“I won’t always ask”: Complicating Agency in Octavia Butler’s Fledgling

“I won’t always ask”: Complicating Agency in Octavia Butler’s Fledgling

Florian Bast

With the rise of scholarship concerning African American literature and the fantastic in the last decades, both respectively and in their combination, Octavia Butler’s texts have frequently been the object of literary criticism. Her best-known novels, such as Kindred (1979) or the books of the Xenogenesis trilogy—Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989)1—can be considered canonical works for scholars of both African American and science fiction and fantasy literature. Among the chief issues of interest are different variations on themes such as oppression, self-determination, and power relations. However, unlike most of Butler’s works, Fledgling (2005), her last novel, has received only little critical attention so far, even though it offers an intricate discussion of exactly those themes. Laurel Bollinger mentions Fledgling in her analysis of several Butler novels, but only Ali Brox and Lauren J. Lacey have analyzed the novel in depth.2 Their engagements with Butler’s novel have uncovered significant dynamics of the text, especially its fantastic complication of notions of miscegenation and hybridity (Brox) and its insistence on the importance of adapting to one’s surroundings (Lacey). Still, critics share a tendency to focus on the main protagonist’s successful confrontation with forces that threaten to oppress her. They pay much less attention to the text’s significant contradictions, complications, and irritations in its construction of power and self-determination. As I will show, the concept of agency is a particularly productive tool for approaching the complexities of power in Fledgling. Thus, this study, which is part of my larger research project concerned with agency in the works of Octavia Butler, seeks to analyze in detail the constantambivalences and critical interrogations of the concept of agency in the novel.

Butler’s Fledgling takes up central concerns of the author’s oeuvre in its complex interrogation of power struggles and the (im)possibilities of self-determination. The novel actively participates in some of the primary objectives of African American literature by employing the fantastic, critically examining reasons for oppression and moving towards concrete ways of reacting to it.I posit that Fledgling is at its heart a narrative of agency, that is, a novel which focuses on portraying, questioning, and complicating different notions of a person’s ability to choose and act upon their choice. The novel offers a main plot which revolves around the protagonist’s struggle to increase her agency by educating and gaining increased awareness of herself, and by defeating her xenophobic enemies. Its more significant narrative project, however, is one that has not been focused on by Butler critics: my analysis will show that Fledgling investigates much more complex notions of agency than the ones found in the foreground of its main plot line. The text fundamentally challenges agency itself by questioning but never completely discrediting both its possibility and its desirability. Not only is the possibility of agency called into question when confronted with biological realities rather than social constructions, but in introducing a model of mutualistic symbiosis based on addiction the text asks but refuses to answer whether the highest level of agency is per se the most desirable state of being.


While philosophy is predominantly concerned with free will as a prerequisite for being considered a free agent, a definition of the concept of agency must unquestionably also include a certain amount of personal liberty. As Naomi Jacobs states in acknowledging the difficulties of defining agency, “[t]heorists usually define agency as including both the capacity to choose for oneself and the capacity to act upon one’s choices” (92). Accordingly, I understand agency to entail an individual’s capability to reach a decision about their lives and to implement it in reality.

The main challenge in theorizing agency, especially in relation to minorities, lies in the traditional lines of conflict between those who posit the existence of free will and choice (and thus agency) and those who believe that genetic or social factors determine our behavior. This conflict, also called “incompatibilism” (Vihvelin), is bound to do injustice to an oppressed group of people, either by making them entirely responsible for their lot or by ignoring smaller achievements in their struggle for self-determination and reducing them to helpless victims.

The key to overcoming incompatibilism, especially if it is based on notions of social construction, lies in postmodern conceptions of the subject, such as Susan Hekman’s ‘discursive subject.’ Hekman proposes a concept of agency that is not antithetical to cultural construction but rather based on it and based on knowing and consciously using discourses to speak as an agent: “For the discursive subject, however, agency and construction are not antithetical. Rather, agency is a product of discourse, a capacity that flows from discursive formations […] [I]t entails using the tools provided us by the discursive mix that constitutes our social existence” (202-03). Thus, while the discourses that create our identity define a space in which we can act, it would be a fallacy to conclude that they prevent our agency. Rather, it is only within the space they create that any choice and action, and thus any agency, is possible. The potential for agency lies in an individual’s ability to knowledgeably work within the discourses that define his or her existence.

