The Miscegenated Other: Review of Octavia Butler?s Fledgling|
|Ralph Ellison begins Invisible Man, his novel of racial unrest and hatred, with the words, ?I am an invisible man.? Richard Wright?s Native Son, a story of determinism, communism, and race, begins in the morning with the ringing of an alarm clock in the dark. Octavia Butler?s newest novel Fledgling begins similarly: ?I awoke to darkness.?
Why is it that so many novels about race begin with darkness? Because darkness is a metaphor for race. Not only does it represent the physical tint of one?s skin, but it symbolizes the condition itself, the emotions, the way the racial outcast feels in the world.
But this view of the opening of Butler?s new novel is perhaps a red herring. At once, everything about the novel screams that it is about race.
The Washington Post review claims that it is ?about race, family, and free will;? Entertainment Weekly says that it is ?an unflinching parable about race, identity, and science;? and so on with each review. When reading a Butler novel, we expect it to be about race. In fact, these snippets of reviews could pertain to any of several novels by this Genius Grant award winner. But her novel isn?t really a novel ?about race.? It plays a role, but not nearly enough of a role to say that the entire novel is a parable, allegory, or metaphor.
Fledgling is the story of Shori Matthews, a young vampire, or Ina, who awakes alone in a cave, not remembering anything about her past. For the first 60 pages, we don?t even know her real name. For this reason, no aspect of the story can be discussed without giving something away. The first-person narration means that we learn along with Shori. When she finally sees another human being, she recognizes him as human, although she doesn?t yet know that she is not. She realizes that she understands English as well as the Ina language. She doesn?t even understand that she needs human blood to live until she comes across a human and feels an uncontrollable urge to bite him. So although I won?t try to spoil the ending, I must spoil some of the surprise simply by virtue of revealing the vampiric elements and digesting the plot.
This isn?t your typical vampire story, though. Butler takes the vampire subgenre and transforms both its myths and its archetypes. The characters are not simply bloodthirsty, and they certainly don?t desire to kill anyone. They cannot walk during the day, but they otherwise function as a normal community separated from everyday humanity. They don?t live forever, but they live a lot longer than humans, somewhere around 600 years. They require ?symbionts? to live, and the biological term is appropriate. Humans ?choose? to live with the Ina because of the pleasure that the contact provides. Symbionts are physically connected to their Ina, and once they are fully immersed in the symbiotic relationship, they must be bitten by their own Ina in order to survive. But the symbionts are not killed, and the Ina love their symbionts, even feeling pain when they lose one of them. They require approximately eight symbionts so that they can feed from each one without draining too much blood at any one time or over a period of days. The relationship between Ina and their symbionts may be sexual, but the two cannot produce children. Ina can only have children with other Ina, and the familial relationship is strange and complicated, where groups of brothers will mate with groups of sisters. The mates will not live together, but they are tied to one another, mating for life and sterile with other Ina.
In the midst of this strange dynamic, Shori is an experiment. She is young for an Ina?only around sixty years old?and looks like a child. But she is strong and smart, making her a formidable force in the story. She has lost all of her memory, but she uses her intelligence to discover everything about herself and help to bring to justice those that hurt her and her family.
Shori is actually part human, her DNA taken from a black woman. Her Ina mothers experimented with the genetic code to make her dark-skinned, and her skin tone and human DNA mean that she can walk during the day. She will burn, but if she covers all parts of her body, she can function during the day just like a human. Other Ina cannot.
But there are some Ina who resent the fact that Shori is not ?pure? Ina. The entire plot is driven by Shori?s lack of acceptance among her own kind. Some of the group think that she is simply unusual, and they accept her partly because she can offer the Ina a species that can walk during the day. But there are others who feel that she is an abomination that should not be tolerated, that should in fact be destroyed.
Thus, the parable of race. But ?race? isn?t the right term. It is not the fact that Shori is black or dark-skinned that turns some of her people against her; it is the fact that she is not pure. She is not wholly a member of the Ina species. She is a hybrid, a miscegenated other who is the same yet different. She functions like the Ina, but she looks different, with dark skin and small features. The pride of some Ina makes them reject her because she isn?t like them.
The story of hybridity within Fledgling is the least enjoyable portion of this otherwise amazing novel. Butler builds a story through experiencing the main character?s discovery, and it is fascinating to watch it unfold. As we learn along with Shori, we are carried with her through an unfamiliar world that is wholly our own yet completely different because we see it through her eyes.
When the plot driver is finally revealed, it is unsatisfying. The novel becomes an engaging mystery and literal trial as the Ina judge who has committed the crime, but the reasons for the crime do not fit with the crime itself. The idea of racial hatred and hate crime is so foreign to most of us that Shori?s punishment because of her difference does not make sense. But then I think about hate crimes even now, whether they are lashes against gays or blacks, and the story comes much closer to home.
The problem with Fledgling is that the novel tries to explain the motivation for the crime, and the motivation for hate crimes, whether in Jasper, Texas, in Colorado, or in a novel about vampires, never really works. Rational people can?t accept these motivations, and so the story begins to fail.
I think of Butler?s new novel as a commentary on hate crime, yes, but also as a motivation for genetic experimentation. Shori is an experiment, and the experiment works. The Ina species can be made better through science. While much of our society rejects human genetic experimentation as a usurpation of the Creator?s role, Fledgling suggests that it can be an important part of saving our species. The results may be different, but they can help build a better humanity, one that can withstand diseases such as cancer and AIDS. Fledgling is thus an implicit treatise on why science is so important and why we should not set up barriers against its progress.
Butler?s Fledgling is an important novel within speculative fiction. It is highly recommended for those who love vampires and desire a new vision that combines ideas on race, acceptance, and science.