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Off the Shelf
Butler’s ‘Fledgling’ revamps the vampire standard
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“Fledging,” Octavia E. Butler. Warner Books, 2005.
It has been almost a year since the speculative fiction world mourned the passing of Octavia Butler, one of very few African-American women writing in the field.

From her first appearance in the 1971 Clarion anthology, Butler penned and published more than a dozen novels and collections. Her most recent, “Fledgling,” appeared in hardback in 2005. Warner Books’ paperback edition just reached bookshelves last month.

“Fledgling” opens in darkness, its main character waking to an unfamiliar environment and suffering from grave injuries. Initially, she remembers nothing of her former existence and relies on instinct alone for survival.

Written in first person, “Fledgling” follows this character – she eventually discovers her name is Shori – as she heals, begins an exploration of the world around her and tries to shrug off the clouds of amnesia that have obscured her memories. The thing is, she’s not human, and she catches on to this fact fairly quickly. Shori realizes she must drink blood to survive.

Enter Wright Hamlin, a 23-year-old college drop-out working for a construction company owned by his uncle. Hamlin finds Shori shambling along a mountain highway in the middle of the night, disheveled and dirty. Thinking she is a teen runaway, he proposes to take her to a hospital or police station – an offer she vehemently refuses. Hamlin soon becomes her first “symbiont” following the tragedy which blurred her memory. The reader learns along with the characters that this bond is significant, and that Shori – unlike traditional vampires – prefers to keep her host alive and well.

Intentionally deviating from the hackneyed stereotypes of the gothic subgenre, Butler overhauls mythology and folklore and cultivates a plausible, scientific premise for her vampires. The Ina live alongside humans, a separate species with its own science, religion and folklore. Though not immortal, they live protracted lives of about five centuries while their human symbionts enjoy a lengthened lifespan of 170 to 200 years.

“Fledgling” touches on some very adult themes. Butler stresses a sexual component as part of the Ina-human symbiosis that may unsettle some readers. The author’s description of 53-year-old Shori as a childlike “lean, sharp-faced, large-eyed brown-skinned person” makes it difficult to remember that she is neither young nor human.

The moral dimension of the interrelationship between Shori and her symbionts is only one of the underlying themes Butler examines in the book. The author is often lauded for her treatment of social issues – particularly pertaining to race – within the bounds of speculative fiction. As Shori unravels the mystery of her shadowed past, “Fledgling” continues this inclination in its exploration of ostracism.

Also crucial to the plot is the matter of genetics. The Ina, in an effort to diminish some of their own inherited vulnerabilities, engineered Shori as a human-Ina hybrid. For one, she is less sensitive to sunlight. The metaphor is evident as civilization ponders the ramifications of related topics including cloning, stem cell research, cryonics and transhumanism.

Butler’s Shori is the antithesis of Bram Stoker’s charismatic, hypnotic Dracula, and “Fledgling” flies in the face of conventional bloodsucker lore. Often dark and disturbing, readers who commit themselves to finishing the story will find their loyalty rewarded as the author shatters stereotypes and recasts both the model and the measure of the vampire tale.
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