Octavia Butler’s Fledgling

Octavia Butler’s Fledgling

On 29 April we had our first Good Societies reading group. The idea of the reading group is to alternate between fiction and non-fiction texts that all have something to teach us about how a ‘good’ society could work. Non-fiction can help us get acquainted with concrete ideas for alternative social arrangements, while fiction can add colour and granularity to visions of other worlds and help open our imaginations.

For our first session we read Octavia Butler’s Fledgling: a vampire novel, no less. We chose it because at our launch event there was a lot of enthusiasm for exploring alternative kinship, family or community structures – central themes in Fledgling – and because Octavia Butler’s name came up more than once.

Shori Matthews wakes up in a cave one day severely injured and completely missing her memory, after her family has been destroyed by unknown attackers. The plot revolves around her finding out what and who she is, building a new family, and bringing her attackers to justice.

Choosing your family

It turns out that Shori is an ‘ina’, aka a vampire, and that ina have mutually dependent relationships with several humans, known as ‘symbionts’. Ina and their symbionts live in mixed-species communities. A group of female ina siblings customarily mates with a group of male ina siblings, and the two ina genders live separately, with females rising daughters and males raising sons. Ina have multiple mothers and fathers. Ina live off human blood but they rarely kill humans and in fact forge extremely close bonds with the humans they feed from, who become part of their family. Each ina has seven or eight human symbionts, and these symbionts are also free to form families and have children with each other. The basic formation, then, is a kind of extended family that is partly inherited and partly chosen.

Many of us liked this kind of constellation, where you live close to a large group of people (maybe a couple of hundred) with whom you have close attachments. Child rearing could be done by more than two people. On the other hand, gender is completely binary in this world, and ina social relations are quite rigid – something we didn’t find particularly appealing. We didn’t get into a polygamy debate, but personally I thought the book did quite a good job of exploring the complexities – the difficulties as well as possible up-sides – of having multiple partners and different kinds of love-relationships.

Designing for conflict

A debate in the reading group was over the power relationships between ina and humans within these societies. Humans become addicted to the venom in their ina’s saliva, to the point where they would actually die without it. Not only that, ina have a certain mind control ability over their humans, who have to obey if their ina commands them to do something. Ina are also much stronger and faster than humans. On the other hand, ina are also dependent on their humans for their survival, and the mutual love between ina and symbionts is incredibly strong.

What does this have to teach us about envisioning better societies in the real world? It got us thinking about how differences in abilities and conflicts of interest could best be managed in a good society. It’s unlikely that we’d all agree with each other about everything and live in perfect harmony, so perhaps we need to ‘design for conflict’. We’re looking into having a workshop on this topic.

Starting with needs

Something several of us found interesting was the exposition of needs. In a way, these societies are based around the basic needs of ina. They need to drink human blood to survive. It is in their interests to keep several humans close to them from whom they can feed. But these biological needs are also often emotional needs. The blood-venom chemistry – in which ina need human blood and humans become addicted to ina venom – is not unlike the hormonal chemistry humans and other animals have. Ina and humans love each other deeply. They need to be near each other, need to touch each other, play and be intimate with each other. What would it mean to start seeing emotional needs as connected to and equally essential as biological needs, and to structure societies around needs?

Race and species

Fledgling’s treatment of race is multi-layered. The two species – ina and human – can be seen as a metaphor for race in the USA. Shori is a hybrid – she is ina but she is also the product of genetic engineering. She has some human DNA which allows her to walk around in daylight. She experiences ‘racism’ from other vampires because of her human DNA. However, that DNA came from a black woman – it is the pigment in Shori’s skin that allows her to withstand sunlight. She also experiences ‘actual’ racism for this, both from humans and from ina. Was this about race and racism or about species and ‘specieism’ – or both? To complicate things further, the racism and specieism Shori experiences is sometimes conveyed through animalistic language – she is compared to a dog, for example. This is something many people of colour in the US and around the world will find familiar. Thus both the ‘actual’ human racism and the ‘metaphorical’ (or is it?) specieist racism is delivered in specieist terms.

Anyway, this got us thinking both about the constructedness of race – something we can surely do without in a good society – and about what human/non-human relations would look like in a good society – topics we also plan to organise workshops on.

Thanks to all those who took part in the conversation about Fledgling and whose thoughts collectively created this blog post!


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