Octavia E. Butler’s new novel, Fledgling, is a vampire story. But its dynamics are far different from any other vampire tales I know. Vampires are usually disruptive forces from the unconscious. They give body to our least avowable desires and fears. But there’s nothing atavistic about Butler’s Ina (as her vampires call themselves): they have a culture, with laws and customs, kinship groups, a religion and an ethics and a politics, and disputes and power struggles about all these things — just as any group of human beings does. Butler is after something subtler than our usual (and far too familiar and commodified, at this point) romances with the “dark side” (not to mention that we ought to be more aware than we — or white people, at least — usually are of the racial connotations of a phrase like “dark side.”)
[WARNING: THE REST OF THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS].
Let me begin again. Fledgling is, among other things, a book about the mystery of beginnings. Fledgling begins with a narrator who awakens in the dark, knowing nothing except an immense hunger. She can’t remember who or what she is; she doesn’t even know her own name. She has language, but many of her words lack referents. She knows there are others, and therefore she feels alone; but she doesn’t know who those others are. She is wounded, in great pain; but gradually she heals, and finds that she knows how to do what she needs to do: hunt, kill, and feed. There is no blank slate, no pure origination: even as the narrator comes into the world afresh, entirely alone, and seemingly new, there are webs of meaning and obligation and history that surround her, and affect her — although she is ignorant of these things, and must discover them as if for the first time.
The narrator’s name, we eventually learn — as she eventually learns — is Shori Matthews. She looks like a 10-year-old black girl. But actually, she is a 53-year-old vampire; though 53 years old is stilll pre-pubescent, in vampire terms. Shori is almost completely amnesiac, as a result of trauma. Her entire (extended) family has been murdered; she alone has survived. She will never regain the memories she has lost; she cannot even really mourn her mothers and fathers, her sisters and brothers, and all their loved ones, because they have been so entirely erased from her memory. Her new beginning is the result of loss beyond loss, a loss even of the possibility of feeling loss. She must learn afresh, as if from the outside, all that she previously knew through the experience of growing up. She must learn about both the human world and the vampire world. She must reacquire, at second hand, all the referents and contexts that go along with the the only things she still possesses: he language and her sensory-motor skills.
Reading Fledgling, we learn about Ina society as Shori does. Butler invents a whole biology and anthropology of vampire life. The Ina live for 500 years or more. When injured, they can self-repair (as Shori does) on a diet of red meat. When they are well, they live exclusively off human blood. They possess an extraordinary sense of smell, together with more acute sight and hearing than human beings do; all these senses come into play in their relationships with one another, as well as with human beings. Ina society is more or less matriarchal — female Ina are more powerful than male — and is organized around gender-segregated extended families. They mate and reproduce in family-based groups (a group of brothers mates with a group of sisters from another family). The male young live with the family of their fathers, the female with the family of their mothers. The Ina also have complex relationships with their “symbionts,” the human beings upon whom they feed. In Fledgling, vampires almost never kill their human prey: they live together with them, and have sex with them, in extended families of seven or eight human symbionts for each vampire. Whether male or female, vampires generally have symbionts of both genders, and the symbionts often develop sexual relationships with one another. So all in all, Ina society involves both vampires and human beings, involved in complex webs of polyamory. (Vampires seem to be strictly heterosexual with one another, but human/human relationships, as well as cross-species vampire/human relationships, involve all sorts of gender pairings and sexual play).
What does it mean to be the human symbiont of a vampire? Since Shori is a vampire, and we only see human thoughts and feelings through her narration, it’s difficult to know precisely. Vampire saliva is both addictive and antiseptic for human beings: the human beings experience an immense sexual pleasure from being bitten, and quickly become dependent upon — no, in love with — their vampire captors. Vampire saliva also results in their leading long and healthy lives: they never get sick, and they live much longer than ordinary human beings (though not quite as long as the vampires). But symbionts must give up their autonomy in return for love, pleasure, health and long life. Somebody who has been bitten cannot disobey their vampire’s orders. Their lives are ultimately ones of servitude. Most vampires are ethical enough to give their human prey some modicum of choice, allowing them to leave at some early stage in the relationship, before they have become so addicted to their vampire’s bites that departure would be physically impossible. But emotional dependency precedes physiological dependency, and so the symbionts almost never choose to leave. In general, symbionts are chosen by their vampires, and almost never the reverse (though rarely, human beings who have grown up in Ina culture, with symbiont human parents, do make the decision to become symbionts themselves).
I’ve described Ina culture in almost too much detail here, giving a flat, reductive, and schematic sketch of things that slowly unravel and become evident in the course of the novel. (And learning these things gradually, as Shori herself relearns them, is one of the pleasures of reading Fledgling). But I hope my summary gives a sense both of the richness of the novel, and of some of the things that are at stake in the narrative. Butler has often written of how love involves dependency, loss of autonomy, and unequal power relations: even when both sides in the relationship have both given themselves over unconditionally to an Other, they are never equal in (self-)abandonment. This leads to paradoxes and impasses that are almost too painful to contemplate. (Levinas is right to say that my relation to an Other is non-symmetrical, because it involves my self-abandonment beyond any possibility of recuperation or return. But he is wrong to think that this dispenses with power relations; the non-symmetry between lover and beloved is not felt symmetrically, or in the same way, on both sides). Butler has often conveyed this painful sense of dependency in love from the point of view of the dominated partner (I am thinking both of the narrator of the short story “Bloodchild”, and of the human beings, in relation to their alien captors, in the Xenogenesis or “Lilith’s Brood” novels). But here she approaches the same knot of dependency and inequality — which is yet love — from the point of view of the dominating partner. (And this is not even to get into the disturbing fact that, from a human perspective, from the point of view of the human beings who are giving her blood and having sex with her, Shori looks like a ten-year-old girl).
