Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler
Grand Central Publishing: a division of Hachette Book Group, 2005
He raised a hand to stop me, then dropped the hand to his side. “What are you then?” he whispered. And I said the only thing I could: “I don’t know.” I drew back, held his face between my hands, liking him, glad that I had found him. “Help me find out.”
And thus the journey begins for Shori Matthews. By all outward appearances–something that is at once of great and little importance in the cosmology of Butler’s masterful work–Shori has the size of a young black girl of no more than 10 or 11. In this first person narrative, by Shori’s own description, the reader learns that she is distinctly other. Her body and mind has undergone a massive trauma, rendering her wounded and devoid of the memory of her trauma, who she is, or where she belongs. She feasts on the meat of animals to regain strength and then the blood of humans for daily nourishment. She encounters Wright, a twentysomething white male, who happens upon her bloody and battered on the road one night. Intent on saving this child–he thinks–Wright becomes ‘her first’. The first (since the amnesia induced trauma) one she binds to her in the symbiotic relationship humans share with with the Ina, an otherworldly community of vampirelike creatures who have walked the earth for thousands of years. With Wright’s sanguine succor and safety, Shori discovers that she is under attack because of the genetic experiments her eldermothers and elderfathers participated in to breed a stronger less vulnerable Ina–one that can exist when the sun shines–one with black skin inducing melanin. Shori is relearning everything: who she is, how to survive, how to love, and how to exist in a world in which some want her blotted out because of her black skin. Ironically, this ‘detriment’ is what gives her an advantage no other Ina has. It makes her a day walker, stronger, strategic, and crafty.
Fledging includes all the elements of compelling science fiction and any good story: suspense, romance, throughly delineated cosmogony for its creatures, interesting characters…and there’s sex too (though not a prerequisite for compelling science fiction or any good story…a bit helps though).
“He started to leave, then turned back, frowning. “Ordinary sun exposure burns your skin even though you’re black?” “I’m…” I stopped. I had been about to protest that I was brown, not black, but before I could speak, I understood what he meant.”
Shori learns the most about her existential being from others at first. She is actually 53 human years old–the Ina live hundreds of years but age very slowly. She is black by outward appearances in all the socially constructed ways set up by humans. As many (me at least) African Americans can attest, you don’t know you’re ‘black’ until your told by someone who is not. Then you learn that it is more than a color–it holds so many layered facets that are put upon you like a script where there is only one black role–one black way of being. Shori learns about the irrational nature of this ‘othering’ when the identity of those plotting to annihilate her is revealed.
“She’s with you, and you’re going to keep her with you. As far as she’s concerned, she’s died and gone to heaven. People keep falling in love with you, Shori–men, women, old, young–it doesn’t seem to matter.”
Butler’s work includes a veritable open love fest! Happily, I could read it and enjoy it without judgery…yes judgery (forming opinions and conclusions about the rightness of something based on my own experiences/beliefs)! I’ve had this book for a couple of years. It seems that I read it when I was ready for it…after writing my own work that explores sexuality in unbounded iterations.
Shori is an Ina female, but she is free to love whom she chooses regardless of gender. It is more about the serendipity of the connection and a mixture of other factors that determine the attraction, e.g. scent. When Shori bites a human her saliva elicits an intensely pleasurable experience within the human–the bitee will obey her every command. This is where the symbiosis begins–a bit of pleasure for a bit of blood. In the cases where Shori simply needs a meal, she tells the human to forget about her–to remember her as a dream–else they would search and search for her like an addict searches for another fix. If she bites them repeatedly, they become bound to her in a permanent symbiotic relationship–the human lives for hundreds of years disease and aging free. Binding to Shori comes at a price. The Ina needs multiple partners to keep them alive so any hopes of being in a sort of Edward/Bella (i.e. monogamous) paring are dashed. This seems to be offset by the symbiont’s (name for a human who has paired with an Ina) freedom to take on other partners–only human–within or outside the ‘harem’ as Wright (her first) calls it in a fit of anger at the arrangement. The symbionts can have careers or children with other humans if they choose. The love smorgasbord is not central to the plot, but it is fodder for a great discussion amongst a book club. I love a great discussion. The polyamory seems to work in the context of the Ina community as the Ina must give their symbionts the freedom to leave—seemingly laughable after being bitten–up to a certain point. Theodora, one of Shori’s symbiont’s, summed it up well when reflecting on the new life she chooses among Shori’s community, “I’ve moved to Mars…Now I’ve got to learn how to be a good Martian.”
As a reader, I can see how easy it would be to fall in love with Shori. She wields all this power, but chooses not to lord it over others. She is as fascinated with her symbionts’ want of her as they are with wanting her. One of my favorite quotes from the book is an exchange between Theodora and Shori:
“Why?” I asked her. I had no idea what she would say. She blinked at me, looked surprised, hurt.
“Why do you want me?”…You have a particularly good scent,” I said. “I mean, not only do you smell healthy, you smell…open, wanting, alone…
She frowned. “Do you mean that I smelled lonely?”
“I think so, yes, longing, needing…”
“I didn’t imagine that loneliness had a scent.”
I highly recommend Fledgling. Many readers are tired of the vampire meme, but this novel offers something different and refreshing. This is an intoxicating read. There is something for everybody! With the plethora of multi-book publications, I would bare my neck to read more about Shori and her symbionts after the dust settled. Butler is deceased, but she has left many other novels for me to sink my teeth into!