Octavia E. Butler
Seven Stories Press: 318 pp., $24.95
And Other Stories
Octavia E. Butler
Seven Stories Press: 214 pp., $14 paper
“I heard consent in his voice, and I hauled myself up and kissed the side of his neck, searching with my tongue and my nose for the largest blood source there.
A moment later, I bit hard into the side of his neck.
He convulsed and I held on to him. He writhed under me, not struggling, but holding me as I took more of his blood. I took enough blood to satisfy a hunger I hadn’t realized I had until a few moments before. I could have taken more, but I didn’t want to hurt him. He tasted wonderful, and he had fed me without trying to escape or to hurt me. I licked the bite until it stopped bleeding.
I wished I could make it heal, wished I could repay
him by healing him.”
FEW people believe that individual human beings can change their behavior, much less their physical selves. We can work out, we can get stronger, faster, harder, but when it comes to evolution, we seem to be thinking less and becoming sicker, physically and spiritually, by the minute. For many science fiction writers, our brave new world is a “Mad Max” landscape, a place where, just as our parents warned us, our own bad habits -- greed, dishonesty, laziness -- can kill us and the planet we rode in on.
But what if evolution culminated in more than one sort of human? What if mixing it up, miscegenation, was the only true path to reaching our full potential as human beings?
This is the idea, the beating heart, at the center of Octavia Butler’s latest novel, “Fledgling,” which posits a world where African Americans and vampires have been crossbred to produce vampires whose melanin enables them to stay awake during the day.
Shori is the first of this improved line of vampires. She’s stronger, more empathetic than others of her kind. Her venom is more powerful and has greater healing properties. She’s also shorter than most vampires her age, which is 53. In fact, she looks like a 10- or 11-year-old girl, which makes her pretty much irresistible to the humans she chooses to bite. (Butler calls them symbionts.) Her powers make her intensely appealing to male vampires as well.
The world of smoldering ruins to which, at the beginning of the novel, Shori wakes -- naked, in pain, remembering nothing, her skull fractured and mushy in several places -- is a highly charged territory of sensory signals. On a dead body, for example, Shori can easily identify 14 different smells: “I knelt on the ground alongside Theodora, selecting out scents that were not her own, separating them into odors and groups of odors that I recognized. Theodora had gone to at least one of the parties, and that made for a confusion of scents -- sweat, blood, aftershave, cologne, food and drink of several kinds, sexual arousal, many personal scents.” She’s an uber-tracker of the first rank and can read sexual signals without question. She can even smell whether or not someone is lying. When she is wounded, however, she must eat fresh meat to heal, like all her kind. It doesn’t matter who or what: The need to eat is desperate and blinding.
As for the blood, Shori learns very quickly that she needs more than one human to supply it. Her first symbiont is a young contractor named Wright, who sees her running on the side of the road in Washington state, where the novel is set. He picks her up, and it’s love at first bite. Wright takes her to his cabin, bathes her, clothes her and begs her to bite him again. They have sex.
Here is where our first willing suspension of disbelief must occur, and it is a tough one. The idea of an ordinary man picking up an apparent 10-year-old girl, taking her home and having sex with her is beyond the bounds of civilized behavior. Yet somehow, Butler, with her quiet, spare language, helps us overcome this and many other cross-cultural hurdles in the book. It helps that Shori is really in her 50s. But more to the point, in “Fledgling,” we are in a world where many of the old rules do not apply. Vampires have sex with men and women. They protect their symbionts but are not possessive. No distinction is made between black and white members of the community. Mating between vampires is often arranged by family elders.
Like Shori, we suffer a kind of amnesia when it comes to these rules and customs. We must overcome our preconceptions, our uncertainty. Books that ask their readers to make these sorts of leaps, challenging deeply held moral, political or ethical constructs, need trustworthy authors who can navigate not just the “what ifs” but the cultural overtones. Butler has spent much of her career exploring racial and sexual issues, unzipping stereotypes. This makes her an ideal guide. She is herself a new breed, a fledgling -- an African American woman in the world of science fiction -- though by now, after a MacArthur “genius” grant, two Hugo and two Nebula awards, and 14 books, she’s practically establishment.
Apart from figuring out who and what she is, Shori must discover who burned her home, killed her family and is now, presumably, hunting her. She finds her father, and her father’s family, but they are soon killed also, their houses burned while they sleep. As she learns more about her family (some from her father before his death, some from survivors of the fire), it becomes clear that not everyone in the vampire world is happy with the genetic experiments that led to Shori’s birth. When another raid is attempted -- this time on the vampire family that has taken in Shori and her symbionts -- some of the perpetrators are captured and questioned. A Council of Judgment is called to administer punishment.
The vampires live in extended families, or communities, composed of males and females (who occupy separate houses, much like the Shakers or other religious groups), along with their human symbionts, who may marry and breed. The communities are in many ways utopian, but Butler raises subtle questions about the relationships between vampires and their symbionts -- which are fraught with dependence and need. There is love but also addiction to the venom. (In much of Butler’s fiction, social dependence and addiction are closely linked.) The vampires are fiercely devoted to their “syms,” but there is no doubt that the syms are second-class citizens: not property, not slaves, but definitely pawns on the larger playing board.
Butler spends no time on the science and technology of genetic experimentation. Her plot moves at the speed of science fiction but with none of the genre’s usual fascination for toys and tricks and special effects. She slows down only in the interplay between characters, as when Wright becomes jealous at the prospect of sharing Shori with seven other symbionts. Social structure, kinship patterns and systems of justice also fascinate Butler, who spends the last third of the novel on the Council of Judgment. These proceedings lead to a ruling against racism: “It isn’t,” says one council member, “a weed we need growing among us.” Racism is a crime, punishable not by death but by the dispersal of the guilty parties in an effort to kill the weed.
“Fledgling” is being published in conjunction with a second edition of Butler’s 1996 short-fiction collection “Bloodchild,” which features two new stories, “Amnesty” and “The Book of Martha,” that touch on many of the novel’s themes. These include our dependence on sensory stimulation (addiction to touch), the need to evolve beyond war and environmental degradation and, in less obvious ways, race and self-perception. In “The Book of Martha,” God appears to a middle-aged African American writer named Martha. Throughout the story, God shape-shifts from a robed giant to a white man to a black man, and finally to someone a lot like Martha, who must shed her culturally derived stereotypes about the nature of the deity.
“This is what you’re to do,” God explains. “You will help humankind to survive its greedy, murderous, wasteful adolescence. Help it to find less destructive, more peaceful, sustainable ways to live.... If you don’t help them, they will be destroyed.” Martha reluctantly comes up with a plan to provide people with such rich and varied dream lives that their impulses to kill and destroy during the day are severely weakened.
This is vintage Butler, writing that takes our most troubling issues and plays them out on a dream stage. I wouldn’t be surprised, in fact, if she saw it as a kind of calling: to heal the human race by enriching its dreams. To do this, of course, a writer must first shed her own ideas about what motivates people to change. Second, she must have a vision of what it would mean for humanity to fulfill its highest potential. (What do we want to be when we grow up?) Then, she must remake the universe. That’s a lot to ask, but in the end, it sets the stage for what Butler does best -- create complicated, unpredictable characters who can lead us straight into the brave new world. *