Friday, June 24, 2016

Science Fiction: Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

I decided to read and post about Fledgling in honor of the author, Octavia E. Butler, who would have turned 69 years old on June 22nd. Butler has always fascinated me since I first read Kindred for a class in graduate school, and listened to one of her interviews in which she described reading as a child and simply thinking that she could surely write better stories than what was in front of her. There is certainly something different and captivating about her work. And while time travel and vampires are not exactly new themes and ideas, her approach to them certainly feels fresh, even years after their publication.

The Situation: Shori Matthews cannot remember anything beyond a few days ago, when we she woke up in a cave and in incredible pain. Her memory seems to be wiped clean of her life before the great tragedy that caused what turns out to be her home to be burned to the ground. All she knows is that she is small like a child, hurt, incredibly hungry, and not altogether human. Thanks to Wright, a local man who offers her a ride from the side of the road, Shori is offered shelter and clothes, and can begin to piece together what has happened to her and what she is. Though she may be small, she eventually comes to the realization that she is a genetically altered 53 year-old vampire, and her family and home were wiped out by an unknown enemy. With everything and everyone gone, including her memories, Shori must begin the impossible task of rebuilding her life.

The Problem: Shori's family was wiped out by someone who does not want her to begin again. In fact, they most wish that her life had never started. And when it becomes obvious that they did not succeed in their main objective, they end up trying again and again, consistently attacking any place Shori might be hiding. It is difficult enough for her to try to start a new life, but doing so while under constant attack brings in a new level of frustration. Through new friends, and apparently old ones that she just cannot remember having known, Shori is able to learn about who she is, what she is, and who might want to hurt her and her family. But knowing will not be enough. If the attacks are to be stopped, then someone must be brought to justice.

Genre, Themes, History: To put this book under the heading of science fiction is misleading and a little short-sighted as it really does not do Fledgling justice. Sure, Shori is a genetically altered vampire in the sense that a little human DNA was mixed in, which allowed her skin to be darker, which means she can stay out longer in the sun than the other more pale vampires. But there is also a significant amount of fantasy, paranormal, and horror. As Shori begins to learn about vampires, a race that refers to themselves as "Ina," there is a great deal of history and culture included in the story. It is clear that Butler took the time to come up with the science behind how they live; their history and how the many different families have come to be what they are today; their culture and how they govern themselves; and even how they interact with humans and how much they depend upon them. And Butler does not simply rely on the common rules most of us have heard of. Yes, the Ina are incredibly sensitive to sunlight, but holding up a crucifix does nothing. Yes, they drink the blood of humans, but they cannot convert one into a vampire. The more Shori learns, the more obvious it is that, while the Ina can heal faster and better than humans, and also live to be centuries years old, they depend on us almost totally for survival. They cannot in all honesty see themselves as the superior race, and many of them resent that.

My Verdict: Books with anything like vampires and werewolves are always a little hard for me because ultimately, I am and always will be on Team Van Helsing (I used to own a shirt that proclaimed this truth proudly). So when the main protagonist has the size and look of a little black girl, and has just had her entire family wiped out essentially due to racism, but is in fact a vampire, I was a bit conflicted. I still wanted Shori to find justice, and find the people who killed her family and were still wanting to harm her. But I was not able to romanticize the life of the humans who choose to stay with the Ina in a symbiotic relationship. But this was not because of any fault in Butler's writing or any inability to explain things clearly. Butler was nothing if not thorough in explaining just how the Ina live and what life is like for the humans who stay with them. And while there were moments of frustration where I felt like the action of the story was being interrupted to discuss some seemingly random cultural Ina tradition or rule, for the most part, the story was not ever boring or hard to get through. Actually, I felt like this could have been a much longer story and still would have been incredibly good. There is just so much Ina culture and history packed in that Butler could have easily gone on for another 300 pages, or even made the story into a series. Even so, Fledgling still stands well on its own and is a great selection for anyone more interested in vampires than I am.

Favorite Moment: When Shori manages to humiliate and call into question the mental capacity of an older Ina who is clearly racist.

Favorite Character: Just like with humans, there are good Ina, and awful Ina. They even have racism like we do, and such hatred causes some of them to do horrible things. I do not think I can pick a favorite character though, mostly because I had a hard time relating to any of the humans, and Shori's experiences, as well as those of any of the vampires, were hard to relate to. She meets many that are incredibly helpful and comforting, but not one really stood out as a "favorite."

Recommended Reading: I must recommend what is probably the book that started it all, Bram Stoker's Dracula. His vampires are very different from the ones found in Fledgling, but the book is just as unsettling, and very much worth the struggle of reading a story told through letters written by the characters. 

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