Tuesday, January 12, 2010

In Which I React Like Darth Vader

"I think some of your ancestors were outed and executed as vampires a few centuries ago. Iosif used to joke about it in a bitter way. He said that, physically, he and most Ina fit in badly wherever they go - tall, ultrapale, lean, wiry people. They usually looked like foreigners, and when times got bad, they were treated like foreigners - suspected, disliked, driven out, or killed."

I like vampires. That should be obvious to regular readers of This Book and I Could Be Friends by now. The genre is not without its flaws, however, one of the most glaring being its lack of inclusion. Vampires are always white - literally and racially. Granted, the current pop-culture incarnation of the bloodsucking undead comes from largely from Dracula, which itself was derived from old Slavic myths (as well as lesser-known European works such as the novel Carmilla and the short story "The Vampyre"). But given how society has expanded since the nineteenth century, why can't vampire stories seem catch up? So it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to Octavia Butler's Fledgling. I had heard many great things about Butler and her themes of race, gender, community, and otherness, and I was eager to see what she would do with the vampire myth.

Instead . . . hooo boy, where to begin?

A ten-year-old black girl with amnesia wakes up in a forest near a collection of burned-out ruins. She has horrific burns and gunshot injuries, which means she should be dead. Although she has no memory it is obvious she is not human: she chases down and kills animals, consuming their raw flesh. When she finally encounters a human being, she drinks his blood. He immediately recognizes her as a vampire, although he also observes that she doesn't remotely fit the image he had had of vampires. It turns out, however, that what the world thinks of as "vampires" is actually a second intelligent race that has evolved alongside humanity, living in secret but surfacing only enough to contribute to the legends found in various human cultures of demonic undead entities who feast on the blood of the living.

In "reality," the Ina are a largely benevolent people who take willing humans as their symbionts. The symbiont supplies their Ina with small amounts of blood in exchange for protection, long life (up to 200 years), and the intense emotional and sexual bonds they form with their Ina and with other symbionts. The Ina are not immortal, although they can live up to 550 years. They are nocturnal, but that is where Shori, the little black girl, comes in. She is actually the 53-year-old result of an experiment in combining Ina and human DNA to create an Ina able to withstand the sun. Hence, her darkened skin, which came from a female African-American donor. Unfortunately, not everyone is thrilled about this.

Despite the intriguing premise, however, the whole thing fell flat. To begin with, Butler's prose failed to impress me, especially coming from such a renown author who's won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Her writing was very bare-bones, but not as though she had made the stylistic choice of minimalism. Instead, it felt very amateurish, like someone who had an idea for a story but didn't know how to add in all those extras that make stories great: description, shading, subtlety, word play, thoughtful ruminations, flights of poetic fancy. Butler couldn't grasp the "show-don't-tell" rule at all. The basic structure went something like: "The next day, we went here. Then we did this and this. I felt very sad and I didn't know why. It was probably because of this." For example:
Victor grabbed his head with both hands and screamed - a long ragged, tearing shriek. Then he passed out.

I didn't want to care. It was clear from the Gordons' expressions that they didn't care. But I had bitten him twice. I didn't want him, wouldn't have kept him as my symbiont, but I did care what happened to him. It seemed that the bites made me feel connected to him and at least a little responsible for him.
Just reread that as I typed it - I'm not sure how to really explain what bothers me about it. It's hard to give a sample because Butler is technically proficient and avoids a lot of the more obvious blunders made by other writers, such as Stephenie Meyers's thesaurus abuse. ("He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare." Yep, that's a real quote.) If anything, Butler's prose was all the better for that.

The narrative also didn't flow well. Like Twilight, it felt like the whole book was written in about two days with no outline. There was no mystery in regard to who killed Shori's family - we find out too quickly and too easily, without any build-up or other development. From there it's just stagnant. We know who the guilty party is. What else is there to do?

But there was one issue which, above all, really bothered the hell outta me. More accurately: it royally squicked me out. Yes, I know Shori is really 53 but . . . she has sex, multiple times, with a hairy guy in his 20s. Then she meets another guy the same age, who tells her he was attracted to her the minute he saw her. They do not have sex but it is very highly strongly implied that they sure will.

Okay everybody, repeat after me:


Now granted, this is not new to vampire literature and can probably be considered a minor trope. Eli in Let the Right One In is a 200-year-old 12-year-old. Anne Rice did it twice: first in Interview with the Vampire and the sexual overtones between Claudia and Louis (or so I've heard - it's been years since I've read the book so I don't remember), and the second time in The Vampire Armand, with the explicitly-rendered affair between 12-year-old Armand and 1,000-year-old Marius. Disturbing, yes, but I liked those books, even though I had to put Armand down the first time I read it because it just got to be too much (a vampire-loving, Anne Rice fangirl friend of mine had the same reaction).

