‘Fledgling’ by Octavia E. Butler – seductive, subversive, disturbing.

The thing about an effective seduction is that you don’t know it’s happening to you until it’s over. The seducer uses your assumptions, your hopes and your empathy to manipulate your emotions and slowly, step by step, get you to accept the world as they want you to see it. When you look back, you wonder how you could have moved so far away from your own values and how you could have gotten so used to something that would once have shocked you that you not only take it for granted but see it as something positive.

‘Fledgling’ is a novel-length seduction. From the first page, it nudged me to a view of the world where I accepted slavery as a lifestyle choice, I could see addiction as benign, I could see predators as protectors, I could accept men and women having sex with a vampire who is fifty-four but has the body of a ten-year-old as not just normal but almost wholesome and where I saw the good guys as the vampires who were conducting multi-generation, cross-species eugenics experiments to make vampires harder to kill.

It’s a mark of how effective the seduction was that, although I had recurring moments of feeling uncomfortable, I let them slide past because I was invested in the survival of the young vampire and was wrapped up in her trials and tribulations. Most of me was going – Wow, this is a great re-shaping of the vampire myth. Part of me was going, This council hearing scene is a little slow but I like the power dynamics only a very small voice at the back of my mind was saying over and over This is soooo wrong.

Now the book is done and I’ve had time to think beyond – hey, that was a pretty good vampire story – I’m left with two questions: how was the seduction done and why was the seduction done?

The first step in the seduction was to tell the story from the vampires point of view and to tell it at a point where she’s badly hurt, vulnerable and has no memory of who or what she is. She doesn’t even know her name. My default assumption was that, as the narrator, she’s the hero, the one I should root for. Her being badly injured wins my sympathy and soon classifies her as a victim of violence. Then I see that her home has been burned down, her people are dead, she’s still injured and she seems to be a child. Poor thing I think Will anyone help her? and the first hook is in.

Later, as it becomes clear that the vampire is a vampire she still doesn’t slide over into the monster category. For one thing, she doesn’t see herself that way. Whatever she is she’s just her and that can’t be bad, right? For another thing, even though she’s lost her memory, she’s retained her ethics and she’s nice and benign and tries hard to not hurt anyone – Except, the small voice at the back of my head says, she still feeds on people without permission and rips out the throat of anyone who opposes her– yeah, except that.

Later still, Shuri is made to look good by comparison to other vampires who are worse and keeps my sympathy because she’s alone and under attack and is still trying to do the right thing.

Shuri explains the world to me and I accept her explanations because, well, she’s Shuri and I like her and she’s sincere and honest so what’s not to like? Which is how seduction and abuse survives.

Ok, so I was seduced to be on Shuri’s side. Why did Octavia Butler do that? I think she was sending a message

Throughout the story, Octavia Butler constantly offered me small moments where there was an opportunity for my discomfort to triumph over my attraction, not because she wanted me to snap out of it and see through the glamour but because she wanted me to think about it afterwards and say: It’s not so easy, is it? To keep your eyes open and stay true to your values when there’s charisma in play and your empathy button is being pressed. This is how the wrong becomes normal and resistance becomes not just acquiescence but acceptance.

So, although I was uncomfortable with a very large man in his twenties having sex with a vampire with the body of a ten-year-old, I still let myself be convinced that this was OK because Shuri thought it was OK. Just like I accepted that it was not just OK but good that Shuri was building a family of symbionts, humans she thought of as hers, humans who couldn’t survive without her, humans who wanted nothing more than to please her because Shuri was well-intentioned and was only following her nature. I saw family and symbionts because that’s what Shuri saw. Why didn’t I see people owned and enslaved by someone who addicted them? Why didn’t I see hosts being used by a parasite that does its best to keep the host alive?

I think Octavia Butler was doing more than asking me to see how I easily I was seduced and making me wonder how many seductions I fall prey to in real-life. I think she wanted me to consider that simple answers aren’t to be trusted.

Shuri is ethical, careful, even loving and yet she binds people to her, thinks of them as hers, as if she owns them. She treats them with care that is given to a well-loved pet. She grants them freedom to do as they wish. She even gives them a choice about becoming addicted to her. It’s clear that Shuri’s ethics are sincerely held but deeply self-serving. The question that Octavia Butler kept pushing me to ask was, Does the self-serving nature of Shuri’s ethics make them invalid or does it make them authentic?

Damned if I know.

I want to say that freedom shouldn’t need to be granted or earned. That free-servitude is a seduction That informed consent doesn’t legitimise slavery. That Shuri is monstrous and must be stopped.

But, If I say that, then I’m back on the side of the people who’ve been trying to kill Shuri and her family since the book started. I’m saying I want to exterminate her because she’s an abomination whose existence cannot be allowed? How did my libertarian ethics lead me to that genocidal position?

So, I was seduced. I was shown disturbing things that came to seem normal. Then, when I had time to think, I had all my libertarian ethics subverted and was left wondering if I’d been seduced for a second time.

Perhaps I’m reading to much into a simple tale of every-day vampire life but this kind of thinking was a major source of my enjoyment of the book.

There’s also a good adventure in there and Shuri is very easy to like and the vampire world-building is first-rate so it’s all very entertaining. There was some loss of momentum in the council meetings towards the end but the argumentation in them kept my attention. The epilogue felt a little tacked on although it did make me hungry for another book, even though I know there isn’t one.

This was my first Octavia Butler book and I know it’s not always listed as one of her best but I liked it and I’ll be back for more.

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