Agency pertains not only to processes of decision-making and free will within the subject but also to external influences on the subject’s ability to implement their decision, such as enslavement. Thus it is capable of engaging with theoretical approaches on both subject-internal and subject-external levels. Agency, as defined above, is capable of serving as a concept which allows me to read Butler’s novels in terms of their treatment of issues at the heart of African American women’s literature, like racism, sexism, dominion over one’s body, but also literacy and historiography. Furthermore, it is a concept that permits access to narrative agendas that are prevalent in science fiction and fantasy literature, such as questioning the boundaries of the human, deconstructing free will, and imagining utopian and dystopian societies. As such, it is a uniquely productive tool for the analysis of works by Octavia Butler, whose “profound impact on the SF genre and black feminist literature” is consensual among scholars (Hairston 294). Moreover, it is particularly suited to serve as a basis for reading Fledgling and its complex portrayal of the heterogeneous interplay of forces which endanger self-determination.


Fledgling is the first-person narration of the vampire girl Shori, who wakes up blind, naked and scarred in a cave in the woods without any knowledge of who she is. As her vampire body heals itself, she leaves the cave and, by following her bodily urges and meeting other vampires, she learns about her identity. Shori, as she and the reader find out, is in fact a vampire with some human DNA, resulting from a genetic experiment. In Fledgling, vampires call themselves “Ina” and are a separate species which cannot interbreed with humans or turn humans into Ina. Shori has received human DNA from a black woman, and the additional melanin in her skin makes her much less vulnerable to sunlight than other Ina. She never regains any concrete memories, even though at times she stumbles upon what appear to be sensory memories based on her body and its reaction to its surroundings. Shori finds out that she narrowly escaped when her entire female family3 was killed by another Ina family opposed to the mixing of human and Ina DNA. Shori has to defend herself against more attacks before she finds out who has been attacking her and why. Only then is she able to take steps to stop her enemies. Eventually, her attackers are tried and convicted by an Ina council. Throughout the novel the process of her acquiring knowledge of and control over herself is narrated as Shori grows into a competent member of the Ina species. This is most notable in collecting a community of symbionts, humans who grow addicted to a substance in a specific Ina’s saliva when bitten but who also have a romantic and sexual relationship with him or her. While the first part of the novel focuses on Shori fleeing from those who hurt her before the opening scene, the second part chronicles the court proceedings in which her attackers are tried and convicted.

Shori’s Quest

The first and most obvious portrayal of agency in Fledgling is Shori’s own struggle for power over herself, which starts when Shori gains consciousness without knowledge or control over herself and her urges and ends only with the closing scene in which she appears to be at peace with and in complete control of herself and in which she has a promising future in Ina society. As such, the novel’s main plot is a straightforward narration of agency, a black, vampiric Bildungsroman.

Shori’s progress towards self-determination is linked to central concerns of African American literature. The first main obstacle in this process is xenophobia. As both Brox and Lacey have noted, the speciesism portrayed in Fledgling closely parallels racism, especially since Shori’s human DNA came from an African American and visually marks her as different.4 Thus, some of the resistance Shori faces bespeaks modern-day racism. In a twist of the fantastic, however, Shori’s skin color is hugely beneficial to her. While some extremists oppose mixing the species, a clear reference to society’s fears of miscegenation, most Ina are interested in having their children altered to stay awake during the day instead of completely losing their agency by falling into deep unconsciousness. Indeed, Shori’s genetically constructed ability to be awake and act during the day is not only the likely cause of her being the sole survivor of the initial attack on her family, it also contributes significantly to Shori’s succesfully defending herself against an enemy attack of the Gordons, the Ina family with whom she has taken refuge. In contrast to readings like Bollinger’s, who proclaims her an “outcast among Ina” (345), Shori does receive help from the majority of Ina. Thus, there is no need for Shori to “inspire many Ina to accept her hybrid subjectivity” as Brox supposes (395).

