Octavia Butler’s Fledgling as Undead Slave Narrative
Let me start by saying Fledgling is no horror novel. Neither terror nor dread defines this world or drives its subjects, as in the traditional horror novel. If we must classify its genre I would argue that this is a novel of detection with a rather strange detective at the center.
Shori is a 53 year old vampire who looks to be about 10 years old. She is black, an experiment for her race of Ina vampires, but at the start of the novel she is a feral animal, badly beaten, and with no memory of who or what she is. All is explained in the opening lines:
“I awoke to darkness. I was hungry—starving!—and I was in pain. There was nothing in my world but hunger and pain, no other people, no other time, no other feelings.”
She must move out of this oceanic space stripped of all consciousness—quite like the Middle Passage—to discover nature and heritage through instinct alone. It turns out that someone has killed all of Shori’s mother figures. The vampire race to which she belongs is matrifocal. As was their custom she had been living with her powerful mothers, one of which was a black human woman.
The fact that the heritage she intuits to have brutally lost is cast as a kind of maternal origin irretrievable to her is a characteristic lament of the slave narrative. So is the central theme of Shori’s self-education as a form of coming into being, of joining with a community of those with knowledge and power. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the plot thematizes murder, communal belonging, and species and racial difference as a superficial alibi. The novel’s real purpose is to scrutinize matters of power and family. It seeks new ways of organizing and managing filiation. Still, these concerns are not so far removed from the classic detective novel’s insistence on giving us a dramatic status report on epistemology, or how we know what we know when our knowing really counts.
Aside from its plot, Fledgling produces the same intellectual effects of most detective fiction. It questions our foundations of knowledge. Its point in doing so is to forward new possibilities for filial community and intimacy based on a weird ethics of symbiosis—the situation any strangely loving or needful vampire has with human donors. The term, Iosif, names this mutual attachment of symbiosis, yet much of the book undermines the applicability of that adjective—”mutual”—since the power in the relationship belongs disproportionately to the vampire.
Nevertheless, Butler’s vampires heap a great deal of ideological and moral concern onto the issue of caring for and even loving their humans. Loving humans, in fact, takes on three oddly interrelated forms of intimacy—as an expanded kinship network, as sexual partnership, and as food source. So long as the indisputably superior master needs the worthy but serviceable slave the possibility exists not just for an ethics but for an eros of power. Butler’s erotic logic of power and care prevents her fictive society from teetering into the kind of racist, postcolonial, exploitative chaos more familiar to us.
Like Wesley Snipes’ character Blade, Shori is a type of black experiment, a melanin-powered vampire who can withstand the rays of the sun. The revelation of her skin color difference is notable. It comes from her first bitten familiar, Wright, who declares:
“Ordinary sun exposure burns your skin even though you’re black”
The weight of the declaration stuns Shori. “I stopped.” She tells us.
“I had been about to protest that I was brown, not black, but before I could speak, I understood what he meant. Then his question triggered another memory. I looked at him. “I think I’m an experiment. I think I can withstand the sun better than…others of my kind. I burn, but I don’t burn as fast as they do. It’s like an allergy we all have to the sun. I don’t know who the experimenters are, though, the ones who made me black” (37).
A sort of social comedy ensues as Shori is also the spitting image of a ten year old girl. That’s not someone we expect to see taking care of an in-fighting harem of humans. The irony of Shori’s blackness and youth is mentioned by her favorite symbiot, or human lover slash donor slash food source–a tension, by the way, to which the novel relentlessly (and slashingly) returns. Theodora says of her:
“According to what I’ve read you’re supposed to be a tall, handsome, fully grown white man. Just my luck. But you must be a vampire. How could you do this if you weren’t? How could I let you do it? How could it feel so good when it should be disgusting and painful? And how could the wound heal so quickly and without scars?” (97).
Like Alice Walker’s heroines, Shori’s foremothers have been slated for extinction. But like the human lovers on whom she feeds she too will heal. Shori will overcome her lack of knowledge of who and what she is, as half vampire or Ina, and half black human, in an act of heroism that recuperates the traumatic loss of her erased foremothers—an emotional trajectory so poignantly similar to that of the standard nineteenth slave narrative.
Of course, if we were to examine the vampire roots of Fledgling, we’d do well to start with more contemporary works like Ann Rice’s vampires, especially Claudia, a sexually active but preternaturally pre-adolescent vampire.
There is also Blade, as I have mentioned, or other movies about sexualized children like The Orphan, or child vampires like Near Dark or Let the Right One In.
There is also much to recommend putting Fledgling in conversation with older horror classics, such as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein or Stoker’s Dracula–at least as Stephen Arata sees Dracula, as an occidental tourist in a Western empire whose norms of marriage, consumption, desire, and property consolidation he both disrupts and distortedly mirrors.
When we begin to do this sort of extended comparison of Fledgling with other texts it resembles, the real surprise is not that Octavia Butler would finalize her career with a vampire novel, which meditates on African American themes of race struggle, interracial tensions, and master and slave dialectics, but that more writers before her have not been doing so all along.
I want to pose this genre shift in terms of the horror trope of the undead, honing in on a particular cultural formation of race and horror, the race component in the very first zombie movie being so transparent. If you’ll recall, Ben, the black hero of George Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, takes charge of the apocalyptic scenario created by the slow march of predating all-white zombies. He does so in such a way as to suggest, perhaps all too explicitly, his own familiarity with lynch mobs.
At one point he says of the zombies: “Don’t worry about them. I can handle them.”
Unafraid to reflect its era, the film also represents the struggle of an ethnic minority who must shoulder a disproportionate share of the labor involved in survival—a spectacle that may have resonated with the filmgoer’s understanding of the Vietnam conflict and civil rights. Like Hitchcock’s The Birds, which likewise represents the dissolution of a family as they struggle to barricade themselves against an unrelenting, unimaginable threat, Romero’s seminal zombie film represents a symbolic American family led by a smart, resourceful black man who tries against all odds to protect the living whites inside the big house from brainthirsty whites without.
But, as we all know, subsequent zombie films for a time fled from this reference to unsettled racial conflicts in the American unconscious, preferring instead an unsubtle commodity critique in the parallel between the mindless consumption of middle class America and the torpid shuffle of the undead masses falling into fountains or getting stuck on escalators in shopping malls.
What was at the outset an irresolvable commentary on race becomes a safer kind of cultural finger-wagging at consumerism, an unexceptional hobgoblin of media cynicism that would do little to thwart customers of zombie products. But I’d like to think that to the knowing and well informed viewer, this initial undercurrent of racial unrest so potent in the first film persists as a residue in the current troping on gratuitous consumption or fears of mass infection or ecological disaster. Race as an issue, in other words, continues to haunt the referential margins of the zombie narrative, much like an undead trope in itself.
Perhaps the vampire story as a genre has settled into a more comfortable set of critical protocols. And perhaps the earliest cultural unspeakables continue to haunt it. In Fledgling, we see that they do, and that they do in concert with a not-so-buried set of racially inflected aesthetics–a set of conventions comprising the basis of African American literary production, from the slave narrative to its many neo-incarnations. These encompass so much more than simply Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada, including such films as Training Day and Avatar—all of which work to play off of and in some cases reverse the generic characteristics of the slave narrative.
Read more about the figure of the prophetic child in my book Reading Lessons in Seeing: Mirrors, Masks, and Mazes in the Autobiographical Graphic Novel (forthcoming from University Press of Mississippi).