Thirst, 2009, Octavia Butler, Fledgling (2005)
It’s interesting to read this novel, Octavia Butler’s last published novel before her death in 2006, in concert with Dracula and Thirst. Both of the latter are archetypal examples of the Victorian sort of vampire – the Other who is a threat, the Other who must be killed, because they are a threat to us and our civilization.
In Dracula, Stoker uses his vampire to work through a kind of anxiety of colonization, as well as his culture’s anxiety about racial purity – their notion that the “true” English, those Anglo-Saxons of noble birth, were being outbred by the “mongrel” immigrants (including Jews and the “inferior” races) and the lower classes.
That anxiety was attached, as always, to the anxiety connect to the ability to control women – especially women’s fertility, obviously (since women interbreeding with immigrants, inferior races, and the lower classes is what would destroy England), but also controlling women in general. It was a truism of the time that if women were allowed to have access to alcohol, or know anything about sex, or if they were educated or given the freedom to go out and about on their own, they would soon become uncontrollable – running wild! Having sex with anyone and everyone! No longer submitting to
owners their husbands and fathers!
We can see some of this same anxiety playing out in Thirst (2009).
Note that in this film we have at first a vampire who is – like Jonathan Harker – just an innocent boy. We’re pretty clearly, throughout the movie, supposed to sympathize with Sang-Hyun, the young priest. (This gets a little difficult at some points, as when he kills his mentor just after drinking his blood.) The film mostly portrays Sang-Hyun as a vampire who is doing his best to act ethically: he drinks blood which he gets from the hospital’s blood bank, or from comatose patients; when he has to kill, he kills people who are suicidal (which is presented as benevolent on his part). True, he does kill his mentor. That seems bad.
And he also has an affair with Tae-Ju, a woman who was taken in as a toddler (like a stray puppy) by a family that is presented to us as fairly unattractive. The mother-in-law is vicious, the son is an oaf and not too bright. They both treat Tae-Ju like a slave. When Tae-Ju leads Sang-Hyun to believe that the son (her husband) is beating her, Sang-Hyun murders the boy (who is mentally challenged, remember). It is just after this that he kills his mentor, after first getting his absolution for the murder.
Still, despite these acts, the film continues to present Sang-Hyuan sympathetically. He feels remorse over what he has done; he tries to restrain Tae-Ju (once she has been turned); he continues to try to feed without killing.
In contrast, the film present Tae-Ju to us as a monster. This is especially true once she has been turned, but even before she has turned the movie wants us to disapprove of her. Her lies lead to her husband’s death, after all; and when he surfaces from the lake, begging for her help, she kicks him viciously, knocking his hands loose; and her illicit hunger for sex (her literal running the street!) have led the Catholic priest to violate his vows.
As a vampire, she kills for the pleasure of it, she kills indiscriminately, and she no longer considers herself human – humans have become her prey.
As with Lucy in Dracula, Tae-Ju must be killed to save the (human) race. Her death is yet another honor killing. Note, by the way, that Sang-Hyun kills her twice for this reason – once as a human; and the second time as a vampire. In the first case, she is a threat to the institution of marriage (if women can lie/kill their husbands in order to achieve a new relationship, then the patriarchy is doomed); in the second, she is a threat to humanity (if women can kill, humankind is doomed).
Note that neither of these rules applied to Sang-Hyan – he could enter into illicit relationships and he could kill without being a metaphorical threat of some sort.
Which brings us to Fledgling.
Here we have an interestingly liminal vampire. She’s a woman in that she’s 53 years old, but she’s a child in that she both looks like a child and is, as vampires judge age – or the Ina, to be more specific, judge age, still a child.
The Ina have their own culture, however, and their rules are not our rules, their ethics not our ethics, and so on. This comes home to us hard in the opening scenes of the book when our main character, Shori (Renee, as one of her symbionts call her) violates two of the strongest taboos almost every culture adheres to: the one against cannibalism, and the one against sex with young children.
There’s a yeah, but in each of these (yeah, but Shori was out of her head, acting on instinct, yeah, but she’s not human, so is it cannibalism, yeah, but she’s not really ten years old, she’s 53, yeah, but she’s the child, so did she really violate the taboo).