Shori’s body, including her many burn scars, is quickly healed, but her amnesia is permanent. Again, the fantastic is used in an intertextual reference to a staple of African American literature, which frequently uses scars as tropes for the multifaceted traumas of victims of racially motivated violence. While her body regenerates, the recovery of the past, the retrieval of memories, is impossible. As Shori’s father Iosef puts it upon hearing that Shori has healed completely without any scars remaining: “Except for knowing herself and her people. […] I would call that a large scar. Unfortunately, it’s not one we know how to fix” (72).

Shori is kept from gaining control over her life by her complete ignorance of the social and biological needs of her own species. She is unable to knowingly employ the discourses which construct her to speak as an agent. Lacey notes in her Foucauldian analysis of power in Fledgling and two other Butler novels that Butler’s protagonists “have to learn to read and understand the power fields that surround them before they can begin to respond to them in productive ways” (380). Shori is, as she herself says, “only beginning to know [her]self” (110), repeatedly calling her ignorance a “significant weakness” (62) that makes her incapable of taking care of her symbionts and thus of herself. She tells one of her symbionts: “I worry that I won’t always know how to take care of you. I hate my ignorance. I need to learn from you” (123). In Hekman’s words, she cannot yet “us[e] the tools provided […] by the discursive mix” (203). As Lacey summarizes: “In Butler’s texts, a deeply ingrained awareness of power relations accompanies any movement toward positive change” (382). Additionally, Shori’s loss of memory and her ignorance of Ina rituals threaten her agency in a legal sense, as those council members who vote against her specifically base their judgment on her being “impaired” and “disabled” (295-96).

The novel signals its interest in the process of gaining awareness of one’s self and one’s surroundings from the very beginning. Not only does the novel’s title connote the process of growing up, but the opening scene of Fledgling establishes a double reference both to birth and to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” when Shori is shown emerging from a cave without any sense of identity or her surroundings, only aware of her own physical needs: “There was nothing in my world but hunger and pain, no other people, no other time, no other feelings” (1). Her ignorance is so complete, her healing body causes her such great hunger, that she kills and eats a person looking to find her and help her, an action which later shames her greatly.

This awakening is mirrored in the novel’s last scene, framing the entirety of the plot. Shori wakes up after having been injured while successfully defending herself and her symbionts. She feels “weak on a whole different scale from anything I had felt since the cave. In fact this felt like awakening in the cave” (307). She withstands the urge to lunge at one of her symbionts sitting by her bed, stays her immense hunger, and talks to him. As he informs her: “Joan [an older and more powerful Ina relative] says if you’re going to survive on your own, you’ll need good teachers, and she’s willing to be one of them. She also said she thought you’d make a damn good ally someday” (310). The narrative of agency ends tellingly: “I thought about that and nodded. ‘She’s right. I will’” (310).

Another strong indication of the agency achieved throughout the progression of the plot lies in the fact that Fledgling is, as stated above, a first-person narration. It is not simply a story about a vampire girl growing up and defeating her enemies. Even taking into account the narratological differences between the narrating I and the narrated I, the novel is a story which Shori tells of herself after it has happened. This implies a degree of agency and discursive proficiency which makes her capable of narrating her own story. She chooses what to include and how to include it. To shape the events that occurred is a form of gaining power over them and over one’s memory of them. This agency inherent to a first-person narration constitutes an important intertextual reference to African American literature in both its founding texts and its postmodern expressions. Whereas the authors of slave narratives very consciously used the first person to write themselves into existence,5 postmodern neo-slave narratives such as Charles R. Johnson’s Middle Passage utilize the first person to combine their rewriting of the slave narrative with postmodern complications of subjectivity and authorship.

