Friday, March 18, 2011

Octavia Butler: The Fledgling the Parts People Don't Talk About

 Trigger warning for discussion of paedophilia

Yesterday I asked what books you felt had the potential to trigger others.  This came out of my complete and utter shock and horror from reading The Fledgling by Octavia Butler.  As part of our unofficial reading group Sparky, Tami and I have all read the book.  What follows is a piece written by Sparky and I about our thoughts on the book.



So as people know, I'm on a massive Urban Fantasy kick, reading books at a great rate of knots, along with Tami and Renee linkies of course and we have our podcast on mondays (is this an excuse to link drop and pimp the show? Why yes yes it is!), where we ramble about what we've watched/read and take out our social justice lens to take them apart.

And, in our rambling, we've had several books recommended. In particular, Fledgling by Octavia Butler has been recommended - highly recommended - from several sources – so we all got our hands on it and decided to give it a go.

I have to say, I'm actually kind of irritated here. I'm irritated that several people decided to recommend this book with glowing praise, yet none felt the need to say “warning – contains explicit paedophilia.” I am shocked that people recommending this to us didn’t feel this needed to be mentioned. I think this is especially surprising, because these recommendations came from social justice forums and social justice advocates, who we would expect to be very alert to problems like racism, misogyny, homophobia et al, yet didn’t see fit to warn us about the paedophilia content.
And no, that's not some very very bizarre typo.

The main character, Shori, is an Ina. Inas feed on human blood by bonding with humans who are called Symbionts. The bite of an Ina injects venom into the human and it makes them love the Ina, it  increases their lifespans and improves their health and healing.  Ina are not created, they are born. They have very long lifespans and mature slowly.

Right. Now Shori is a child by Ina standards, though she is over 50. Physically she looks human. Specifically, she looks like a black girl of around 10 or 11 years old. Let's be clear here, she is a child and has the body of a child.  She is specifically considered to be a child by all of the Ina, depsite the fact that her age would make her the equivalent of a mature human woman. 

And the book gives us not only explicit sex scenes between her and a 23 year old man – but other adult humans. Though the Ina consider her to be a child, they no problem expressing sexual desire for her as well. To exacerbate an already disturbing situation, not one of these lusters thinks there's anything remotely wrong in their attractions – or actual sex – except that they maybe they may be arrested. There is no moral questioning at all – but this total acceptance of paedophilia is not only seen in those having sex with children – but also by every single other character.

Frankly, it astonished me and I was very close to just deleting the book and finding a wall to beat my head against until the memory faded.

After such a thing, it seems almost redundant to point out any other fails a book may have – after all, it contains child sex, how much more do you have to criticise a book after that?

However, for the sake of completeness, it's worth mentioning some other problems the book has.

Firstly, the main character is a Black Ina. The only Black Ina. This is because all Ina are White. In fact, not only are they White, but they’re White and delightsome. They are super-hyper-White. They are extremely pale, blond (pale brown hair was noted as an unusual feature) all of which really hyper-underscore’s Shori’s Blackness - and Shori as other. This is further shown by the fact that most Ina are tall and Shori is unusually short for her age among them - again, she is 'Other'.

Shori is a product of genetic engineering - she is altered, unnatural. Whiteness occurs naturally, it’s the default. Even though being Black brought her some strengths (she can go out in daylight) above the white Ina, it still served to emphasise how “other” she is compared to "natural" Ina.

While it seems the author tried to use this character to challenge racism, it could have been far better done without presenting Shori as constantly victimised. As an added problem, because all of the Ina are so White and delightsome, every other Black character is bound to a White character in an addictive form of sexual slavery. Their sexual acts carry strong undertones of slavery, where Black people were expected to fulfill the sexual demands of their masters.

A further continuation of an extreme trope that stains the entire genre is here we have another Black character, who has no individual or differentiated culture from the White norm. Shori is the only Black Ina - but except for skin colour, she is indistinguishable from the White Ina. There is no sense of differing culture or experiences - it’s black character for the sake of inclusion without  Blackness as a culture. She is yet another example of a White girl painted Black.  It’s further glaring in Shori’s case because her amnesia gives her no experience at all - this makes the White female Ina the ones who define what is and is not a womanhood/feminine - and they are actively educating Shori on how to be a ‘proper’ Ina Woman. This a pattern that is already glaringly established in real world history and is still active today.

In addition, the book is beyond heteronormative. Each Ina needs between 5-8 humans to act as Symbionts to satisfy their blood needs. And each and every damn time we have a same-sex Symbiont, with a same-sex Ina, someone will ask “don't you mind?” Even Shori – who is an amnesiac and can't remember a shred of her own culture, who can’t even remember her own name or species - still apparently remembers enough to expect a man to mind being bonded to another man, or a woman to another woman. In each case, we are assured “don't worry I can have a child with/have fun with someone of the opposite gender” because relationships have to be opposite sex.

And then we have Wright (chief paedophile) who wants Shori to have nothing but women Symbionts and him – because he doesn't have to be jealous of women. Real sex happens when a man penetrates a woman and anything else clearly cannot be categorized as sex.

And that's before we get to the skeevy idea of chemically addicted servants who can be commanded at will.  Removing the ability to consent is rape. The very fact that consent is coerced through a drug means that the Symbionts have no sexual agency.

I suppose after this I should make some reference to the plot. To be honest, the plot was blah. It wasn’t boring like LA Banks (which was truly, amazingly, painfully boring), but still there was little enough to care about or to truly intrigue me. There were no twists, no real mysteries, and it was more a news report of simple events following one after another, rather than an actual story. In short, it was kind of dull.