Squicky, yes, but I think what allowed Rice and Lindqvist to pull it off was the fact that the reader is not supposed to view these relationships in a positive light. Eli and her live-in pedophile boyfriend are symptomatic of the overall theme of sickness running through Lindqvist's novel. Plus, the guy is a creep and a loser. Claudia's fate - to be trapped forever in the body of a little girl even as her mind matures - is portrayed as an unspeakable moral horror. Armand was human, but his relationship with Marius was his first step towards becoming a vampire, which Rice has always portrayed as a form of earthly damnation. Plus, he lived in Renaissance Italy, where, according to the Leonardo Da Vinci biography I read last year, girls as young as 14 and 15 were often married off to older men. (Remember Ramborg and Simon in Kristin Lavransdatter?) Totally different social context.

The relationship between Shori and Wright, by contrast, is depicted as loving and nurturing, even as Shori's memory loss only emphasizes her childlike qualities. (Before she recovers her name, he even calls her Renee because it means "reborn.") And then the reader is treated to several pages of strongly implied lesbianism between Shori and several adult female symbionts, which, again, is supposed to be all beautiful, caring, etc. No, just . . . no.

Sorry folks. I just couldn't bring myself to enjoy this one. Fledgling is certainly a fast read that took me only a day and a half, so I guess that's something in its favor. But, alas.

Have you read Octavia Butler? What was your opinion?


Lu @ Regular Rumination said...

I skimmed this post because I haven't read Fledgling yet, but I'm sorry it seems you didn't like it. I love Octavia Butler, but like I said, haven't read Fledgling yet so I can't say. You should try Kindred, it's really awesome!

E. L. Fay said...

Don't worry, there are no spoilers here. I actually described very little of the plot.

I still have The Parable of the Sower on my TBR list. I'm really surprised I didn't like this book too, but given all the good stuff I've heard about Butler, maybe it was an "off" book for her?

Anonymous said...

Well, bummer. Like I said earlier, I did find the book quite cold, and the whole symbiot thing (not just the sex) was squicky (great word, btw), but I liked it because it was so different. It made me feel uncomfortable about vampires, instead of trying to manipulate me into liking them because they're sparkly vegetarians.

JoAnn said...

Too, bad. I've only read Kindred and liked it well enough, but haven't felt compelled to read more of her work.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I loved Kindred but I tried a few other of Butler's and they were DNFs for me. However, I think she deserves points for NOT writing "sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare..."

taraSG said...

I really liked this book and didn't have problems with Butler's writing style, but I will say that I was freaked out by the relationships. I just felt like that was the point. That we were judging based on our set of morals and not being open to another races set of norms. Great review though. I'm sure most people felt this way.

Tara SG
25 Hour Books

Emily said...

Wow, that's an actual quote from Twilight, huh? The mind reels. At least the Butler was a quick read, unlike Kristin!

The little I remember about Anne Rice novels makes me feel like, while she does portray, for example, Claudia's fate as horrific, it's also supposed to be titillating in that gross/sexy way that vampire novels so often walk. It sounded from your review like the Lindqvist book actually went all the way with the not-sexy gross-out, which makes me really curious about it. Another interesting review!

E. L. Fay said...

Softdrink: I actually liked the symbiont idea. But the part that grossed me out, obviously, was the child sex. I'm glad you liked "squicky"! I got it from another book blog whose name escapes me at the moment.

JoAnn: I've heard a lot of praise for Kindred too, but I think the premise sounds to silly for me.

Rhapsody: All DNF's? That's too bad. I'll probably wait on The Parable of the Sower then. But you're right: if Fledgling is indeed typical of her writing, then she really does deserve points for not trying to go over her head stylistically.

taraSG: I got that too - that this is a different race with different values and a different biology/psychology. But still, I feel that some rules weren't made to be broken.

Emily: I TOTALLY agree with your assessment of Claudia. Well said, as always.

Eva said...

I actually loved this one. Like Tara, I think that Butler was trying to challenge us with all of the squicky (hehe) sex stuff.

Moreover, I read Butler's choppy writing style as intentional, since it's all from Shori's point of view, and she's got amnesia, and her brain is always trying to figure out what's going on.

And maybe because I've got a soft spot for legal stuff, I found the whole trial thing quite suspenseful. lol

There were lots of other reasons that I really connected with the book, but to each their own! :)

E. L. Fay said...

Eva: That's an interesting perspective - that the ho-hum prose might be intentional, since it's a first-person perspective from someone with amnesia and possible brain damage. I'll get to The Parable of the Sower eventually, so I'll have to see how Butler's "normal" prose is.

E. L. Fay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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