In a narrative construction that has deep roots in the African American literary tradition, this victim of racially motivated violence narrates her own search for the truth about the past, about the trauma that she suffered, and about her attackers’ identity as the central quest for her identity and self-awareness, explicit sources of agency. What is significant in terms of the text’s investigation of the multifaceted nature of agency is the fact that, in the end, Shori overcomes both xenophobia and her own ignorance. By way of her own physical and emotional strength and with the help of both her human symbionts and her Ina friends and relatives, Shori soundly defeats her speciesist enemies and her own ignorance. She possesses the monetary resources, the legal and physical security, and the social networks necessary to continue her growth into a productive and powerful member of Ina society.

Complications of Agency

While its main plot depicts a success story of gaining agency by overcoming xenophobia and ignorance, the novel’s interest in agency does not stop with Shori’s successful quest. On the contrary, Fledgling uses its subplots and minor characters to continually irritate, if not undermine, the construction of agency put forth in the telling of Shori’s progress. In fact, it is Shori herself who very consciously causes other characters to lose their agency: her symbionts.

The novel invests an immense amount of energy in portraying the addictive relationship between Ina and humans. After having been bitten several times, humans become chemically addicted to a single Ina’s saliva to such a degree that they often do not survive if ‘their’ Ina dies. Additionally, they become psychologically addicted, and their Ina can influence them so strongly that they can be programmed to do whatever is asked of them. The Ina, on the other hand, are dependent on their symbionts’ blood but also have a very strong emotional need to have humans addicted to them and to be in physical contact with them. Through this highly complex and ethically problematic relationship, Fledgling complicates the main plot’s conventional narrative of agency that is attained against socially constructed threats in several ways: it deconstructs binary oppositions of oppression by means of its character constellation, it critically examines the sheer possibility of agency by introducing biology into the agency debate, and it questions the desirability of agency by asking and refusing to answer whether the highest degree of agency is per se the most preferable state of being.

Character Constellation

This process of deconstruction starts with Wright, the very first sentient being with whom Shori communicates in the novel and also her first symbiont. Whereas the main plot pits Shori, a lone black girl, against a family of white, male Ina trying to destroy her, her relationship with her first symbiont is more complex. Wright, a white man in his twenties, happens upon what he believes to be a black girl of about ten years in the woods. When he offers to help her and tries to take her to a hospital, Shori refuses. In the ensuing struggle, Shori bites him for the first time, discovering both her ability to influence him and the immense physical pleasure her bite bestows on him. Even here, Shori chooses what happens to her, she is not rescued by Wright, as Brox claims (393). After she convinces him to take her to his house, Shori informs Wright that while she cannot remember many specifics of who or what she is, some details of what the relationship between her and Wright should be like have started to emerge: “I’m old enough to have sex with you, if you want to. […] I think you’re supposed to […] No, that’s not right. I mean, I think you’re supposed to be free to, if you want to” (21).6

The very first relationship between two characters in Fledgling quickly culminates in a scene that epitomizes the novel’s refusal to accept what it exposes as simplified notions of oppression and agency. On the surface, the scene is disturbing, to say the least: an adult white man has sex with what seems to be a black child. In truth, as is revealed slowly throughout the plot, the power relations are reversed. Shori, who has sanctioned the act beforehand, is older than Wright because vampires age much more slowly than humans, she is faster and stronger than he is, and she has a biological hold on him which, while not an unbreakable addiction at this early point, is almost impossible to resist. This is not to say that the novel simply posits a complete reversal of power roles, that it advocates or claims a power relation of females ruling over males, blacks over whites, or children over adults. It rather tries to deconstruct simplified binary views of oppression and agency. As Lacey notes of all of Butler’s later novels, “power fields become so tangled that they discourage simplistic categorizations of dominant or subordinate, yet they do not deny the existence of such positions” (382).

This becomes more evident throughout the continued development of Shori’s family of symbionts. The first relationship may be diametrically opposed to common notions of oppression, but Shori goes on to take blood from several people and chooses men and women of different ethnic backgrounds and ages to be her symbionts. This power relation is without exception combined with sexual pleasure, but it resists categorization into a conventional dichotomy of black and white, adult and child, or man and woman. Brox adds in reference to Homi Bhabha that the construction of Shori herself is a way to deconstruct binary oppositions because her hybrid status makes her neither white nor black, neither an Ina nor a human, but rather a figure which “opens up a space of cultural uncertainty and instability” (391).


