Sunday, February 8, 2009

Book Review: Fledgling by Octavia Butler

Fledgling* was a great read. Certainly not the best from Ms. Butler, in my opinion, but definitely a masterfully written book. I don't know that I'll do a very good summary of the book because of time constraints so I'll direct those interested to read the Amazon.com reviews of the work in addition to what I write here.

As usual, Octavia Butler tackles the issues of racism in unique and thought-provoking ways. In this book, racism crosses over species in that vampires are a completely different species than humans but still have the same human problem of discrimination against darker-hued people. But I think the issues of racism and species purity got conflated a bit. Shori, the main character, is a genetic experiment who through genetic modification has darker skin and therefore can be awake and alert during the day. This is bothersome to pure "Ina" (vampires). And I couldn't say I blamed them. If it's true that the fittest survive, Shori represented the ultimate "evolution" for the Ina and in time, I could see how Shori's offspring could eventually wipe out pure Ina. As an Igbo girl, I grew up knowing that my folks would like to see me with an Igbo man so that the tradition, culture, language and Igbo understanding could go on in my children. By marrying an American, there is no guarantee of that. Now, the fact that the modification is that she is Black, I think, complicates things in an interesting way. This aspect of the story stays true to Ms. Butler's style and motivation. And honestly, it is quite nice when the protagonist is Black but doesn't really need to be for the story to potentially work.

I guess this is the question that begs to be asked: Is Shori really Ina? She's been genetically altered, her genes mixed with human genes? What percentage of you has to a certain thing for you to qualify? Half? 1/3rd? 1/8th? This question has been posed time and time again in U.S. history as African-Americans have struggled to find their place in this society. And as this society struggles to place (or displace) those of African descent, i.e. Black people. How do you perceive and categorize someone who is a mixture of races? Especially if your treatment of people depends entirely on how you have perceived and categorized them?

I liked the story for other reasons: Ms. Butler works hard to break up the mythology of vampires and re-makes them as the victims of bigotry, hatred and misunderstanding. It's interesting then, that any Ina would then engage in the same kind of thing toward a darker Ina and I wonder if Shori had been pale like most Ina yet still had the same ability to be alert during the day, would the Ina still have objected so violently? I think so. It's also interesting to note the varying attitudes the Ina have toward their symbionts, that is, humans who they have bitten and need in order to stay alive. When humans become symbionts, they live much longer than ordinary humans and also do not get sick or hurt as easily. Symbionts, in my opinion, do not get a real choice because once bitten, most get hooked psychologically by the Ina venom and then eventually they get hooked physically. If their Ina dies, they will most likely die too. It seemed to me a form of slavery where the enslaved didn't seem to mind too much because of the pleasure and perks they derived from being symbionts. However, some Ina are condescending to or think nothing of symbionts and this brought up many issues and questions in my mind. This is what I love about Ms. Butler.

There were two little things that bothered me in this novel though I must say. Shori supposedly looks like a pre-pubescent girl. Yet grown men are sleeping with her. Now, I know she's Ina and actually 53 years old but still . . . a little disconcerting to me. The other thing that really annoyed me with this novel is that is poorly, poorly edited. There are missing words galore. Well, maybe not galore but to me, it was enough to get an eye roll.

All in all, this was an excellent (and quick) read like all of Ms. Butler's work. I am yet to be disappointed although I don't think I ever will be. I'm even recommending it to the hubby who is not a reader but loves vampire stories (he's a Blood Banker too which is hilarious and also a little . . . ummm . . . )

*I've linked to the full text of Fledgling. Also, check out Bloodchild and Other Stories. Bloodchild was the first Octavia Butler work I read.

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