When Fledgling first came out in 2005, it once again put Octavia E. Butler on the map as an author. Capitalizing on the then current zeitgeist of the vampire story (the Twilight series was released on October 5 to Fledgling‘s September 8), Butler’s writing style throughout often smacks of the sentiment, “I need a paycheck.” Its rather on the nose motif of the old guard’s contempt for “mixing races”–in this case humans and Ina–is, at times noble, but mostly gives rise to very little in the way of deep or profound meaning. The Ina are a form of vampire, the very race that cultivated the false human lore surrounding the myth of the nocturnal creature. While they do feed off of human blood and can’t function in the day without risking harm to their skin, Ina are far more mortal in their actions and emotions–a characteristic in direct contrast to the commonly held belief that vampires are lechers and gluttons for debauchery. In this way, Butler immediately establishes the notion that preconceived judgments are among the most detrimental aspects of humanity. It is, in part, because of this very foible that Ina are so prejudiced against humans, deeming them more a necessity than a desirable part of their life.
However, each family of Ina, divided into the Silks, the Gordons, the Matthews (Shori’s bloodline that gets entirely annihilated based on speciesist motives), the Dahlmans and the Brathwaites, are nonetheless reliant on humans for their literal lifeblood. Deemed symbionts, once a human is bitten by an Ina, they are forever, essentially, that Ina’s slave. But it isn’t entirely without benefit to the human, who at least gets the perk of a healthier and much longer life (though this might be seen as punishment to some) in return for providing sustenance.
As Shori learns more about who she really is after waking up with no memory of her past, she comes to rely on the very first person who encounters her–a construction worker named Wright–as she leaves the recesses of the woods for a main road. It is at this point that Butler’s predilection for cheesy sexual descriptions of the Twilight (or even Fifty Shades of Grey) variety come into play, not to mention the rather foul allusion to Wright’s latent lust for young girls (Shori is technically fifty-three but looks like a ten-year-old girl, with the flat chest to match). Butler’s trite description from Shori’s vantage point details, “I put my fingers over his lips gently. When he fell silent, I kissed first his mouth, then his throat. He was so angry–so filled with rage and confusion. He rolled onto me, pushing my legs apart, then thrust hard into me. I bit him more deeply than I had intended and wrapped my arms and legs around him as I took his blood. He groaned, writhing against me, holding me, thrusting harder until I had taken all I needed of his blood, until he had all he needed of me.”
And this is just the beginning of Shori’s various carnal delights in the bodily uses of the human. Indeed, she often comes across as more sympathetic to her human side than her “purer” Ina one, which is how she finds herself facing the Council of Judgment after aligning herself with the Gordon family to find out more information about the culprit behind wiping out her family. Certain factions of the Ina present on the Council of Judgment believe that Shori’s blackness–the very thing that makes her stronger and capable of going out in the daytime without injury–is the thing that puts the Ina in danger of becoming weaker through so-called dilution.
Butler does little to build mystery behind who turns out to be behind the killings, wasting no time in positioning the highly bigoted Silk family as the villains whose drive to maintain the “unsulliedness” of their kind prompts them to do whatever violent act it takes. Like some sort of vampire version of the Manson family (and you’re better off reading Emma Cline’s The Girls for that effect), humans are enlisted by the Silk faction to carry out their desired task of stamping out Shori and her Matthews ancestors so as to obliterate any trace of human genetic commingling in the Ina race.
Even tones of gender-related double standards creep through with Wright’s jealousy over Shori’s additional male symbiont, Joel, as he remarks, “I don’t mind the women so much I guess. I kind of like the two downstairs. I was hoping you’d get all women–except me. I think I could deal with that.”
Wright’s resentment also manifests when he realizes Shori goes for female symbionts as well, commenting, “‘Swing both ways, do you?’ [Shori] frowned, startled and confused by the terrible bitterness in his voice. ‘What?’ ‘Sex with men and women?’ ‘With my symbionts if both they and I want it.. For the moment, that’s you.’ ‘For the moment.'”
His anger, however, is part of a larger statement about the human powerlessness to fight against anything the vampire–an allegory for oppressor–wants. Though Shori claims that she wanted to allow both Wright and one of her older symbionts, Theodora, to be able to have the freedom to decide whether they want to stay with her or not, it’s evident that one bite from Shori hooks anyone irrevocably. And even willing slaves are slaves all the same. This is, alas, the subtlest and therefore most pointed message in Fledgling, just another Twilight book at its core.