Octavia Butler’s Fledgling opens with a young black woman waking up in alone in a cave with no memory and an insatiable craving for fresh meat and blood. After feeding on freshly killed meat, she finds a human man and takes his blood. The experience is physically and emotionally satisfying for them both, although they do not understand what is happening. Eventually, the woman learns that her name is Shori and that she is one of the Ina, a species that appears to be the source of our myths about vampires. Shori also learns that her genetically engineered dark skin that allows her to walk about in daylight has made her a target. Her enemies have killed her family, and they’re coming after her.
The Ina society that Butler has created is a fascinating variation on the traditional vampire tale. To sate their need for human blood, the Ina create families comprising one Ina and several human symbionts. The symbionts are supposed to be willing volunteers who are treated well and allowed to form their own relationships. However, the symbionts quickly become addicted to the venom of their Ina, making it nearly impossible for them to leave, even though they are technically allowed to do so. Ina do not mate with humans, although the Ina/symbiont relationship is sexual. Ina reproduce by mating with other Ina. Humans cannot become Ina.
Readers who are familiar with Butler’s work will no doubt be aware of her interest in exploring racial issues through fantasy and science fiction. In Fledgling, Shori’s dark skin is quite possibly the reason she is being pursued. Is she being persecuted for her race? However, the more interesting question comes up when we consider the Ina/human relationship. Good Ina do not mistreat their humans, and the humans are happy with their lives. The Ina protect their humans and give them a longer life than they would have otherwise. It’s a good arrangement for everyone, right? (Now reread that last sentence with the word master for Ina and slave for human. Chilling, no?)
Even more chilling is that we do sympathize with the Ina. They do have a legitimate need. They would die without their symbionts’ blood. Their symbionts did agree to be there, right? Yes, my mind, it is blown.
This is what the best science fiction and fantasy can do. It forces us to question our assumptions and look carefully at the very roots of our morality. That’s why I’ll always prefer Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Dawson’s Creek and Stephen King to Jodi Picoult.
As a copyeditor, I do feel compelled to add one complaint about Fledgling. I’m hearing everywhere about how publishers are cutting late-stage steps in the copyediting and proofreading process. I’m afraid that Fledgling desperately needed one more pass from a line editor. I can forgive the occasional dropped word or typo like of for on. I know how hard it is to catch that stuff, even when you’re looking for it. Even the best editors miss a few, and because they’re so hard to catch, readers won’t notice them all. However, there were enough such glitches that I suspect a crucial proofing step was eliminated. It wasn’t enough to make me dislike the book, but Butler’s publisher, Seven Stories Press, did her a disservice with this book. I hope that these problems were fixed in later editions and that Seven Stories will take another look at its processes.