I love vampires. I know that makes me sound a little bit like a 13 year-old girl, but it's true. Angel, Spike, Edward, Blade-I love them all. And I like to think that my love of Bram Stoker's Dracula gives me a little bit of cred when it comes to all things vampire-I'm not just a bandwagon-jumper. But I have never read a vampire novel quite like Octavia E. Butler's Fledgling.
In Fledgling we meet Shori, a 53 year-old Ina child, a species of humanoids that inspired the vampire legends. When first me see her, she is recovering from life-threatening wounds, the only survivor of a vicious attack against her family. She awakes from days of agony with no memory of who she is and how she came to be so injured. On her way to find answers, she is helped by a young man named Wright, who becomes more than just her savior. Her journey takes us into the culture of the Ina, and her quest to find justice for her family becomes a quest for her very identity.
Octavia Butler was herself something of a person on a journey of personal discovery (she died in 2006 at the age of 59). She became the first black author to win major acclaim as a science fiction writer, long the bailiwick of white men (of course, what literary genre wasn't?). Her novels examine issues of race, politics, and religion through the lives and struggles of her other-worldly characters. In this, her last book, she takes a look at race through the eyes not of humans, but of the mythical Ina concerned about "racial" purity. Shori is the result of genetic research done by her family into combining human genes with Ina genes to create Ina people who can tolerate sunlight. Apparently there are some Ina who believe that combining with inferior human genes dilutes the "purity" of the Ina species. In that way the story was almost discouraging-it's as though we can't even imagine an intelligent species that does not fall prey to racism. However, there is much in the Ina cultural structure that spoke to me. Each Ina adult needs several symbionts, humans who allow the Ina to feed from them and live with them in large communal groups. In a way it reminded me of the future culture in Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, where there is no idea of gender, and people are allowed to develop relationships and working lives that suit their needs and strengths in a way that modern culture does not. In Fledgling, mixed gender human groups partner with their Ina to become a family. This is no slave-like existence. The humans get just as much from the partnership as the Ina do. They receive pleasure during feedings, and are allowed to have their own relationships and activities outside of their bond with their Ina. Of course, the Ina can and sometimes do control their symbionts through the use of the venom in their saliva that causes the addiction that creates their bond, but generally speaking they respect their humans and allow them freedom to follow their own desires. Frankly, the relationships in the book made me wonder where I could get my own Ina female to choose me.
While the story is complete in and of itself, I wonder if it was meant to be the start of a series. As Shori goes off at the end of the book to make a life for herself with her new family of symbionts, I wanted to know what happens to them next. I didn't want the journey to end-and I guess that is the goal of every writer. I'm looking forward to discovering the other worlds created by Octavia Butler.