Townhouse Books

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Fledgling: Octavia Butler

It's not every author that occupies her very own literary niche, but as the only African-American woman science fiction author this reviewer can think of, Octavia Butler held a unique place in the genre.

I haven't read anything else by Butler, but I have to imagine she built her reputation on better books than Fledgling. Before her untimely demise last year, she won a MacArthur Foundation grant, a Hugo, and a Nebula This was her first new book in seven years, and the last before her untimely demise.

The premise of Fledgling is that vampires are real (although they call themselves the Ina), they're a parallel species to homo sapiens, and yes, they're super strong, super fast, they're not immortal (although they naturally live into their fifth century), they don't burn to ashes in sunlight, but they do sleep through the day and get a nasty sunburn from direct sunlight, and they walk around smelling everything.

The protagonist is an Ina named Shori who has the body of a 10-year-old at the young age (in Ina years) of 57. She wakes up in a cave burned, shot, and ravenously hungry. She grabs the first living thing that wanders by and eats it, and spend the rest of the book looking for answers.

That's the elevator pitch, and it sounds great. The reality is a little different.

Most science fiction and fantasy happens in a fantastic place or time and authors (other than John Clute) typically need a character that represents the reader's point of view. This viewpoint character is usually clueless about the crucial parts of the world, which provides ample opportunity for the author to have some second character explain crucial things to the first character, and therefore the reader.

You see this all the time in sci-fi movies where you'll often have a character that's a doctor on a space station, a young farmboy who's going to explore the galaxy, or a mysterious traveler from another land and who is completely clueless about all the technical aspects of their futuristic world. The farmboy doesn't need to know how their warp drive works, and if it were explained to them they'd never understand it anyway, so the author can just engage in some handwaving and TLA-lobbing, and still weave a vaguely realistic world.

You'd think that amnesiacs would pop up more often in books to fill this role since they ostensibly don't remember anything and need everything explained to them, but in practice, or at least in this book, they're just annoying. Shori must have had a case of super-double amnesia, since she doesn't know what a car is, she doesn't know what a horse is, she doesn't know what refrigerators are for, she doesn't know anything about anything, (but seems to know English well enough,) and we're constantly being reminded of that fact. Repeatedly.

Sometimes we're reminded of her amnesia multiple times in the same sentence. Just because the main character has amnesia doesn't mean the reader does.

The actual plot of Fledgling is: there's a group of Ina who don't like the fact that Shori's family has been trying to breed a daylight-resistant Ina by combining human and Ina DNA. Shori is the result of that genetic tampering, and it's left her with dark dark skin and kinky hair. In theory this brings in the racial issue, but since we're talking about a black Ina and not a black human, the comparison seems initially clever, but on further examination just seems lame. The other Ina look down on her not because she's black but because she's part human.

The climax of the book is actually pretty good, but slogging through the court scenes leading up to it just isn't worth it. The story doesn't work, but it's because Butler doesn't give us any real reason to care about Shori or her family. The horrible things happening to her would carry emotional weight if we were able to identify with her, or if we thought that Shori actually was in danger of losing something that mattered to her.

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  • Bshort, thanks for the detailed review. Even at certain parts of your review I was still mildly intrigued, but in the end you convinced me that I would be bored. (And it would drop to a pile at the side of my bed like too many other books lately).

    By Blogger evt1618, at 8:31 PM  

  • I loved this book and I find that your review was biased. It seems to scream that you don't like Octavia Butler. How about you take a neutral opinion next time you write a review.

    By Blogger MyDoll, at 8:27 PM  

  • It's not that I don't like Octavia Butler. I don't know her.

    What I definitely don't like is this book, and since this is, in fact, a book review, I think it's appropriate to discuss in what way and to what extent I dislike the book.

    By Blogger bshort, at 9:12 AM  

  • Hi, MyDoll. Thanks for commenting. We use this blog as a way to share our unvarnished opinions about the books we've read. However, I think it would be a mistake to take any of our book reviews as a statement of our personal feelings about the author.

    Was there anything in particular you disagreed with in the book review? I really like Octavia Butler's work myself (particularly Parable of the Sower), but this particular book was not my favorite, for some of the reasons mentioned by bshort.

    By Blogger a.rust, at 12:16 PM  

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