Shori’s genetically constructed hybrid status is only one example of the crucial role that biology and its influence on human behavior play in Butler’s text and its discussion of agency. Most conspicuously, the characters, human and Ina alike, battle biological urges throughout the book. When Shori visits the Gordons, a male Ina family, her presence and her seductive smell make the members extremely uncomfortable, but as her father has explained to her before: “[We] have our genetic predisposition—our instincts—but we are also intelligent. We are aware of our urges. We can stand still even when the instinct to move is powerful” (80). This is reminiscent of the relationship between the novel’s first and last scenes, as discussed above. When Shori has little intelligence and self-awareness, she is not able to defy her hunger, and she does not even consider that option. When she has gained said awareness, she can stop herself. Once again it is an awareness of the forces that influence her life which enables her to defy them.

As these examples show, the novel stops short of depicting biological determinism, but it does position instinctual urges as immensely powerful forces which, while they can at times be defied, have the power to rule a person’s behavior if unchecked. The crucial contrast to the points the text makes about educating oneself and fighting xenophobia lies in the fact that innate drives can be overcome in specific moments (even if, such as in the case of hunger, only for a short time), but that they cannot be defeated as such. Characters cannot free themselves of these drives completely.

Aside from the determining possibility of genes, Fledgling also introduces other aspects of biology into the discussion of agency, most notably to explain the addictive relationship between Ina and humans. Both the addiction and the potentially fatal effects of withdrawal are explained on a biological level by Shori’s father:

We addict them to a substance in our saliva—in our venom—that floods our mouths when we feed. I’ve heard it called a powerful hypnotic drug. It makes them highly suggestible and deeply attached to the source of the substance. They come to need it. […] They die if they’re taken from us or if we die, but their death is caused by another component of the venom. They die of strokes or heart attacks because we aren’t there to take the extra red blood cells that our venom encourages their bodies to make. Their doctors can help them if they understand the problem quickly enough. But their psychological addiction tends to prevent them from going to a doctor. (73-74)

While addiction is not caused by the very first bite, there is a point of no return for humans and Ina, a point when the chemical bond between the Ina and their humans is so strong that they can no longer voluntarily break it. As Shori laconically puts it to Wright when she tells him that this might be the very last chance he has to leave her and live a life without her: “Freedom Wright. Now or never” (49).

Furthermore, both the existence and the social structure of the Ina race are explained biologically. The Ina’s need to protect their symbionts and receive blood and companionship from them arises from an “instinct for self-preservation” because “[o]ur bodies need theirs” (270, my emphasis). While the origin of the Ina species is unclear,7 they are not supernatural beings but quite simply a different species. They possess greater physical powers than humans, but those are based on biology, not magic. Even the ways in which they choose to live, such as their custom to separate males from females, are the result of biological facts. The reason for the Ina living in a matriarchy is firmly based on Darwinian principles, and biological influences on both specific behavior and social constructions are undeniable. As one of her symbionts explains to Shori:

Venom from Ina females is more potent than venom from males. […] It has something to do with the way prehistoric Ina females used to get and keep mates. […] long ago, groups of sisters competed to capture groups of brothers, and the competition was chemical. […] Ina children, male and female, wind up with more potent venom, but the female’s is still more potent than the male’s. In that sense, the Ina are a kind of matriarchy. […] Ina men […] become addicted to the venom of one group of sisters. That’s what it means to be mated. Once they’re addicted, they aren’t fertile with other females, and from time to time, they need their females. (109)

While the novel never goes so far as to suggest complete determination by one’s genes, it does base the strongest forces capable of infringing upon one’s agency squarely in the realm of biology. This move, while not atypical of a science fiction writer, is unusual for African American literature, especially in light of the earlier discussion of the clearly social nature of the construct of race, even when, as Brox points out, Shori’s skin color is literally constructed genetically (397). At no point does the novel support any essentialist notion of race, nor does it ever discredit its protagonist’s success. It does, however, include a number of biological dependencies so strong that they stand in stark contrast to the quest for agency in the main plot.

