One of my reading goals for 2021 is to read the remainder of Octavia E. Butler's work, as well as revisiting some of the classics that have already earned a place on my favourites shelf. And what better way to stick to a reading goal than to tell you lovely readers about it? With Lilith's Brood, Kindred and the Parable books all read in previous years, I decided my first read would be the initial volume of the Library of America's collection of her works, containing Kindred, Fledgling and Collected Stories. I didn't reread Kindred this time - though I consider it to be as close to essential reading as any single book can be (content warnings for its depictions of chattel slavery in the US South), but I devoured the other two thirds of this bind-up, with excellent results.
Like Lilith's Brood, Fledgling immediately engages the reader in a world where humanity encounters a more powerful alien force, one which fundamentally challenges specific biological truths we build our self-identity and social structure around. Complicating that alien interaction is, of course, a big helping of human prejudice, and both race and gender (particularly masculinities) sit at the heart of Shori's experience, and the experiences of her symbionts. In Fledgling's opening scenes, Shori is picked up by Wright, a human man who becomes her first symbiont before she's entirely aware of her own power and what she's doing. Wright is shown as being a decent person with a basically sound moral compass before he comes under Shori's influence, but his relationship to her as a symbiont, and his acceptance of the other symbionts she brings into their "family", is clouded by his conception of his masculinity and the expectation that his sexual relationship with Shori includes an element of ownership, at least where other men are concerned. The powerlessness that comes with being a symbiont, biologically unable to challenge a structure that he's intellectually resistant to, makes for a lot of interesting tension as the novel progresses and Shori's relationships with her humans and other Ina become denser. And then there's the impact of Shori's Blackness, and the challenge it presents to those around her trying to understand the truth of her family's murder. Because the Ina have never previously had races, her extended family strongly resist the explanation that the violence done to her was a result of racism, brushing it off as a human affliction and not something they would entertain. Unsurprisingly, the truth turns out to be rather different, and the challenge which Shori presents just by existing is treated delicately but unflinchingly within the story.
Fledgling is a fairly slow narrative: it has its action sequences, but a lot of its story simply involves exploring the society of the Ina and their symbionts, and Shori's journey to rediscover her heritage and come to terms with what was done to her. It doesn't pack the same level of punch as Kindred or the Parable books - and it didn't make me ache for lost sequels in the same way that Parable of the Trickster does - but for the kind of story it's supposed to be, Fledgling deserves to stand among the best reimaginings of the vampire mythology, one that pushes the psychological elements of the myth to fascinating new levels.
I'm excited to see where my Butler reading takes me from here: next stop, the world of the Patternist, beginning with chronologically-first Wild Seed. See you then!
POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy