them to their symbiont. The venom makes symbiont's wounds heal quickly, creates ecstasy in the symbiont when the vampire is feeding, makes the symbiont age very slowly so that the average life span is stretched to over 300 years, and literally causes the symbiont to fall in love with the vampire, and causes the vampire to fall in love with the symbiont as well. The venom is so powerful and unique that if the vampire dies, the symbiont usually die shortly thereafter, even if another vampire attempts to bond to the symbiont.

Butler avoids all the stupid conventions of vampire stories of days past, such as being allergic to garlic, inability to cast a reflection, ability to morph into a wolf, or a rat, or a cloud of smoke, and needing permission to enter a house. Rice pretty much did away with all that for good, and good riddance, I say.

Socially the vampires are quite different from us too. The main sense that they use to navigate through the world is scent, although all other senses are heightened. Scent drives vampires in Butler's work to do almost all that they do. As a result, breeding females and breeding males cannot live together, even if they are family. Males therefore have their own villages, and females their own. When they do bond for mating, its pretty much forever, even though they still continue to live apart. They also will mate with all members of the opposite sex within a specific generational family line, in order (I think) to ensure the strength of their own genetic lines, through diversity of contributor's genes. And while the sexual relationships that they form with other vampires is based on compatibility of genetic material and are thus entirely heterosexual, the sexual relationships that they develop with symbiont are made on a more personal level, and frequently are homosexual.

The themes in this book are legion, and Butler weaves a tale that winds them up very tightly. The attacks on the villages are obviously reminiscent of terrorism. The attacks on Shori are direct examples of racism, and are probably the stronger themes that run throughout the book. Most of Butler's other works are replete with both moderate feminist and moderate racial undertones. This book is no exception, and Butler does a very laudable job of attacking the irrationality and absurdity of racism with calculate but very passionate rhetoric. In this case, Butler nobly has Shori participate in a trial where the issues are at first skirted, then vetted openly. This is where Butler's personal connection with her work really shines through, and is the reason I'm giving the book as high a rating as I am. Additionally, the vampires are as highly eroticized as in most other vampire books, but Butler carefully weaves in the notions of love to great effect. Individualism runs strongly throughout the book as well, and it is the only intellectual way I can reconcile a female that appears to be 10 years engaging in sex with a mature male. I actually find those scenes a little disturbing, despite the knowledge that Shori is 1) not a human, and 2) 53 years old. Overcoming this hurdle was probably the biggest leap that Butler had to make in bringing this book together, and despite the strong cultural taboos, she did a pretty good job of it. But as a word to the cautions, beware! These ideas are not for the feint of heart.

Technically Butler's style is masterful. What I really liked about her is that all of her books, without exception, are really easy reads. She is clear in her prose, and very descriptive. Some of her books, maybe even this one, read like YA adventures with mature themes. She is also very highly skilled at not only wrapping up a large number of loose ends, but relating the strands that those ends come from to each other. I think that holistically Butler may have been one of the best SF authors ever. Some people tend to think that her books are overwritten and that she tries to tackle too many ideas at once. That may be the case, but she is so capable an author that a casual reader will never realize it. Butler's books are never clumsy or plodding, and a reader who isn't looking at the technical aspects of her prose will probably not mind that so many ideas, topics, themes and characters were used in the telling of her story. Butler is the kind of author that I think will appeal to everyone. This is not her best work, in my opinion. Those may be Wild Seed and Kindred, among others. But if you come across this one in your searches for new reading material, you will be getting a high quality novel.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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