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Works of Radical Imagination

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Featuring a new introduction by Nisi Shawl

Fledgling, Octavia Butler’s last novel, is the story of an apparently young, amnesiac girl whose alarmingly un-human needs and abilities lead her to a startling conclusion: she is in fact a genetically modified, 53-year-old vampire. Forced to discover what she can about her stolen former life, she must at the same time learn who wanted—and still wants—to destroy her and those she cares for, and how she can save herself. Fledgling is a captivating novel that tests the limits of "otherness" and questions what it means to be truly human.
 

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“The much-lauded Butler creates vampires in her 12th novel (her first in seven years) that have about as much to do with Bram Stoker's Dracula as HBO's Deadwood does with High Noon. They need human blood to survive, but they don't kill unless they have to, and (given several hundred years) they'll eventually die peacefully of old age. They are Ina, and they've coexisted with humans for millennia, imparting robust health and narcotic bliss with every bite to their devoted human blood donors, aka "symbionts." Shori is a 53-year-old Ina (a juvenile) who wakes up in a cave, amnesiac and seriously wounded. As is later revealed, her family and their symbionts were murdered because they genetically engineered a generation of part-Ina, part-human children. Shori was their most successful experiment: she can stay conscious during daylight hours, and her black skin helps protect her from the sun. The lone survivor, Shori must rely on a few friendly (and tasty) people to help her warn other Ina families and rediscover herself. Butler, keeping tension high, reveals the mysteries of the Ina universe bit by tantalizing bit. Just as the Ina's collective honor and dignity starts to get a little dull, a gang of bigoted, black sheep Ina rolls into town for a species-wide confab-cum-smackdown. In the feisty Shori, Butler has created a new vampire paradigm—one that's more prone to sci-fi social commentary than gothic romance—and given a tired genre a much-needed shot in the arm.”

“Renowned sf author Butler's first novel since Parable of the Talents (1998) delves deeply into the world of vampires… Butler has a reputation as a master for good reason, and her narrative flows quickly and seamlessly along as Shori seeks those who would destroy her. Gripping and memorable, Butler's latest is a welcome return performance.”

“Like most of Butler's protagonists, Shori is black — the melanin in her skin is what allows her to withstand daylight. And, as in Butler's other novels, the characters deal with questions about racism and the viciousness it brings out in American society. But in Fledgling, racism isn't simply a black-and-white issue... Butler goes on to explore ideas of community, justice, and race with a nod to the preternatural. Her writing is vivid and tense, and she manages to make even a drawn-out Ina judicial council seem complex and intriguing. The book is laced with emotionally and erotically charged encounters, some of which are disturbing, even after one remembers that Shori isn't actually a child... Butler also challenges conventional ideas about relationships and responsibility, and introduces new ones about morality and justice. It's a fascinating read, uncomfortable, horrifying, and ugly at times, but always compelling.”

“Octavia Butler's deeply disturbing novel, Fledgling, about a 10-year-old girl vampire's struggle to survive is my book of the year. A harrowing meditation on dominance, sex, addiction, miscegenation and race that completely devours the genre which gave rise to it. How can you go wrong with a novel about a black vampire that has the line: 'Do you love me, Shori, or do I just taste good?'”

“A little girl suffering from amnesia wakes to find that she’s actually a middle-aged vampire, in this suspenseful novel from Butler, her first in seven years… Butler effortlessly navigates what are pretty queasy waters, what with Shori’s frank and carnal relationship with her symbionts, complicated by her looking like a ten-year-old girl when in fact she’s 53. Racist fears of miscegenation are also given an interesting spin in a story so convincingly told, via Butler’s hardboiled yet emotional prose, that one is likely to forget it’s about vampires… A finely crafted character study, a parable about race and an exciting family saga. Exquisitely moving fiction.”

“Butler’s vampires are more cultured than monstrous, and Fledgling, an action-packed whodunit that builds into a riveting legal battle, teems with ideas about the creatures as well as the mechanics of relationships. In charged, erotic prose, Butler weaves a mystery that’s as titillating as it is disturbing. Fledgling is a work of fantasy, but it explores many of the ideas of consent and desire that Butler broaches in Lilith’s Brood. Even when she wasn’t writing about aliens, she was.”

