by Octavia Butler

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. One more vampire book, and just in time for Halloween! The great African American sf writer Octavia Butler has given us a new kind of vampire- not undead, not mystical, but true to the genre, stronger, faster and more alluring than plain old humans. Shori is a young woman who has lost her memory and her inhuman family. The book follows her struggle to put her life back together, to find out who killed her family and why, all the while fending off attacks from those who would prefer there were no vampires of color.  Butler addresses the issues of race and gender in a way that many science fiction writers shy away from, and she always seems to be so interested in finding the edges and limits of what it means to be human. By the end, Shori must decide whether to seek vengeance or start a new life, and it looks like we’ll have to wait for the next book in this series to find out.

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. The book is Fledgling by Octavia Butler.

Science fiction is really good at a lot of things — discussions of morality, religion, man’s place in the universe — but it’s not a place where you will find a lot of discussion of race. With a very few exceptions.

In any conversation about Octavia Butler, you will hear that she is a female, she’s African American and that she’s a science fiction writer. There are not too many of these on the shelf! I’ve been a fan of Ms Butler’s for a while; you can count on her for not only compelling plots but beautifully drawn, strong black women who are not just the hero’s girlfriend, or hanging on the edge of the action. She takes a population that has been marginalized in science fiction — two populations in fact — and focuses the action on them. At the same time, there is always an element of unease in her work. She talks about race, gender and sexuality in a very frank way — I think a lot of more mainstream writers have found it easier, maybe more comfortable to look at race through the prism of alien species, and in so called ‘hard science fiction,’ it’s all computers and space ships — that’s where you’ll find the hero’s girlfriend I mentioned. She’ll rarely be a major player, and if she’s not a white girl, maybe she’ll be green.

I said I wasn’t going to talk about any more vampire books, but Harriet Coles, one of the hosts of Pulse here on Take Five, asked me about Octavia Butler, and it seemed fitting to have a vampire book near Halloween. After this one I promise I’ll stay away from the undead for a while. Anyway, it’s not really accurate to call Shori, the heroine of Fledgling, a vampire. Yes, she and her people live on blood, but they are not supernatural and they appear to be as alive as the humans in the story.  Shori wakes up in the dark, alone and gravely injured. She has no memory of who she is or what happened to her family. She does know instinctively she needs to have blood to heal herself, and wanders into the path of a young man who provides it, and more, quite willingly. The difficult part is that although Shori acts like a young adult woman, and as we come to discover is 53 years old, physically she resembles a child. So like I said, Ms. Butler does not make it easy for the reader. It’s not easy for Shori either, as she struggles with the limitations of her memory and the loss of her family.

We learn that Shori’s people call themselves the Ina, and seem to be a race that grew up alongside humanity. Butler creates a symbiotic relationship between the species that benefits both, although to my eyes, the humans appear to be slaves — happy and long lived, but unable to live without their vampiric companions.

The second half of this book is full of politics and family intrigue, as Shori tries to get to the bottom of who is trying to kill her and why. We meet a lot of the Ina families and their human symbiots. They all seem quite happy together but I had a strong sense that we haven’t heard the whole story. And of course Shori is in the same boat — although she proves to be clever and strong, her memory does not come back, so she’s learning about these people along with the rest of us.

By the end of the book, it was clear that Ms. Butler is setting up for at least one sequel, but I didn’t feel cheated by the non-ending. I’m just looking forward to finding out what happens when Shori is no longer a fledgling.

*Update, Feb. 24, 2006: Tragically, we’ll never find out what happened to Shori, as Ms Butler passed away at her home at the age of 58. This is a huge loss not only for Ms Butler’s friends and family, but for all of those who loved and admired her writing. She will be missed.

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