The Octavia Butler Novel for Our Times
Octavia E. Butler spent most of her life excavating the past and observing the present to construct stories attuned to society’s woes and grim futures. She wrote about a Black woman in 1970s Los Angeles repeatedly transported to the antebellum South; about a teenage girl who establishes a religion to save her community from climate destruction; and about the alien colonization of Earth. She was obsessed with broad, gnarly themes: intimacy and sex, hierarchy and power, the link between ancestral knowledge and eventual survival. There is always, it seems, a Butler book for our times. And as the world plods through the third year of the pandemic, one of her most peculiar works might be the most resonant today.
Fledgling, the last novel Butler published before her death in 2006, is a propulsive story about Shori, an amnesiac 53-year-old Black vampire who must reconstruct her past after she wakes up shrouded in darkness, alone and with no memories. While Shori makes her way through the world—specifically the suburbs of Washington State and, later, California—she discovers more about herself and her apparent incongruities: As an Ina (a vampire species that lives relatively harmoniously alongside humans), she looks like a 10-year-old child, but she has the desires of a woman; she needs human blood to survive, but feeding off humans can make them, in turn, physically stronger. Fledgling is, at heart, about an individual reconciling who she is with how she looks, and learning to use her considerable power responsibly.
Written during a creatively fallow period in Butler’s life, Fledgling was the author’s attempt to “do something that was more lightweight,” as she said in a 2005 interview. Ironically, the resulting novel, now being reissued, might be one of her most profound and emotionally acute. The early days of the pandemic revealed the depths of our mutual dependence: Not only did the coronavirus require unprecedented levels of global cooperation to temper its spread; it also forced people, at a basic level, to recognize their linked fates. Shori’s arc feels especially prescient in this moment, as society continues reeducating itself about boundaries, agency, and the true stakes of living together.
The novel’s opening pages follow a badly burned Shori slowly coming to her senses. She emerges from a cave and wanders aimlessly, eventually stumbling upon an abandoned village. The cluster of houses, charred to a crisp in a fire, offers no shelter, but it does activate an embryonic desire for community. “I thought the place must once have provided comfortable homes for several people,” Shori thinks. “That felt right. It felt like something I would want—living together with other people instead of wandering alone.”
The intensity of Shori’s desire for connection becomes clearer when she, within days of waking up, meets and moves in with Wright Hamlin, a white construction worker. “I didn’t want to stop talking to him,” she thinks during their first encounter. “I felt almost as hungry for conversation as I was for food.” Through their initial, awkward interactions, she learns that her maturity and libido don’t align with her underage appearance, and as she realizes how enticing Wright smells, their relationship shifts from mildly affectionate to erotic.
Butler agitates conventional consent dynamics by rendering Shori, who initiates a physical relationship with Wright, as a child. Shori’s Blackness is relevant too. She learns that she is the product of a genetic experiment that combined Ina and human genes to give Ina, who are historically white, more melanin so that they could roam during daylight hours. As the scholar Habiba Ibrahim writes in her essay “Any Other Age: Vampires and Oceanic Lifespans,” Fledgling “invites readers to consider the strangeness of how aging works” for Black people. According to Ibrahim, age for the enslaved was arbitrary—who was considered a child was at the discretion of enslavers trying to pack as many bodies as they could into a vessel. And Black adults could be infantilized in the same breath as Black children, especially girls, were denied their youth, seen as predatory and hypersexual.
While Fledgling explores a host of far-reaching themes—racial anxiety, codependency, memory (or a lack thereof)—Butler seems most keen on examining power and intimacy. Unlike traditional vampires, Ina form symbiotic bonds with the humans they feed on. Humans become physically dependent on Ina feeds; without them they will die. Inas, in turn, become emotionally attached to their humans (or symbionts) and begin to see them as part of a family they must house, feed, and care for. Only through both parties’ consent and communication is some semblance of balance achieved.
Wright becomes Shori’s first symbiont, and their early conversations are as much about trying to piece together the vampire’s past as they are about configuring a sustainable relationship. When Shori first meets Wright, she bites him without asking. But eventually she realizes that she needs his assent. “I think it would be wrong for me to keep you with me against your will,” she says at one point, moved by her burgeoning conscience and an increased sense of her own capabilities.
Just as Shori learns that she cannot follow her desires without also acknowledging her symbionts’ vulnerability, her symbionts, too, must become familiar and comfortable with her needs. When Shori takes on another male symbiont, Wright punches a hole in the wall. “You’ve taken over my life,” he says. “And now you want me to share you with another man?” “You can,” Shori responds. “You will. He’s part of the family that we must form. He’s one of us.”
Shori’s power hovers over every interaction. On the occasions when she bites a person without their permission, she withers their autonomy and diminishes their ability to agree to the relationship. She occasionally reverts to commands with those she feeds on, communicating her wants as orders instead of questions. The varied interactions Shori has with her symbionts and the growing pains she encounters signal that Butler is working hard to untangle complicated questions of consent. The consequences of Shori’s genetic differences, the ones that make her stronger than any Ina or human, are threaded through the novel too. She learns that some see her existence as a threat to racial purity—that her entire family was killed in an attempt to halt further experimentation, and that she is also in danger. But Shori wrests control of her narrative and, in attempting to wield her influence without harm, offers her community a new model of existence.
Butler’s placement of a Black woman at the center of a vampire tale recalls the work of Jewelle Gomez, whose 1991 lesbian-feminist novel, The Gilda Stories, also follows a Black vampire hero. In the forward to her book, Gomez writes that she reread Butler’s earlier work to remind her that “there was a place for women of color in speculative fiction.” When writing her novel, Gomez asked a series of questions pertinent to our current moment: “What is family? How do we live inside our power and at the same time act responsibly? How do we build community? How do we connect authentically across gender, ethnicity, and class lines?” In writing Fledgling, Butler seems to have felt the same sense of possibility as Gomez—envisioning a universe in which the powerful and the vulnerable can coexist.