Explaining Vampires

Fledgling was the last book she wroteI don’t care that much for vampire stories. It’s a reflexive dislike that’s hard to define — basically, I’m not part of the target audience of the whole vampire fascination. Another pet peeve of mine is the amnesiac protagonist. What an absolutely lame excuse to explain everything to the audience! When I see that a book features memory loss, I put it down with scarcely another glance.
So it’s a good thing that I ignored my prejudices and read Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling, a story of a young vampire girl named Shori who wakes up in the forest with no memory of her previous life or how she got there.

An amnesiac vampire… how does Butler pull it off? For one thing, Fledgling shows Butler at the top of her writing game, which takes away some of the pain of the amnesia storyline. In terms of vampire stereotypes, Butler succumbs to none of them:  Shori’s story is the furthest thing from an Anne Rice ripoff imaginable.
The quality of Butler’s writing is astonishing–the book is strong, clear, and grabs you even if you don’t want to go along (which was my case). I would rate her work easily the equal of Ursula K. Le Guin; like Le Guin’s recent YA fantasy Gifts, the prose here is never too ornate but it also retains an undeniable esthetic power. It feels right, and it feels compelling.

Vampire stories almost inevitably deal in themes of power and sexuality. What would it like to be under the thrall of a ruthless being like Dracula? Ooo, scary. Butler flips all that on its head by telling the story from Shori’s point of view. And Shori is an intensely sympathetic character, starting with the first thing that we know about her — her entire family has been murdered and then burned to ash along with everything else in their village. Butler keeps these opening segments of the book popping along, and before we know it, we’re firmly on Shori’s side.

It’s true that Shori sucks blood, and this act binds a human irretrievably to her will if it happens more than two or three times. But Butler keeps our sympathy by making Shori a member of a vampire faction that respects humans and is fighting against a splinter group that’s much worse. The ideas and themes of the book are subversive because we can’t help but identify with Shori, the enemy. It’s empathy whether we want it or not.
Fledgling was the last book she wrote

Butler was not alone in choosing to write a vampire novel after making a reputation with other types of fiction. The biggest other example is Robin McKinley, the well-known YA fantasy author, who wrote a book called Sunshine a few years ago. I decided to read Sunshine after running across this rant (read the comments too) on Suzy McKee Charnas’ blog–as someone who also writes vampire stories, she was making an insider’s complaint that Sunshine explains things in blinding detail.

Feeling bold, I would widen the complaint to say that this happens to vampire novels in general, especially if you include Elizabeth Kostova’s bestselling The Historian.
I suppose it’s a matter of life and death, as illustrated by Fledgling. Shori will die if she doesn’t figure out the intricacies of vampire life and vulnerability. In most other books, it’s the humans who need to figure out if garlic works, if a wooden stake will kill, and so forth.

Another thing struck me, less while reading Fledgling and more with regard to The Historian. A topic like vampires is so widely written about that the topic attracts a lot of minutia–is this a vampire like a Stephen King or Anne Rice vampire? Or like a Buffy vampire? The differences are crucial to those involved in the fictional perils (ironically, this is something that I’ve noticed all fictional characters in a vampire story talk about!). In a vicious circle, a writer like Kostova then has to write 600 pages of hardcore history to differentiate her take on vampires from the umpteen other ones.

On a slightly different topic, what does it mean that all of the writers mentioned here (with the exception of Stephen King) have been women? I’m really not sure, since vampire fiction itself varies so much. I would put Butler and McKinley and Kostova in a higher bracket of quality than writers who specialize in vampire fiction like Anne Rice or Laurell K. Hamilton, but this is my own biases showing. All the same, female dominance in writing vampire fiction of all kinds would take a whole new article to unravel.

A sad note to end with. Octavia E. Butler died just a few months ago, and Fledgling was her last book. Butler was a unique figure, a writer who brought enormous quality to the science fiction that she wrote. I highly recommend all of her books; Fledgling is a good place to start, even if it does stand apart from her other books.

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