“The often bleak speculative fiction of Octavia E. Butler might seem an odd escape from the news, but I found most of the vampires in Butler’s final novel, Fledgling, somehow reassuring. Butler’s vampires aren’t the average bloodsuckers, snacking on humans and discarding our desiccated corpses like peanut shells, but symbionts who cultivate extended families of willing humans, granting them longer lives and better health… Shori sets out to rediscover who she is, build a new family and bring the murderers to justice, confronting bigotry along the way. Other Butler books, like Kindred or the Parable novels, might feel more topical, but if you’re intrigued by humanistic, hopeful vampire lore, I can’t recommend Fledgling more highly.

“Beginning with the squicky idea of a vampire-girl with an adult male dependent, Butler’s Ina families pose characteristically unsettling questions. Don’t all intimate relationships—not only those deemed taboo—involve power imbalances? And what can 'consent' mean when one being needs another to sustain one’s life? After one bite, it’s difficult to tell where choice ends and compulsion begins. Butler suggests that the Ina-symbiont relationship might be no worse than the forms of dependency that humans already take for granted.”

“...within a few chapters, we're utterly seduced by the forward motion of the narrative. Bitten, is how the narrator herself might put it... Dare I say that Butler's emotionally and intellectually engaging story about a war between vampire clans carries the reader along with that same sense of being in good hands? I only wish she herself had been longer lived.”

“The much-lauded Butler creates vampires in her 12th novel (her first in seven years) that have about as much to do with Bram Stoker's Dracula as HBO's Deadwood does with High Noon… Butler, keeping tension high, reveals the mysteries of the Ina universe bit by tantalizing bit… In the feisty Shori, Butler has created a new vampire paradigm—one that's more prone to sci-fi social commentary than gothic romance—and given a tired genre a much-needed shot in the arm.”

“How strange to find Octavia E. Butler digging up the old bones of this legend. As the first African American woman to make a name for herself in science fiction and the winner of a MacArthur genius grant, she seems an unlikely victim of Dracula's allure. But, as we might expect, her new novel, Fledgling , doesn't just resurrect the pale trappings of vampire lore, it completely transforms them in a startlingly original story about race, family and free will... There's not a drop of Bela Lugosi in these pages, but Fledgling exercises the same hypnotic power the old Count projected onto his victims. Squirming in my chair, I was totally hooked, sometimes nauseated, anxious to put it down, but unable to look away. Go back, go back!... How many of our happy relationships involve a degree of dominance or dependence that we can't acknowledge? This is Butler's typically insidious method: to create an alternative social world that seems, at first, alien and then to force us to consider the nature of our own lives with a new, anxious eye. It's a pain in the neck, but impossible to resist.”

Fledgling, the last novel Butler published before her death in 2006, is a propulsive story about Shori, an amnesiac 53-year-old Black vampire who must reconstruct her past after she wakes up shrouded in darkness, alone and with no memories. While Shori makes her way through the world—specifically the suburbs of Washington State and, later, California—she discovers more about herself and her apparent incongruities: As an Ina (a vampire species that lives relatively harmoniously alongside humans), she looks like a 10-year-old child, but she has the desires of a woman; she needs human blood to survive, but feeding off humans can make them, in turn, physically stronger. Fledgling is, at heart, about an individual reconciling who she is with how she looks, and learning to use her considerable power responsibly.”

blog — December 06

“She writes her way to hope”: Jesmyn Ward introduces “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler

To celebrate the release our new hardcover edition of Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler, we are proud to share renowned author Jesmyn Ward’s moving introduction to this reissue, in which Ward writes of the hope that Butler’s work affords its readers, offering a ray of light to those enduring tragedy.


