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Octavia Butler's Final Work Will Suck You In

When Octavia Butler turned to vampires, she redefined science fiction yet again.

fledgling covers

Octavia Butler changed science fiction. Her work carved a new path through the genre by challenging stereotypes and creating immersive worlds filled with diverse characters. These bold futures resonated so strongly that Butler was the first science fiction author honored with a MacArthur Genius Grant, and she became the first Black woman to win both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award.

Author of 15 novels and short story collections, Butler’s characters and stories had an enormous impact on the literary world. She created heroes from survivors, turning the typical hero trope around to focus on the disenfranchised as our key to survival. She showed us that often the solution lies in change—and that courage means compromise. 

Butler emphasized many times that she believed that one of the inherent flaws in the human condition was the tendency to embrace hierarchal thinking—a belief structure that reflects a top-down power dynamic. 

She often showed this dynamic through the oppression of a weaker ‘other’, but rather than as a sign of strength, this hierarchy was characterized as a parasite. Her work consistently highlighted various ways to attempt to dismantle this mindset.

Her final novel, Fledgling, is a prime example of how she tackled these themes. We start with Shori, a young girl with amnesia struggling with incredible abilities and impulses that are clearly not human. We quickly learn that these appetites are because rather than being a normal 11-year-old girl, she is a 53-year-old genetically modified vampire. To survive, Shori has to learn what she can about her past while trying to understand her present. Because people are trying to destroy her—and the people she cares about.

It's a stunning exploration of what it means to be human through the eyes of a vampire. But not just any vampire—a genetically modified vampire from a species that creates symbiotic relationships with humans through their venom. 

These symbiotes build close-knit families where humans and vampires live in harmony. But even these communities aren’t immune to biases and intolerant behaviors we see in our reality. And these problems become the catalyst of the center conflict.

It might seem strange for Butler to tackle vampires—even science fiction focused genetically-modified vampires—but it actually fits within her framework quite well. The vampire is an exploration of power and control. It examines the human condition primarily by removing humanity from a human-like creature. 

Traditional vampires were once human and the exploration of where they lose their humanity is often at the core of vampire stories. But here, the Ina are separate creatures that have existed in secret alongside humans for centuries. These vampires are still alluring, but their appeal isn’t in manipulation and control, it’s in the benefits they offer in exchange for blood.

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  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

For all their power, the Ina have their limits. Their inability to face the sun limits the extent of their power. They have to form a compromise in the form of the symbiotic relationship with humans. Humans enjoy longer lives and better health while the Ina get food and protection. Win-win. Except it isn’t. Even this compromise is fraught with more wanting, that oh-so-human desire for more.

We see this through Shori directly. She is set apart from the rest of her vampire brethren through her modifications. Her skin is darker than the rest of the Ina because they were trying to find a way to make their kind able to withstand daylight. Shori was found burned and disoriented and we learn the reason why through the course of the novel. 

She is the survivor, and her survival pushes the narrative towards understanding and change. But even more creatively, because Shori is genetically modified, she is the change, at the same time. Her differences save her life multiple times, and her memory loss forces her to question various aspects of herself and her species in a critical way. Without either, Shori wouldn’t force the Ina to see certain truths about themselves and change for the better would never take place.

To further tie in the themes Butler consistently explores, tolerance to the sun isn’t Shori’s only modification. She’s a hybrid. Half of her genetics are human, making her an experiment to improve the Ina’s strengths while eliminating their weaknesses, and perhaps rendering the symbiotic relationship itself obsolete. Not everyone is happy with this decision, preferring to continue enjoying humans as their equals and find a way to live in peace. But because this mutation also darkens her skin, it sets her apart, it makes her ‘other’.

Now we see that even in a quiet society such as the Ina, oppression through hierarchal thinking presents itself in the narrative. Rather than approaching the vampire society as one that overtakes humans in the global hierarchy as being the dominant species, Butler chooses to create that hierarchal structure within the vampires themselves. In fact, the conflict isn’t focused on the Ina hunting humans, but rather what happens when the Ina target each other. 

Opposing typical vampire lore with the bloodthirsty monster hunting all night, the Ina are simply trying to live quiet lives. Shori is seen as a disruption or a threat to this way of life. It’s also a brilliant way to learn about their rules and governance, and though the outcome is encouraged through change and compromise, we also see how difficult that can be. The Ina aren’t immune to the type of thinking that humanity has struggled with for millennia.

Another interesting examination of power is in the symbiotic relationship itself. The Ina don’t hunt to feed, and their humans become their willing symbiotes, but that is in part because of the addictive nature of their venom. And the longer they are fed upon, the more compliant they become until they’re unable to defy a command given by their Ina companion. 

This dynamic favors the Ina so much that if the human is denied the specific venom of their personal Ina, they will die. Through this relationship, Butler examines the idea of freedom and choice. Can you remain free if you become dependent on something? At what point does choice and freedom become something else?

This relationship is also where Butler plays with the allure of the vampire. To write vampires is to explore the forbidden, the sexual, the hidden desires. But where many vampires represent the masculine and the victims the feminine, we get vampirism through a distinct female lens. The Ina’s bit isn’t simply addictive, it is extremely pleasurable. 

These relationships end up being polyamorous, as the Ina form bonds with their human symbiotes as well as familial connections with other Ina, as well. These communities might be all female, as Shori’s first family was, or all male, as her father’s is. 

This is yet another way for Butler to untangle domination from sex and sexuality. Men and women are free to love whoever they choose, couple with whoever they choose, and because the structure of these relationships dismantles typical societal roles, the controlling power of sex and sexuality is also dismantled.

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  • Butler signs a copy of Fledgling in 2005.

    Photo Credit: Nikolas Coukouma via Wikimedia Commons

Through these various problems, Butler shows us that for either species to survive, they have to adapt. And these adaptations should incorporate the strengths of the other species while letting go of their weaknesses. 

For the Ina, being more human and less vampiric can only serve to strengthen the bonds of their communities and deepen their emotional ties. For humans, being able to overcome illness and let go of sexual jealousy allows them to let go of many catalysts that create problems in human society.

Fledgling ended up being the last novel Butler published before she died. It’s one of her few standalone novels, but only because she didn’t live long enough to write the sequels. She took a common fantasy subject and made it distinctly science fiction, while playing with the tropes of vampiric lore to discuss the themes her writing typically embraces. 

Her vampires are unique, but more importantly, they allow us to view our own selves and societies through their eyes. It’s a testament to her creativity and how incredible her work is. Fledgling is controversial, pushes boundaries, and forces the reader to examine their own discomforts, biases, and fears.