Fledgling, Octavia E. Butler’s last novel, is a tight, plot-driven story about an amnesiac recovering from great trauma–at the novel’s opening, she is blind, severely burned, has a head injury, and absolutely no memory of who she is–and her quest to find out about herself, where she comes from, and why she was so terribly injured.
Shori’s story is told in the first person, so at the beginning we know just as much as she does: not much. She is in intense amounts of pain, blind, and knows only that she is terribly, terribly hungry. Too injured to move on her own, she stays where she wakes (which turns out to be a cave), and attacks and eats the first animal to come near her, which allows her heal enough to move and hunt further. Thus begins her story.
Starting off the narrative with a character who is an almost completely blank slate allows the reader to gradually learn as Shori does. She catches sight of herself in a mirror fairly early in the narrative, and from her self-description, we find that she appears to be a prepubescent black girl whose hair is just beginning to regrow.
I mention this description because though her physical age appears to be about ten years, intellectually she is not young or immature, and I had a difficult time throughout the novel reconciling someone so young in appearance behaving in an adult manner. Butler makes it clear that even though Shori does not remember her past and does not actually know how old she is, the impressions of behavior and propriety that have carried forward through her amnesia are those of someone much more mature than she appears. Nonetheless, I had a tough time with the apparent ages when she had intimate encounters with adult humans. She appears to be about ten, so each kiss, caress, or orgasmic feeding encounter was disturbing to me.
Shori comes to learn that she is (as the back cover mentions – I wouldn’t spoil this, otherwise) the result of her family’s genetic manipulations with vampire and human DNA, a vampire who can stay awake during the day and function in the sunlight. The key to diurnal survival, it seems, is melanin, which explains her dark skin while the other vampires she meets are all light-skinned. It becomes apparent that her life was, and is, in danger because of these genetic experiments and her resulting dark coloring. It seems that bigotry is not limited to humans.
In this world, vampires–who call themselves Ina–are born as Ina. They are a separate species, and there is no converting humans over. This allows for some members of the larger Ina community to view themselves as superior to humans, though they require human symbionts for survival. The bigotry in Fledgling, then, is couched in terms of Shori being “too human” or “not Ina” because of the genetic engineering that produced her, though there are definitely slurs concerning her skin color from those who want to keep the Ina bloodlines “pure.”
The community and familial structures of the Ina also allow for commentary–though it is not explicit–on the fluidity of sexuality, the importance (and possibly illusion) of free will, and what it means to be, or become, a member of a family or community. Butler manages this even while writing a narrative that is lean, to the point, and tightly paced. I was amazed at how much was packed into a fairly short novel, and pleased, too, that it can be read on a superficial level of a mystery or on a deeper social-commentary level.
An aside: I poked around a bit at the bookstore, looking for works by Nebula and Hugo awardees that I hadn’t already read. I decided on Fledgling almost entirely because of the cover image.
I judge books based on their covers, okay?
Seeing those two young feet and the burning hem made me very, very curious. I suspect this isn’t politically correct, but I’ll mention it anyway: I was interested, too, because it’s clear from the cover and from the back blurb that the protagonist is not white, and how often do you see that in a vampire book? My curiosity was such that I completely abandoned the other novels I was reading in favor of this one, and I’m glad I did. It is great reading.