These rationalizations come later, after we’ve been shocked and appalled and disturbed. Butler wants us disturbed. She wants us worrying about what Shori is – is she human? Is she a danger to the human community? Is she something we need to fear, or something (like the Romantic version of the vampire) we should be attracted to, and interested in?
Butler immediately complicates this with another aspect of her vampires. Unlike the mystical/supernatural vampires we are used to seeing, Butler has created a kind of scientific vampire.
The Ina are a separate race (possibly aliens; possibly an example of co-evolution) who have lived alongside humanity for thousands and thousands of years. Each Ina can live for hundreds of years. Each Ina requires at least seven or eight “symbionts,” human subjects whose blood the Ina feeds on. The symbiont benefits from this relationship – it’s a kind of mutalism. First, the symbiont enjoys being fed from, apparently a lot. It’s an addictive pleasure: Ina “inject” some of their venom into the symbiont as they feed.
Further, this “venom” doesn’t just give pleasure to those who are being fed on, it also gives certain health benefits. A symbiont lives long, is healthier, has better mental functions, heals faster, and so on.
On the other hand, a symbiont is not just physically addicted to its Ina – and there is both a physical addiction as well as an addiction to the pleasure that the bite gives. Symbionts will die if they are not fed from regularly: they die without the venom of their Ina, or some Ina.
But besides this, a symbiont’s mind is under the control of its Ina. This control may be wielded with a light hand, as Shori seems to believe she is wielding her control, or it may be total control – we hear about Ina who do this. Ethically, though, the gradation is irrelevant. Ina remove free will from their symbionts, both through the use of their venom and through the “scent” they can’t help emitting. That their symbionts seem to enjoy being captured by the Ina, and that they benefit from being symbionts is also irrelevant to this ethical point.
This is especially troublesome given that the Ina violate the bodily autonomy of their symbionts in a number of ways – by feeding from them, by having sex with them, by curtailing their freedom of movement, by owning them in a very real sense. In class, the point was made that the Ina communities resemble plantations. When we view them through this lens, we can see how the Ina, although they certainly seem to love their symbionts, are very like the Southern plantation owners who used slaves to breed more slaves for their future use.
Honor Killing Again: The plot is interestingly similar to both Dracula and Thirst. That is, we have cultural anxiety about purity being manifest in the figure of a young girl. Butler inverts this trope, however, in some interesting ways.
First, in Dracula and to a lesser extent in Thirst the locus of the culture’s purity was fixed in the body of a pure and powerless young woman (who, after she turns, turns into a sexy, sexy slut) who is a symbol of the culture itself – the women in women and children first which the patriarchy tells itself it exists to protect.
In Fledgling, in contrast, the “young woman” is a child. Worse, she is a young black child. This is not the symbol of the culture of the USA (or of Ina culture for that matter) – not the image of our civilization that the United States patriarchy tells itself it exists to protect. (Not a “real” American.) The young black female child is the least powerful and least important figure in America society. Butler makes her the focus of this story, and potentially the most powerful figure in her own society (in Ina society).
She also make Shori, this black Ina female child, a threat to certain members of Ina culture. Just as Van Helsing and his band of vampire hunters saw Lucy as a threat to England, and Sang-Hyan saw Tae-Ju as a threat to his world, so the Silks and Katherine Dahlman see Shori and her family as a threat to the Ina. Her “muddy” genes, her “mongrel” genetics, if allowed to survive and to interbreed with the Ina – to colonize the Ina – will destroy them all. Shori and her family must die, to save the purity of the Ina race.
Butler makes those who wish to preserve the purity against the colonizers – the infiltrators, the mongrels who would inbreed and destroy the race – she makes these the villains of her story. And she makes Shori and those who fight on her side the heroes.
Well. “Heroes.” It’s hard to see anyone as entirely a hero in any Butler book, and clearly it’s hard to see any Ina, even such a nice Ina as Shori, as heroic. But we’re more on her side than on the side of Miles Silk.