Vampirism and posthumanism in Octavia Butler’s “Fledgling”.

Pramod K. Nayar, University of Hyderabad, India

Octavia Butler’s Fledgling (NY: Grand Central, 2005), according to one critic, shows how vampiric and human agency can induce change (Ali Brox, “‘Every Age has the Vampire it Needs‘: Octavia Butler’s Vampiric Vision in Fledgling“, Utopian Studies 19.3 [2008]: 391-409).

This vision of change, the present essay argues, is a posthuman one of species domestication. Species miscegenation has been central to Butler’s vision right from her early work when she embodies the biologists’ idea of “symbiogenesis” (where species cooperation rather than competition is the agent of all evolution) in her treatment of species mixing (Laurel Bollinger, “Symbiogenesis, Selfhood, and Science Fiction“, Science Fiction Studies 37. 110, Part 1 [2010]: 34-53). This species miscegenation, I argue, is essentially a domestication of vampires and humans into a posthuman interracialization.

Contemporary representations of the vampire show these species/races as more like us humans, looking like us and behaving like us (Terry Spaise, “Necrophilia and SM: The Deviant Side of Buffy the Vampire Slayer“, Journal of Popular Culture 38.4 [2005]: 744-762; Pramod K. Nayar, “How to Domesticate a Vampire: Gender, Blood Relations, and Sexuality in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight“, Nebula 37.3 [2010]: 60-76). This “domestication” is through a deracination in Butler, who shows the potential of a species to erase their characteristic “essences” in order to fit in better with their ecosystem. In Fledgling vampires seeking to live among humans are “domesticated”.

The first mode of domestication is through deracination. Shori is a genetically modified vampire, a “daywalker”, who therefore has certain advantages over other vampires. During the attacks on her vampire family and kin, Shori is the only one who is alert enough to counter the attack–the rest are killed because they cannot tolerate daylight. This genetic modification seems like an advancement, though Butler suggests something more: it is through the loss–deracination–of specifically vampiric qualities that Shori becomes fit for human cohabitation, being now far more attuned to the needs of the human “symbionts” (humans taken as sexual and family partners by vampires). As John Allen Stevenson argued in the case of Dracula, where Dracula’s vampirism bestows his human “partners” with a new racial identity and “new loyalties” (“A Vampire in the Mirror: The Sexuality of Dracula”, PMLA 103.2 [1988]: 144), Shori’s vampirism engenders her new loyalties towards humans and their loyalties towards her. Vampirism also produces new behavior patterns in Shori. During an attack on their community, Shori becomes far more concerned about her human symbionts (especially when Theodora is killed, p. 252), and places herself at the forefront of the battle as some kind of shield (166-176)–thus assuming a stereotypical human, masculine-protector role for herself. Butler offers a step up the evolutionary ladder by positing a mutual deracination: the vampire becomes less vampiric and acquires more human qualities (emotional attachments, communitarianism in Fledgling) and the human loses some of her/his qualities (sickness, sexual possessiveness). It is only by losing some of the essences that species can evolve.

The second mode of species domestication occurs through the narrative of alternate history that Butler offers: that Ina vampires have lived with human symbionts for thousands of years: “We had already joined with humans ten thousand years ago, taking their blood and safeguarding the ones who accepted us from most physical harm” (188). In a brilliant revisioning of vampire history that parallels human history, Butler maps Ina history, from early writings on clay tablets, references to the site of the Sumerian civilization, nomadic life, settled agricultural communities to the present. The vampires, in Butler’s vision, seem to have gone through the same stages of domestication and “civilization” as the humans! Butler thus proposes that species mixing is a bio-historical “fact” (Lauren Lacey, “Octavia E. Butler on Coping with Power in Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents, and Fledgling“, Critique, 49.4 (2008): 379-394, qtd. from 388-9), offering a history of non-hierarchic, interdependent and unified ecosystems where vampires and humans co-existed. It suggests that vampires not only evolved like us, they evolved with us, humans.