INTRODUCTION TO BLOODCHILD

By Jesmyn Ward

I can’t remember when I first read Octavia Butler’s work. It wasn’t in high school. I never encountered her in my coursework, as my required reading looked nothing like the books I found in my personal reading: I read The Last of the MohicansCatch-22, and The Catcher in the Rye and little there resonated with the world I knew. I had grown up in a poor/working-class family in rural Mississippi, where I spent years eating government cheese, red beans, and rice, and drinking powdered milk. I lived in my grandmother’s four-bedroom house with fourteen other relatives and watched my extended family bear the brunt of poverty and racism throughout my childhood and adolescence. I spent those years wandering through my school library stacks, finding books by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Richard Wright, Gabriel García Márquez, and Margaret Atwood. I found sustenance in literary writers and in science fiction and fantasy writers, too, needing the escapism of that kind of storytelling, which I had been drawn to since I was a small child and first read Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley—but the only science fiction and fantasy I could find in my school library were by Frank Herbert, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Isaac Asimov.

I didn’t encounter Octavia Butler’s fiction in university, either. I majored in English, and I sought out creative writing classes and literature classes that specialized in the African Diaspora. I read African writers and Black British writers and Black American writers and Black Caribbean writers, but all the work I read was poetry and literary fiction. It was good to study these artists, to seriously consider the kind of work I had been starving for in high school, but even though I attended school in the mid- to late 1990s, when Octavia Butler was a living writer, full in her artistic flowering, I never found her work in the bookstore stacks or on the syllabi of my courses. I never really encountered any sci-fi or speculative fiction: when students submitted science fiction short stories or fantasy in creative writing workshops, my peers shunned them. They said the work was amateur, not serious, wasn’t about real people and therefore, real issues. I sat quietly at my desk, swallowing their critiques whole, quietly ashamed of the pleasure I got from reading sci-fi and fantasy.

I must have read Octavia Butler’s work for the first time in the early 2000s, when I was living in New York City as a young twenty-something, working as a publishing assistant. I had more money, not much, but more than I’d had in college and high school, so I’d take the train to The Strand, where the stacks stretched on and on. My browsing blossomed; I needed that. I was floundering through life. Tragedy had loosed me from my moorings, my understanding of what the world was and how it worked, and it sent me spinning: a drunk driver killed my brother Joshua in October 2000, and his killer was never held accountable for his death. I’d voted in my first presidential election and watched in confused horror as Bush was appointed by Supreme Court ruling. I’d watched smoke billow from the Twin Towers on 9/11 and then spent hours walking from midtown to Brooklyn, peppered in ash. I’d marched through Manhattan to protest Bush’s pre-emptive war with Iraq, foolishly thinking our collective uprising would have some kind of impact, bitterly disappointed when I discovered it did not. I’d visited home and jumped from my car’s window and swum through the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, and then lived in shock in the desolation of the aftermath.

I found Parable of the Sower by chance in The Strand’s stacks. I devoured it. Butler’s prose was forthright and rhythmic. Her imagery was stark and startling. Her character development was disturbingly true to what I knew of the world, of poverty, of desperate human beings. It was harrowing and dark, and it seemed to reflect some ineffable terrible truth I found mirrored in the world. It reminded me that worse presents were possible. I sought out more of her books and found Parable of the Talents, the Lilith’s Brood trilogy, and Bloodchild and Other Stories. In Bloodchild, Butler says this about readers: “Actually, I feel that what people bring to my work is at least as important to them as what I put into it.” In my twenties, I found this to be true, sunk in grief, bewildered at the savagery and terror of the 2000s; when I discovered Butler’s work, I discovered myself. I saw myself in her characters, empathized with them as they struggled to live in untenable worlds, in untenable circumstances. I knew they knew the taste of ash, the black scramble of floodwater.

