Posted by : atcampbell | On : May 7, 2007

Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

Ten people gathered at the North Village library for this discussion of Octavia E. Butler’s final novel. We had one first-time attendee. The story deals with a young woman who wakes up with no memory and tries to determine who and what she is. She quickly learns that she is not human, but instead is a member of a humanoid species with many characteristics of vampires. She eventually comes to learn a great deal about her heritage and the social structure of her race. Eight of us had read Butler before, and eight started and completed this book.

Some of us trouble finding copies of Fledgling to read, despite the trade paperback being out for only a few weeks. We suspect that bookstores and libraries had trouble figuring out where to shelve this book, since it deals with vampires but has no horror elements.

The protagonist’s story is told in first-person, and the author does a beautiful job of developing the story’s world, the plot, and the narrator’s emerging personality. One person commented that the book was effortless to read. Many of us felt Butler’s prose style was superb.

Several of us pointed out that this story deals with Butler’s commons obsessions: race and otherness. The social structure of the vampiric race is well thought out, and it is presented over the course of the novel without tedious info-dumps. The vampires are seriously about science, and they are exploring eugenics and cloning.

The relationships of the vampires to humans are carefully developed. The two races turn out to be symbiotic, with the vampires calling all the shots. Some elements of this relationship are sexual, and we found the scenes illustrating this creepy. One member wondered why so many authors are interested in vampire sexuality. The symbiosis is basically a voluntary and humane form of slavery. We found this disturbing, but appreciated how the author developed the concept so well. It challenged us to consider whether a symbiotic life was worth living. One quote from a human to his vampire illustrates this: “Do you love me or do I just taste good?”

The end of the book is a courtroom drama between different factions of the vampires. This was an effective way to present more of the world of vampires, particularly how members of a race of near-immortals might argue serious issues. But we generally felt the trial was an artificial device that hurt the narrative momentum, and therefore our enjoyment of the story.

We all appreciated Butler’s clear writing. Most of liked the story a lot. A couple of people didn’t connect with this book as much as with some of Butler’s prior work, but they said they still liked it. One member said this book was the most thought-provoking he’d read in several years. One of us usually does not like vampire books, but really enjoyed Fledgling’s exploration of otherness. She said that she almost cried when she got to the end, since we would not be seeing any more books from Octavia Butler.

After the meeting, we had a nice dinner at Fuddrucker’s.

–A. T. Campbell, III