June 3, 2009

Review: Fledgling by Octavia Butler

For years I’ve known of the achievements of Octavia Butler who carries the distinction of being one of the few, if not only, African-American, female writers in the otherwise all-too-white and once upon a time all-too-male genre of science fiction. Butler’s reputation, moreover, is stellar. She cleaned up in science fiction awards for her novella BloodChild landed a Nebula for Parable of the Talents and even had the rare distinction for a science fiction writer of receiving a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant. She died from a stroke at the relatively young age of 58 after authoring some thirteen books in a writing career that spanned nearly 30 years.

Her last work before she died was a science fiction vampire novel, Fledgling described by her as a “lark.” At a minimum, let us say that it is any number of cuts above such fare as Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series, which I only know from DVD since I refuse to plow through the many thousands of pages of teen vampire angst run amok in the halls of our nation’s high schools. Indeed, one wonders if Butler was not responding in part to this one of many in a genre that I have lovingly dubbed for my teenage daughter as the “hickeys with holes” brand of fiction.

Fledgling is compelling. A child awakens in a cave, badly injured, in terrible pain, with no memory of her past and struggling to survive. Ravenously hungry, operating only on instinct, Shori discovers that she is a 53-year-old vampire in the body of an 11-year-old child, a member of an ancient, anthropogenetic race known as the “Ina,” who live alongside human beings. Shori’s amnesia is a literary device that just borders on the trite for pumping up readers’ feelings of suspense. But it’s also an opportunity, in Butler’s deft hands, to reimagine the human-vampire relationship as one of mutual symbiosis instead of formal parasitism. What we get is Butler’s latent utopianism in which the idea of the family is reconfigured into a mixture of physical addiction and mutual dependence, open sexual relations and Western ideations of the village family unit.

But there’s an added wrinkle: Shori, unlike all of her vampire relations, is black, purposely so, the result of experiments in skin pigmentation and Ina-human gene mixing. Presumably this should raise Fledgling to the level of social novel a genre I generally favor when done right. But the material seems to get away from Butler, and what appeared so promising at its opening simply doesn’t deliver on the possibilities suggested, an unfortunate result for a work that—as vampire novels today go—still surpasses its peers in depth and invention.

1 comment:

SozinTara said...

I, for one, think this book is deeper than most in the genre. Butler has capured me with the characters and the social aspect of it, as well as the imagination; it is upsetting there is not a second installment because of her death.

Will miss her.