The final mode of species domestication is entrusted to technology in Butler’s posthumanism, but a technology that draws upon the virtues of a historically subordinated race: the Africans. Racial identity, as we know, is predicated primarily upon the colour of the skin. The darkening of Shori’s skin in Butler achieves a fine degree of complexity here. Ina domestication involves the incorporation of human DNA. During the trial Preston defends Shori thus:

    Shori Matthews is as Ina as the rest of us. In addition, she    carries the potentially life-saving human DNA that has darkened her    skin and given her something we've sought for generations: the    ability to walk in sunlight, to stay awake and alert during the    day. (272) 

Shori is deracinated as a dark-skinned vampire (who is traditionally marked by a deathly white pallor). She is humanized through the injection of human DNA that darkens her skin. This darkening aligns her with the black human race rather than any other. The powerful vampire Shori is treated as a lesser (disenfranchised?) vampire because of the black human element in her–yet this deracinated identity is what helps her survive. That is, in order for a vampire to become “safer” and survive, s/he must take on the qualities of a black human, not just any human. Thus, ironically, deracination for a vampire is the shift into the black race. This represents a “third-worlding” of the human race. Kristin Koptiuch argues that where the once-exploitative domination over the racial Other was conducted at a distance, it now functions against the minorities within the USA (“Third-worlding–At Home”, in Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, eds., Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology [Duke UP, 1997]: 234-248). I use “third-worlding” to indicate a necessary deracination through which older forms of exploitation might be erased and new alliances and loyalties forged between races. With this major political point–showing the necessity of melanin (the skin-darkening pigment) for domestication and survival even for superhuman species with great abilities such as vampires–Butler proceeds to propose a “companion species” argument.

“Species” in its etymology (“respecere”), Donna Haraway notes, is related to “respect”, “response” as well as “to see” (‘specere’). “To respond”, she writes, “[is] to respect” (Haraway, When Species Meet [Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008]: 23). Shori represents a species response: the vampire discovers the necessity of the human, and the humans are dependent upon the vampires (a theme that runs through Butler’s work, in fact). Shori’s bite forces humans to see, respond and respect the vampiric other. The humans who are bitten, significantly, do not become vampires–rather they develop immunity, longevity and a great sense of attachment to their Ina. Butler underscores not the “evil” vampirism of Dracula, but rather the biological, emotional and social bonds forged through a bite. Butler’s posthumanism emphasizes the ability of a species to determine its fate/future and voluntarily subordinate itself to another species. The Ina choose to live with the humans. While of course the humans are weaker as compared to Ina in Butler’s novel, the entire tale works to show the necessity of deracination, for both humans and vampires, so that they may respect the other species and coexist peacefully. This respect is a response, a responsibility, of letting people choose. Iosif, Shori’s father, advises her:

    Let them see that you trust them and let them solve their own    problems, make their own decisions. Do that and they will willingly    commit their lives to you. Bully them, control them out of fear or    malice or just for your own convenience, and after a while, you'll    have to spend all your time thinking for them, controlling them,    and stifling their resentment. (73) 

Domestication is the respect for the Other where one ignores, overcomes or even erases one’s essential species-specific qualities in order to accommodate the Other. This is Butler’s posthumanism, a conscious effort to move beyond species boundary with/as response to, recognition of and respect (“respecere”) for the Other.

Cary Wolfe points to a “wet” version of posthumanism where “a blind person and a guide dog form a third, prosthetic kind whose experience of the world cannot be well explained by reference to the traditional human vs animal” ( What Ina and the humans evolve into is precisely this form of indeterminate deracinated inter-species. Fledgling is, in Haraway’s phrasing, the fantasy of a “species interdependence … the name of the worlding game on Earth, and that game must be one of response and respect” (Haraway, “Encounters with Companion Species: Entangling Dogs, Baboons, Philosophers, and Biologists“, Configurations 14 [2006]: 97-114, qtd. from 102), where animal, human, and other such species distinctions become blurred.

Fledgling maps an entire evolutionary scheme through its theme of domestication: from domestication to companion–or rather companionate–species. To be companionate one deracinates, takes on the qualities of the Other race. To survive is to become companionate species. This companion species is possible only through “third-worlding”, through the active assimilation of the Other human races.