Thursday, September 07, 2006

Octavia Butler's vampires

Foundation, which I wrote about earlier in the week, was actually my second recent venture into sci-fi. The first, Octavia Butler’s Fledgling (2005) (which, strictly speaking, isn’t sci-fi, but as it gets shelved with Butler’s other books in sci-fi, that’s how I was thinking about it as I picked it up), opens with an adolescent woman coming to consciousness in a cave, slowly recovering from grievous injuries. She doesn’t know how she was hurt or how she got into the cave—in fact, she doesn’t remember anything at all.

Soon, however, as she heals and begins to move back into the world, she realizes that she is a vampire, and the people who hurt her had done so as part of an assassination attempt that also killed her whole family. Fledgling is the story of how Shori finds and is reintegrated into the secretive vampire community, relearns their ways and their history, and helps bring her attackers to justice.

Really, though, all that is just the scaffolding on which Butler hangs some pretty inventive reworkings of vampire myths. Butler’s vampires, who are called Ina, live in compounds separated by gender, unnoticed by ordinary humans because of a combination of general innocuousness and mind control—they have a surprising amount of power over humans whom they’ve bitten even once. Each vampire feeds regularly on between four and seven humans of either gender, called symbionts, with whom he or she lives in a kind of loosely regulated group marriage. The Ina live for centuries, so their culture is rich with longstanding traditions, laws, and history, much of which comes out in the course of Shori’s re-education (which serves nicely as a convenient method of delivering large chunks of exposition).

Butler is known for the moral complexity of her stories, though, and she introduces some interesting wrinkles into the lives of the Ina. Shori, it turns out, was targeted because she is the first successful product of a genetic engineering experiment that married Ina DNA human DNA from a black woman, making her the first dark-skinned member of a race that previously has been blonde and pale-skinned. She thereby has gained some resistance to the sun, and many Ina view her as a hope for a freer, safer life for their people. But the Ina, who themselves have occasionally been persecuted by humans over the centuries, harbor racists, like many a persecuted sub-group, and their hatred has fueled the attacks on Shori and her family.

More interesting is the role of feeding in the lives of the Ina and their symbionts. The Ina must, of course, feed to live—but in Butler’s world, the symbionts have just as pressing a need to be fed from. After merely a couple of feedings (which are as sensual and sexual as in any vampire literature), a human is, essentially, addicted to his Ina, and to go without being fed from will eventually kill him. The symbionts gain a portion of the longevity that vampires enjoy, and most of them seem to live happy, fulfilled lives as part of a real community, but many of the vampires remain open about the ethical dilemma the relationship can present. Is it moral for the Ina to involve humans, even ones they fully inform after the first bite, in a lifetime of dependency this way? Can any human, even in the earliest stages of the addiction, make a clear-headed judgment about whether to continue? Or, because it is truly a question of survival for the Ina, can ethics even be brought to bear on the question? The issue only gets more complex when we see that, while most Ina treat their symbionts with the tenderness of lovers, others treat theirs like servants, slaves, or pets.

These questions are fascinating, and I have a feeling they’ll stay with me in more abstract form long after I’ve filed the novel away in my bookcase. But somehow, despite them, Fledgling isn’t fully satisfying. The action of the book seems somewhat perfunctory, and the trial of Shori’s attackers is an anti-climax, interesting only for the insights it gives into the Ina legal system. I’ve read people online speculating that Butler had intended Fledgling to be the first volume of a new series, which would help explain both the information-heavy, action-light approach and the introduction of dozens of characters, most of whom get very little time to develop. If the idea is to establish a world and lay the groundwork for exploring it, Fledgling would have to be termed a success.

Sadly, we’ll never know what Butler would have done next, as, soon after the publication of Fledgling, she died from injuries sustained in a fall at her Seattle home, aged 58. She left behind a handful of extremely well-regarded novels and lots of fans.

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