Monday, January 25, 2010

Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler (Science Fiction)

Science fiction, as I have come to understand the genre through the little experience I have with it, is often a creative outlet for social and political commentary. It allows authors to express their views on real-world issues in an imaginary world. Issues in science fiction literature are often metaphors or exaggerations of the issues we face on a daily basis.

Fledgling, by Octavia E. Butler, is no exception. It is deceivingly labeled “vampire fiction,” perhaps leading some (including myself) to initially believe that it is a work of horror or suspense. But at its core, this novel fits much more comfortably into the realm of science fiction, and it’s chock full of metaphors related to issues such as racism, scientific advancement, human free will, and irrational fears that induce violence in civil societies.

With the very first sentence of the novel, the reader is thrust into the action. The protagonist, suffering from amnesia, abruptly wakes up, starving and injured, in the burned ruins of a community. The violence starts immediately as the narrator launches after the closest living thing, killing and devouring without hesitation. The act is clearly instinctual, and part of a desperate fight for survival. Our narrator eventually discovers that she appears to be a ten-year-old African American girl, but her intelligence suggests otherwise, and she exhibits behaviors highly unusual for any kind of human being, much less a young girl. She also find out that she is named Shori, and that the past she has completely forgotten has not forgotten her.
I’ll stop there, as any more information on the plot would truly be a disservice to those interested in reading the book. This is definitely a page-turner, as Butler slowly reveals bits and pieces of Shori’s past, letting readers slowly sink into the imaginary, yet very consistent world of the mysterious “Ina.”

I’ve always been a fan of science fiction movies and television shows, but though I have read a few sci fi books in my time, I cannot accurately call myself a fan. I feel that Fledgling works as a successful introduction to the world of science fiction. By starting with something familiar – the myth of vampires – and expanding on that to create a world of her own, Butler eases the readers into the genre instead of thrusting them into the unknown.
Butler doesn’t shy away from the controversial, but confronts tough issues with a refreshing subtlety that shows the readers what’s going on without telling them what to believe. This is a morally challenging book, and the author doesn’t explicitly take a stand on any issue; she leaves many issues up to the readers’ individual interpretations.

If you’re looking for well-developed characters to connect with (which is what I always desire the most in books I read), this probably isn’t the best choice. Because there were so many characters constantly being introduced throughout the book, and almost none of them had any truly unique or memorable characteristics to speak of, I couldn’t keep them straight. However, the novel is undeniably valuable in its depiction of themes and issues that underlie society and have done so throughout history. I personally would have preferred that the author took more time to develop the characters and their relationships with each other, but I understand that this is not quite what science fiction is about and that this is not what all readers are looking for. What Butler succeeds most at, I believe, is the pacing: she expertly intersperses the action sequences with quiet, intimate scenes that really hold the story together.

Also important to note is the fact that this novel is definitely intended for an open-minded (dare I say liberal) audience. In addition to violence, the plot often indirectly involves such practices as homosexuality, bloodletting, and polygamy, among other things. I wouldn't hand this book to a Bible thumper!

Book information:

Title: Fledgling, by Octavia E. Butler
Publication date: 2005
Number of pages: 317
Setting: Various locations throughout the U.S.
Time period: present
Subject headings: Vampires--Fiction, Young women--Fiction.


  1. Sounds interesting, Crystal; I may give it a try.

  2. Yes, I too might give it a try. My problem with sci fi - is exactly what you expressed in your annotations - you get dumped abruptly into this world that is totally unknown and I stay lost and can never really orient myself to the plot, characters etc. I do like the fact that as you say this book attempts to ease the reader into an understanding of this unknown world.