I’m in my mid-forties now. If life revolves in cycles, I find myself in another crucible, another terrible span of time. The COVID-19 pandemic lingers and evolves, leaving weakened immune systems and millions of bodies in its wake. The Supreme Court struck down Roe, and the politicians in power can’t seem to grasp the urgency of the moment, to understand that not only are childbearing people uniquely disenfranchised by this ruling, but that we will die without access to abortion health care. My partner of thirteen years died at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, leaving me with two grieving children and the charge of living in a fractured, unthinkable present. His death tasks me with this: every day I must wake and live. I must choose to move and breathe and speak and believe that there can be good in this world, in humanity, even though this fresh grief invites a drift toward despair, even though, as the ill characters do in “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” I have wanted to claw out my own heart in hopelessness.

In multiple allusions in the preface and afterwords in Bloodchild, Butler alludes to the despair and bewilderment she encounters in her own life, and how she wrestles with it in her work. “Amnesty” is about an interpreter, kidnapped and tortured by aliens as a child, who works for and with that same alien race as an adult to improve communication between humans and their visitors. In the afterword to “Amnesty,” Butler writes that the story was inspired by “the things that happened to Doctor Wen Ho Lee of Los Alamos—back in the 1990s when I could still be shocked that a person could have his profession and his freedom taken away and his reputation damaged all without proof he’d actually done anything wrong.” “Speech Sounds” follows a pandemic survivor who has witnessed the devolution of humanity after a fast-spreading disease robs those left of speech or the ability to read and write. In the afterword to “Speech Sounds,” Butler writes: “‘Speech Sounds’ was conceived in weariness, depression, and sorrow. I began the story feeling little hope or liking for the human species, but by the time I reached the end of it, my hope had come back. It always seems to do that.” She elaborates on this in the afterword to “Bloodchild,” the title story, with:

When I have to deal with something that disturbs me . . . I write about it. I sort out my problems by writing about them. In a high school classroom on November 22, 1963, I remember grabbing a notebook and beginning to write my response to news of John Kennedy’s assassination. Whether I write journal pages, an essay, a short story, or weave my problems into a novel, I find the writing helps me get through the trouble and get on with my life.

This is how Butler finds her way in a world that perpetually demoralizes, confounds, and browbeats: she writes her way to hope. This is how she confronts darkness and persists in the face of her own despair.

This is the real gift of her work, a gift that shines in Bloodchild: in inviting her readers to engage with darker realities, to immerse themselves in worlds more disturbing and complex than our own, she asks readers to acknowledge the costs of our collective inaction, our collective bowing to depravity, to tribalism, to easy ignorance and violence. Her primary characters refuse all of that. Her primary characters refuse to deny the better aspects of their humanity. They insist on embracing tenderness and empathy, and in doing so, they invite readers to realize that we might do so as well. Butler makes hope possible. That hope might be tenuous, and our lives might not be what we envisioned in these ruptured realities, but new ways of being are near. These are futures where we might turn from despair and build another family after a pandemic. Where we might elect to foster life and connection. Where we might wake every day and choose to breathe, to walk, to do work and heal ourselves and others even though we struggle with suicidal ideation, with nihilism, with grief. Bloodchild is a template for how to survive, how to thrive, in broken worlds, and Butler’s work is ever prescient, ever powerful. Her voice: a rough balm.

—Jesmyn Ward

DeLisle, Mississippi, August 16, 2022

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A writer who imagined the dark future we have chosen for ourselves in book after book, OCTAVIA E. BUTLER  (1947–2006) is recognized as among the bravest and smartest of late twentieth century fiction writers. Her work includes Parable of the SowerParable of the Talents, Fledgling, and the short story collection Bloodchild. A 1995 MacArthur Genius Award winner, Butler transcended the science fiction category even as she was awarded that community’s top prizes, including the Nebula and Hugo Awards. Not merely a prophet of dystopia, Butler also wrote of the ways human beings might subvert their dismal destiny. “I write about people who do extraordinary things,” Butler has said, “it just turns out that it was called science fiction.” Her novels and stories have reached readers of all ages, all races, and all religious and sexual persuasions. For years the only prominent African-American woman writing science fiction, Butler has encouraged many others to follow in her path. The Octavia E. Butler Scholarship was established in her memory in 2006, providing scholarships for young people of color to attend the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, where Butler herself began writing science fiction.