My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Octavia Butler… What can I say? She’s so awesome. When I learned that she passed away back in ’05, I was just devastated, especially when I read that she had put aside another book in the Parable of the Talents/Sower series due to some major writers block and now that book would obviously never be. I think that’s one of the reasons why it took me so long to read this one. I’m not a huge fan of vampire stories and I desperately wanted to know what happened to that human colony at the end of Talents. I should’ve known, however, that Butler wouldn’t disappoint me and would do what she’s always done: take a genre like SF/dystopia that’s often dominated by problematic assumptions about race, gender, and class and utterly subvert them.
Butler’s vampires aren’t your typical Ann Rice seducers (hot, white, men) nor do they sparkle and protect whiny, depressed teenagers a la Stephanie Meyers. Instead, her vampire is a young girl named Shori, a mixed race vampire/human hybrid engineered to be wholly unique. In fact, Butler’s vampires put a whole new spin on the entire mythology. Her vampires aren’t supernatural or magical; they are a species she calls the Ina who evolved alongside humans. They are not immortal, but can live for many centuries and do so in polyamorous families with their human symbionts. The relationship the Ina have with their human symbionts truly is fascinating. Butler establishes that the Ina’s venom has some sort of property that bestows both pleasure and extended life on the humans they bite, and these humans pretty much become willing participants in this new relationship. This venom is also addictive and the symbiont’s body becomes dependent on it, so whether or not the humans truly have agency in this relationship is rather murky.
Butler is definitely making some rather bold statements about race here. When we meet Shori, she is covered in burns, she’s been shot, and her head has been bashed in. She’s naked in a cave and has no memory of who or what she is. We learn that a group of Ina are less than thrilled that Shori’s family has been conducting genetic experiments that would merge human and Ina DNA, essentially allowing them to be in the sun and awake during daylight. It all comes down to melanin, and many of the elder Inas are none-too thrilled about having their species corrupted with not just human DNA, but black human DNA. (After all vampires are all pure and beautiful and pasty white like sparkly Edward of Twilight fame.) Shori is the future and some Ina are so terrified of this future that they murdered, burned, and decimated two communities where all of her family lived. Shori has to learn about herself and how to take care of the family she is creating (her human symbionts) in spite of the fact that her whole history, family, and community have been erased from her memory.
Most lit crit types seem to focus on the transgressive nature of the Ina/human relationships. Butler subverts dominant binaries of white/black, male/female, hetero/homosexual, mono/poly even adult/child since Shori looks ten or eleven, but is a fully powerful, sexual entity. (This last tidbit seems to be rather overlooked in most of the academic work I read surrounding this novel.) But what I found most fascinating is what Butler seems to be saying about cultural memory. When Shori learns that one of the elder Inas has ordered the death of one of her symbionts, Shori is beside herself with grief. Preston, the Ina she confides in says, “I wonder if that’s part of why your memory is gone, not just because you suffered blows to the head, but because of the emotional blows of the death of all your symbionts, your sisters, and your mothers–everyone. You must have seen it happen. Maybe that is what destroyed the person you were” (276). Shori knows that members of her own species wiped out her entire family and everyone she loved with total and unmerciful brutality. She also has no memory of this brutality, but it’s with her every day. She constantly has to learn to navigate a culture that she doesn’t understand all the while knowing that part of that very culture wants her annihilated. But at the same time, it’s impossible for her to grieve for what she has lost. As she ponders Preston’s statement, she thinks “I thought about that. I tried to let his words touch off some feeling some grief or pain, some memory. But those people were strangers. Right now there was only Theodora and the pain of just thinking her name” (267). Shori can only feel pain for the loss she knows, so the loss of a single symbiont she has known for less than a month is more real to her than the pain of losing her entire family. How does she grieve a loss that she can only understand intellectually? It’s an interesting and painful question, and I couldn’t help but draw parallels between today’s racial animus and the cultural legacy of slavery or how third generation Holocaust survivors process the inherited stories of their ancestors.
This book is classic Butler, and while I don’t love it as much as Kindred or The Xenogenisis Trilogy (if you’ve never read her, read those first), it is still marvelous. I mourn for all the books that she left unwritten, but she added her voice to a genre that often dismissed unconventional voices like hers. Butler wrote from a marginalized perspective in a marginalized genre. Unfortunately, SF/fantasy/dystopia is often ignored as pulpy and lowbrow, but Butler once again shows us how speculative fiction can truly help us imagine new ways of being and existing with each other and in the end how that imagining can be revolutionary.