Mutualistic Symbiosis

The most significant challenge to conventional ways of thinking about agency lies within the novel’s deeply ambivalent portrayal of the Ina-human relationship itself. On the one hand, the novel leaves no doubt as to the significant loss of agency which results from entering into a relationship with an Ina. Again and again, the characters discuss the moral implications of Ina biting humans and influencing them psychologically. The bite of an Ina is compared to “coke” (181), the process of proffering symbionts to “pimping” (156), and the relationship as a whole to “slavery” (204).

Lacey’s insightful study of power in Fledgling has a significant weakness in dramatically downplaying the existing hierarchies in the human-Ina communities. While these communities certainly stand in contrast to the more violent and more hierarchical social structures of human society, they are by no means a “cooperative, symbiotic alternative to hierarchical structures” (Lacey 388). She admits that “the alternative to mainstream society that Shori offers to her symbionts in Fledgling is fraught with its own potential problems” and is “less than perfect” (386). Her interpretation, however, seems partly grounded in a misunderstanding of the term “mutualistic symbiosis”8 which both the Ina and their symbionts employ repeatedly to characterize their relationship (123).

The term ‘symbiosis’ denotes “an association between two or more different species of organisms” (Paracer and Ahmadjian 3) and is commonly subdivided into three distinct categories. Parasitic symbiosis is defined as a symbiosis in which one partner benefits at the expense of another. In a commensalistic symbiosis, one partner benefits, the other is neither harmed nor benefited. Lastly, in a mutualistic symbiosis, both partners benefit from the association (Paracer and Ahmadjian 6-8). Significantly, the term symbiosis does not imply the absence of hierarchies or dependencies. Even its subcatogorization is based on the criterion of beneficience; the presence or absence of hierarchies is not taken into account at all. Accordingly, the fact that both partners in this association call it “mutualistic” does not automatically mean that it is a community which, according to Lacey, does “not require domination and control” (390). To argue, as Lacey does, that “a symbiotic balance […] replaces hierarchical structures” conflates two separate dimensions of an association (392, my emphasis).

Lacey posits this type of “symbiotic alternative to hierarchical solutions” only “[w]hen Shori does treat her symbionts as equals” (388). While this claim is problematic in itself, the fact remains that symbionts simply never are considered equal in Ina society. The Ina-human societies are not free of hierarchies by any means, they simply have different hierarchies than the human society. Symbionts play only a minor role in the social and political processes that influence their lives. They are rarely, if ever, present during discussion of general strategy (such as the Gordons’ discussion of how to best protect Shori and her symbionts from their attackers). There are no symbionts on the council when Shori goes to trial against her attackers, and a symbiont’s fate is of no concern in determining whether an Ina should be sentenced to death, even though their life might be threatened as well. This precarious balance of caring for one’s symbionts and patronizing them is reflected in Shori’s thoughts upon attending a meeting in which she and other Ina will interrogate a captured human attacker:

There were no symbionts present. That was interesting. I had not even thought about awakening my symbionts to bring them along. If Victor died tonight, I didn’t want them to see it happen. I didn’t want to confront them with the reality of what could happen to them if some Ina who hated me got a hold of them. But they knew, of course. They were all intelligent people. They even had some idea of what I could do to them if I were to lose my mind and turn against them. But they trusted me, and I wanted—needed—their trust. They didn’t have to see the worst. (179)

