Octavia Butler's "Fledgling": subtle, thrilling vampire novel

Octavia Butler's first book in seven years is the new vampire novel Fledgling, and it was worth the wait. Butler built her reputation by writing fantastic adventure novels that contained subtle, considered and complicated stories about race politics (Butler is one of a sadly small number of African-American writers in science fiction). Fledgling isn't science fiction, exactly — it's a vampire novel with some of the trappings of sf.

Fledgling's heroine is a young vampire who awakes, amnesiac and badly mutilated, in a cave. She soon encounters the smoking wreck of a village, and then a young man, whom she bites and then beds. The sexual politics of this are really creepy, since she appears to be an eleven-year-old girl (she is much older, but vampires age more slowly than humans).

What proceeds is a darkly erotic story of the family and race crisis that led to the extermination of her clan and her near-fatal injuries. On the way, Butler masterfully handles the moral dimension of feeding from, and becoming symbiotic with human (fans of Butler's story Bloodchild will recognize the symbiosis theme here), all the while never neglecting to tell a fast-moving, action-oriented story that had me turning pages well past my bedtime. I even stood on a freezing subway platform and finished a chapter before putting the book away and heading out.

Butler's novels earned her the MacArthur "genius" award, and it was well-deserved. Few writers in our field are so good at blending potato-chip page-turners with nutritious philosophical questions so seamlessly. Fledgling stands with Parable of the Sower and other classic Butler novels as a book that will provoke strong emotions and deep thoughts.


Update: Eric sez, "Octavia Butler was on Democracy Now in November talking about Fledgling, the Parables series, her life and politics.