Fledgling is also, like most of Butler’s work, a story about race. The Ina are of European origin (though the novel takes place entirely in the contemporary United States); they are a separate species from human beings, but they have lived in the human world for thousands of years, like a hidden elite, with a certain ability to manipulate human opinion in their own favor, but also with a well-grounded fear of human prejudice and hatred. No matter how ethical they try to be, after all, they are still ultimately predators (or parasites), having their own society in secret, while feeding upon the surrounding human community. This makes the Ina seem a lot like Jews (I mean, both like Jews as they actually were in European society for so many centuries, and like the images of “Jews” as anti-Semitic Christian bigotry portrayed them). But together with this, the Ina are nocturnal: they are allergic to the sun — they burn in it if they go outside, and they are physiologically unable to stay awake during the daytime — and their physical appearance is almost grotesquely albino. (This is one of the very few traits that Butler retains from traditional vampire fiction). Shori is a minority within this minority, as she is the world’s only black vampire. She learns that she is the result of genetic experiments, performed by her mothers: genes from black human beings have been mixed into her otherwise-Ina genome, giving her skin enhanced melanin expression, and thereby allowing her to stay awake during the day, and even to endure some limited exposure to the sun. And it emerges that racism among the Ina is why her family has been murdered and she is a target. The Ina cling to their unique heritage, and this leads some of them to a fanatical belief in their racial purity and superiority. They hate Shori because she is “part human” (though from a biological point of view this is a meaningless statement), amplified by the fact that the “human” part of her is black.
All this, too, is only revealed gradually in the course of the novel; and it leads into some extraordinary conceptual and emotional tangles. Things do get at least provisionally resolved by the end of the book; though the resolution is emphatically not accomplished by the recourse to action/adventure that usually does this work in most genre fiction. Rather, it comes about strictly within the anthropological (vampirological?) framework that the novel has constructed for itself. I won’t say more, in order not to spoil the few secrets of the narrative that I haven’t already revealed. I’ll conclude instead with a few more general observations. One of the greatest virtues of Fledgling — as, indeed, of much of Butler’s fiction — is that it makes debates about “genetic determinism” and “social construction” almost entirely irrelevant. In Butler’s world, we are bound and limited both by our genes and by our cultural inheritance; both are constraints that we cannot ignore, and yet both are susceptible (under certain conditions) to alteration. So the question is never whether something is “in our genes” or merely a “cultural construction”: everything is both, and there is no reason to see either “nature” or “culture” as more restricting than the other. The question, with both culture and biology, is how we are constrained and how we are free; what our limits are, and what powers we can exercise within (and despite) those limits. From Butler’s perspective, we can entirely dismiss both the Hobbesian reductionism of someone like Steven Pinker, and the “blank slate” Rousseaueanism that is Pinker’s caricatural view of those who don’t share his narrow determinism. In nature as in culture, everything is changeable — that is part of the meaning of evolution. But in culture as in nature, the forces of tradition, convention, and so on are so strong that changing them is quite difficult. We are never free from our histories and their entanglements, for their inertia is the largest part of what constitutes “us” in the first place. Butler imagines alternative genetic and cultural histories, reminding us that life can always be otherwise. But these alternatives aren’t “utopian”: each of them represents a different set of constraints and possibilities than we are used to, but there are still both constraints and possibilities.
The other great thing about Fledgling has to do with the way that it is so powerfully an affective text, at the same time that it is so powerfully a cognitive one. Butler’s writing tends towards the spare and descriptive, rather than towards the stylistically elaborate and rhetorically self-reflexive. Yet there is something about it that gives it an incredible intensity and poignancy, when it evokes states of hunger and grief, doubt and hope, craving and lust and love, longing and anger and bitterness and rage and hatred. Fledgling traffics in currents of emotional turmoil that are almost too overwhelming to be borne, and that push us to the limits of who and what we are (whoever “we” are, human or vampire). The novel produces affects that exceed the human, and that therefore imply new, different forms of subjectivity than are recognized in ordinary life (or in ordinary, “mimetic” fiction). This is why, among other things, although Butler’s novels continually raise issues of gender and race, they cannot be said to allegorize particular existing conditions of gender and race inequality: for they constantly push the hierarchies and power relations of gender and race into new configurations. Butler’s fictions, through their affective intensities, both suggest the need (and the possibility) for metamorphosis (and the hope that comes through this possibility), and suggest that (as Zizek might put it) trauma and social antagonism are uneliminable, not subject to rational adjudication. At the end of Fledgling, Shori has been freed from the death sentence with which she had been threatened — if not forever, then at least for 300 years (though that is a shorter stretch in vampire time than it would be in human time), and the way has been cleared for her to create her own Ina extended family. But she will never regain all that she has lost, nor even regain the memory of having lost it.