Deceptively waifish Shori, the heroine of Octavia E. Butler's first novel in seven years, conceals in her slight frame strength akin to that of her...
by Octavia E. Butler
Seven Stories Press,
320 pp., $24.95
Deceptively waifish Shori, the heroine of Octavia E. Butler’s first novel in seven years, conceals in her slight frame strength akin to that of her creator’s spare, powerful prose. In the opening chapter of “Fledgling” she wakes from a coma in a contemporary Northwest forest. Like a post-modern black, female Tarzan, she runs down two deer and kills them bare-handed, though she’s recovering from injuries inflicted by mysterious attackers that would have left a lesser being dead.
But though Shori’s dark-skinned, she’s not exactly black. And she’s female but not the young girl she appears to be. She’s not human. She’s a vampire.
Horrific head wounds have left Shori with amnesia and no way of knowing whether or not her abilities are normal. Eventually she emerges from the burned-out ruins where she’s been hiding to find the humans whose blood and companionship she craves.
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Octavia E. Butler
The author of “Fledgling” will read at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. Co-sponsored by the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).
Butler, a Seattle-area author, has won multiple awards for her novels and short stories, including the MacArthur Foundation “genius” award and both a Hugo and a Nebula for “Bloodchild,” the title story of her 1995 collection. That collection is being re-released simultaneously with the novel; the new edition (“Bloodchild,” Seven Stories Press, $13.95) comes with two new stories written and published online within the past two years.
Still unquestionably at the peak of her powers, Butler tells Shori’s tale simply, with a minimum of fuss. Yet all the really necessary details are there: The smell of charred wood washed by days of rain, the throbbing pulse beckoning to Shori from a lover’s throat, the writhing pleasure her victims feel when she feeds on them.
Giving deep pleasure is how Butler’s vampires bind humans to themselves. That process is just one of the author’s many inventive plausibilities. A rationalist herself, Butler has created thoroughly scientific underpinnings for physical, biologically viable creatures based on our myths of the bloodsucking undead. Immune to silver and crucifixes, powerful and long-lived, Shori and her kind still lead a precarious existence, due to their obvious departures from the human norm.
Butler is as observant as ever of the failings and strengths of human nature, and as skilled as ever at extrapolating from these to their nonhuman analogues. Belonging to a very small minority (the Ina, as Butler’s vampires call themselves), Shori constitutes an even smaller, dark-skinned minority within that group. It’s easy to draw parallels between the “otherness” of the Ina and that of blacks and nonwhites in general. And members of minority groups know that standing out among those already labeled as different can make you a target for the hostilities of the group you’re supposedly part of.
Never one to pull her literary punches, Butler puts her heroine through rapid changes and awful suffering as Shori struggles to regain her memory and reassemble her life. This is certainly not a novel of wish-fulfillment, though the pleasures described within its pages are as intense as the pains. Nothing is easy, nothing is neat. Everything that happens is internally consistent, makes sense according to current scientific knowledge, and is presented to the reader with the crystalline clarity of an Ina’s acute senses.
At first glance, “Fledgling’s” only flaw is that it ends. Yet the conclusion is a satisfying one, with no loose ends. The real problem is that despite this, it leaves the reader wanting more. More Shori. More Ina. In a word, more books.