"That you may ruminate"

…On Fledgling.

Posted by Steve on November 16, 2008

This past week, in the downtime in Richmond after finishing the day’s work and before going to sleep, I read a book. Well, I also dealt with still being sick, but reading a book is far more interesting than a combination of flu symptoms and stomach virus.

The book I read wasn’t the book I’d been planning to read. Instead, the book I read was Fledgling, Octavia Butler’s last novel. I was of course familiar with her name – how could I not be, she’d won a Hugo and a Nebula – but I’d never read one of her books or stories before.

I’ve got to say, I’m glad I did. While Fledgling suffers from an advanced case of “Abysmal Blurb On The Back”, I’d gotten it on someone’s recommendation rather than as an arbitrary choice at the bookstore, so that didn’t really dissuade me any. Which I’m glad, because the back cover would lead you to believe that this is a ponderous screed on race relations that clumsily uses the vampire motif as an allegory for framing a panegyric against the spirit behind the old anti-miscegenation statutes. At least, that was the impression I got from the blurb, which ends with the sentence: “And in the final apocalyptic battle, her survival will depend on whether all humans are bigots – or all bigots are human…”. Let me just say, the dipshit who wrote that blurb (not to mention whoever picked the reviewer quotes for the back cover and front page – and those reviewers) did a major disservice to Ms. Butler and to her work, and they should be ashamed of their ineptitude. But as they say, you can’t judge a book by its cover, and that’s true here. (You want more evidence supporting that adage’s literal truth, look at the incredibly gaudy cover art of Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women, then read that epic, astounding, successful synthesis of post-apocalyptic adventure novel, romance novel, dystopian novel, and feminist theory. Seriously, I endorse that novel, and I highly recommend reading it.)

Look, race and race-relations-related-topics do show up as themes, and I’m told they were themes in all of Butler’s work, but saying that’s what this novel’s about is like saying The Once and Future King was about critiquing the theory of the divine right of kings. Sure, White did that, but he did much, much more. Ditto Butler here. Sure, the book does serve an allegorical function, but for any reader who’s reading for the right reasons that’s an irrelevancy compared to the primacy of Story and Storytelling.

And at those, Butler did a wonderful job here. The book’s tightly-written and I think well-paced, and the story itself is one of constant revelation: over three hundred pages, the narrating protagonist progresses from “I don’t know who or what I am” to “I know who I am, and I know who I will become.” Also, Butler did some wonderful playing in the sandbox of vampire lore. I don’t want to give anything away, but as an example mutualist symbiosis is highly (and explicitly) relevant in the story’s world, which isn’t something I’m aware of from other vampire novels. Also, while there’s a clear sexual element to the relationship between vampires and humans in the book, it isn’t predatory or exploitative – again, a bit of a twist on the vampire lore, I think. Then again, a large chunk of the SF/F section of any bookstore is now devoted to the works of writers such as Kelly Armstrong and Laurell Hamilton and other writers of what I’ve heard derisively labeled as the “vampire porn” subgenre. Which as I don’t read it, I’m not sure if benevolent vampire sex is all the rage in contemporary vampire literature. And actually, it’d make sense if it were. After all, who hasn’t wished succubi and incubi were real so would would visit them? Exactly.

Anyway. Fledgling. I liked it.

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