While Shori is clearly depicted as willing to hear her symbionts’ opinions in planning the future of the group and while she is concerned about their well-being in general, she is also the one who makes the decisions. Their relationship is not one of equals, especially since Shori is very adept at using the biological relationship between her and her symbionts to manipulate their decisions. Having realized the pleasure that her bite gives Wright, she keeps licking at his wound when he is trying to decide whether to take her to a hospital, continuously adding her saliva to his bloodstream. Moreover, Shori bites Theodora, her second symbiont, before asking her to join her in symbiosis, and she keeps lapping the wound throughout the conversation. Yet Shori claims: “I had been careful to let her make up her own mind” (92). She never goes so far as to directly program her symbionts, but, at times, she does explicitly order them to do things, such as telling Wright to leave her and find another Ina if she should die: “You will do it!” (138). When one of her new symbionts informs her that he actively tried to enter into symbiosis with Shori because she is interested in talking to her symbionts and asking them questions, she ponders: “Instead of just ordering him around, yes. That would be important to a symbiont, to anyone,” but she adds: “‘I won’t always ask,’ I admitted” (283). Lacey observes that “[h]aving power does not necessarily mean using it to dominate, and Butler’s protagonists work to create alternative relations based on cooperation rather than subjugation” (382). However, this does not mean that the relationships which result from these efforts are completely without hierarchy or that their members share equal amounts of agency. In the end, whatever agency Shori’s symbionts have is agency which they have because Shori does not take it away from them.

As ethically troubling as this relationship is made to be in the novel, it is also clearly beneficient to both parties. It is indeed a form of mutualistic symbiosis. Ina have a regular blood supply and get the physical contact they need, and humans enter into a life of financial security, of sexual bliss caused by the Ina’s bite and actual sex with the Ina, and of extremely good health as well as long lifespans caused by the regular injection of Ina saliva. Furthermore, the relationship between an Ina and their symbionts is explicitly called ‘love.’ Shori refers to the sex she has with her symbionts as “making love” (281), several symbionts profess their love for their Ina, and one compares the relationship to a “group marriage” (127). In fact, as another Ina points out to Shori, symbionts from one or even different families tend to intermarry, because of their shared way of life (211). The son of a symbiont actually seeks out Shori to join her family, because he liked her picture and wanted a female Ina because “[t]here’s too much sexual feeling involved when you guys feed” (159). The novel steadily refuses to take a definite position as to the desirability of such an arrangement. It invests heavily in maintaining a sympathetic protagonist, continually characterizing Shori as caring deeply for her symbionts and their feelings and as willing to defend them. At the same time, Shori is rather cavalier about using her powers on humans, for example programming a pimp to go back to college and give up his criminal life. Fledgling never lets the reader forget the fact that any agency Shori’s symbionts have is agency granted them by her.

The construction of mutualistic symbiosis between humans and Ina is not part of any effort by the text to explicitly bespeak a specific power relation by way of simple allegory nor does the text advocate giving up one’s agency. But it presents the conscious and, at times, willing entrance into a state of complete dependence as a step into a life of security, love, and immense physical benefits. Particularly for humans whose social ties within human society are not strong, symbiosis with Ina is depicted as a viable alternative as they find it easier to leave these ties behind. Especially in a novel that as a whole draws strongly on African American literature and its rich tradition of constructing first-person narrators struggling for agency and of insisting on the social constructedness of race, the steadfast refusal to confirm agency as the conditio sine qua non of human dignity, happiness, and a fulfilled life represents a most drastic step of questioning conventional notions about self-determination and the ethics of power relations.


Butler’s Fledgling, in its multi-layered investigation of power struggles and its intricate discussion of the (im)possibilities of self-determination, goes to the heart of the central concerns of her more canonical texts and her oeuvre in general. This vampiric Bildungsroman bespeaks some of the core concerns of African American literature, critically examining causes for oppression and self-consciously positing problematic but “concrete responses that answer to dominant discourses, producing viable alternatives” (Lacey 379). Fledgling clearly portrays race as a social construct, even if it results from genetic manipulation, as Brox maintains: “The complementarity of the biological and socially constructed reveals Butler’s challenge to American’s notions of race and ideology” (397). Additionally, the novel declares xenophobia and inadequate self-knowledge to be highly dangerous but surmountable threats to a person’s agency.

