Sucking the blood out of the vampire legend

I’ve been out of the vampire “loop” for quite some time; the last vampire novel I read was Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned back around 1990. Since then, I haven’t felt much urgency about seeking out that kind of literature. As fas as I’m concerned, Rice’s series (at least the first three books) was the definitive modern telling of the vampire tale, the pinnacle of that particular sub-genre, and anything after that would be anticlimactic. So when I began reading Octavia Butler’s 2005 novel Fledgling, I was a bit wary about what her take on the mythos would be, and how it would stack up against other versions. I was pleased to find this is not a horror novel, not a portrayal of creatures in any way supernatural. Butler approaches the subject from a science fiction angle (ummm…. make that “from a sci-fi standpoint”!), and uses the legend as a means of commenting on human nature and social issues.

The “vampires” here, who call themselves Ina (funny, there’s a town by that name near where I grew up), are another species that has co-evolved with humanity, another branch of the hominid line that split off somewhere in the dim prehistoric past. This species evolved as a parasite, using the blood of their distant cousins (humanity) as their food source. But they’re a benevolent parasite, something not unknown in nature; through biological self-interest, they evolved to care for the well-being of their “prey,” in fact existing with them in a symbiotic relationship benefiting both. Via the effects of a chemical in their bite, they are able to bind humans to them in a kind of drug-induced loyalty, keeping a group of them around for periodic feeding. In turn, these humans are blessed with a far healthier immune system and substantially longer life, and most Ina treat them very well. Rumors of this species came down through the ages in garbled and distorted form, picking up added flourishes along the way, giving rise to the traditional vampire mythology — transforming into bats, turning victims into vampires, immortality, garlic, crosses, stakes through the heart, all that stuff. In actuality, the vampire elements that apply to the Ina are the most basic ones: need for blood, aversion to sunlight, and heightened senses and strength, all of which can be grounded to some degree in real biology. This “vampire as a product of nature” approach is nothing new; in fact it’s almost predictable for anyone wanting to de-mythologize vampires. Nevertheless, Butler employs the concept skillfully and imbues it with enough realism to make it work well.

The story is told through the eyes of a young Ina girl named Shori, the “fledgling” of the title. At the beginning, she wakes up in a cave, badly injured and in great pain, desperately hungry, and having no idea who she is or how she got there. I love that kind of opening, the kind with an amnesiac character waking up in the middle of chaos and trying to figure out what the hell’s going on; I love the thick sense of mystery and ongoing discovery. And what Shori discovers is that her family has been murdered, incinerated while their homes were burned to the ground, victims of a brutal attack by parties unknown. Shori is the sole survivor of the attack, and after some time and effort, and help from another Ina family, she finally learns the truth: that she herself was the primary target of the attack, for reasons having to do with some special qualities she possesses.

Shori’s family had been engaged in research on how to improve their species, and their efforts resulted in a most unique individual — Shori herself. Genetically engineered with a mixture of Ina and human DNA, Shori is the first truly dark-skinned member of her species, able to operate in daytime and withstand sunlight far better than other Ina. Someone — whether human or Ina, I won’t tell you — was offended by this violation of “racial purity,” and decided Shori and her family needed to die. Needless to say, Shori does her best not to accommodate them, and in the end justice is served, Ina-style.

The basic plot is itself interesting enough on the level of action and suspense, but more than that, Butler has constructed a story deeply woven with social commentary on numerous different themes. I’m not even sure I caught everything she was trying to say, but here are some of the things she may have been taking aim at:

  • Overt forms of intolerance like racism and speciesism and the bigots who crusade for the “purity” or superiority of their group, whatever it may be. There may also be a bit of criticism against ageism here; Shori’s young age is held against her by some, even though in many ways she shows herself to be stronger, more resourceful, and more mature than the adults around her. She is also questioned by other Ina for taking a symbiont they consider too old, but Shori sees worth in her despite her age.
  • A more subtle type of intolerance: the way we tend to mis-characterize those of whom we are ignorant, attributing negative qualities to those who are different merely because we don’t understand them. Thus, humanity was never able to see the Ina in a natural light, as intelligent creatures living as nature designed them; instead it was easier to view the unknown as “evil” and build up a mythology to reinforce that view.
  • Addiction, and drug addiction in particular. Even though the Ina take good care of their symbionts, the fact is these symbionts are addicted to Ina venom, and will in fact die without it once they are hooked. Butler paints a disturbing picture of some of these symbionts and their deep sense of conflict — knowing at some deep level that they only feel attraction to the Ina because of their addicting venom, yet completely unable to overcome that addiction, loving the Ina, yet knowing deep down that their love is a forced chemical illusion.
  • A prominent portion of the book is a courtroom drama (even if it’s not in a courtroom). The Ina claim their legal system to be superior to humanity’s (or at least America’s), which they say is too adversarial and full of trickery and gamesmanship. Then when the “trial” starts, the Ina immediately prove their system to be riddled with exactly those same faults. This could be a statement about our flawed justice system, but I took it more as a comment on hypocrisy in general.

There’s probably more that could be dug out of this novel, but that should give you some idea of where Butler is coming from. This is a novel with something to say, a vampire novel that says more about humanity than about vampires. I recommend it, whether you’re a fan of vampire literature, or science fiction, or both.

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7 responses to “Sucking the blood out of the vampire legend

  1. That was very interesting. Thanks for the review.

  2. I love Octavia Butler’s books. This was the last one she wrote before she died. I wonder often where she was going with this one (as well as the Parable series, the other unfinished series that she was working on). I read somewhere that writing this book was a form of therapy for her. Her health was bad in the end, which probably explains why she died from a fall, and she was suffering from an extended case of writer’s block. This one and Parable of the Talents supposedly allowed her to break through that.

  3. Until I recently read your own review of this book, Omph, I had no idea she had died. What a tragedy and a loss.

  4. No kidding. If I may, I have a bibliography site for OB too. Here is the link, in case anyone is interested:

    http://bb.solahpmo.com/viewtopic.php?t=268

  5. Thanks, I’ll look it over sometime. I certainly do plan to read more of her work.

  6. Pingback: Matt’s Bookosphere 8/22/08 « Enter the Octopus

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