It is true that “Butler’s novel provides a vampiric vision where fixed categories and boundaries are challenged and human (or Ina) agency can instigate change” (Brox 392-93). However, interpretations such as Brox’s place too little emphasis on the text’s techniques of unsettling notions of agency. In quoting an article by Michelle Erica Green about another Butler novel, Brox concludes that in Fledgling “Butler emphasizes the power of human agency and culture to ‘triumph over prejudice, violence, and essentialism’” (Brox 399, Green 187). The text, however, goes much further than that as it broadens the scope of discussions of freedom, self-determination, and agency. Lacey summarily states about Butler’s last novels that “[t]here are no easy answers to be found in these texts, only complex examinations of the possibilities that are available when power is understood and confronted” (392). In order to deconstruct simplified conceptions of oppression and agency, Butler’s text explores the complicating effects of genetic determinism and chemical addiction on these conceptions within an African American context. However, the novel remains utterly tentative where it comes to the vincibility of these threats to agency.More fundamentally, the narrative project of Fledgling consists in openly asking whether the highest degree of agency is automatically the most desirable state of being or whether there is a higher potential for happiness in choosing a specific kind of dependence. The novel’s central achievement lies in refusing to answer this question.

1 Republished in one volume by Warner in 2007 under the title Seed to Harvest.

2 Brox studies the text in terms of its postmodern construction of a vampire figure, whereas Lacey looks at Fledgling and two other novels by Butler in light of their portrayal of power and of strategies of responding to it.

3 The Ina society is organized into same-sex families who only visit their mates occasionally.

4 See Brox for an elaborate analysis of the connections between racism and speciesism and the novel's treatment of miscegenation.

5 The opening line of many slave narratives is literally “I was born,” such as, most famously, Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (41) and Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (9).

6 In light of her amnesia, this knowledge appears to be based in her own bodily feelings at the time, not an actual memory, as she states immediately before her offer: “I don't know enough about myself to say what my age might be or even whether I'm human” (21).

7 Discussions among the Ina about their origin range from a theory positing the Ina developing right alongside humans to a theory of the Ina having been sent to Earth from a different planet.

8 Note the use of yet another biological term by the text.

Works Cited

Bollinger, Laurel. “Placental Economy: Octavia Butler, Luce Irigaray, and Speculative Subjectivity.” Literature Interpretation Theory 18.4 (2008): 325-52. WilsonSelectPlus. Web. 1 Dec. 2009.

Brox, Ali. “‘Every age has the vampire it needs’: Octavia Butler’s Vampiric Vision in Fledgling.Utopian Studies 19.3 (2008): 391-409. WilsonSelectPlus. Web. 1 Dec. 2009.

Butler, Octavia: Fledgling. New York: Warner, 2007. Print.

—. Seed to Harvest. New York: Warner, 2007. Print.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. With Related Documents. Ed. David W. Blight. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. Print.

Hairston, Andrea. “Octavia Butler: Praise Song to a Prophetic Artist.” Daughters of the Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Justine Larbalestier. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2006. 287-304. Print.

Hekman, Susan. “Subjects and Agents: The Question for Feminism.” Provoking Agents: Gender and Agency in Theory and Practice. Ed. Judith Kegan Gardiner. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1995. 194-207. Print.

Green, Michelle Erica. “‘There Goes the Neighboorhood’: Octavia Butler’s Demand for Diversity in Utopias.” Utopian and Science Fiction by Women: Worlds of Difference. Ed. Jane L. Donawerth and Carol A. Kolmerten. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1994. 166-89. Print.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Ed. Nellie Y. McKay and Frances Smith Foster. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.

Jacobs, Naomi. “Posthuman Bodies and Agency in Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis.” Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination. Ed. Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan. New York: Routledge, 2003. 91-111. Print.

Johnson, Charles R. Middle Passage. New York: Atheneum, 1991. Print.

Lacey, Lauren J. “Octavia Butler on Coping with Power in Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents, and Fledgling.” Critique 49.4 (2008): 379-94. WilsonSelectPlus. Web. 1 Dec. 2009.

Paracer, Surindar and Vernon Ahmadjian. Symbiosis: An Introduction to Biological Associations. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

Vihvelin, Kadri. “Arguments for Incompatibilism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 13 Nov. 2007. Web. 14 Dec. 2009. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/incompatibilism-arguments/>.


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