Living the Undead Life

Octavia E. Butler
New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005, 320 pp. $24.95 hardcover

The Historian
Elizabeth Kostova
New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005, 642 pp., $25.95 hardcover

Reviewed by Susanna J. Sturgis

According to legend, it is vampires who hunger for human blood. But since Bram Stoker's Dracula was published in 1897, dozens upon dozens of books and films attest to the no-less-insatiable hunger of humans for vampires. Fledgling, Octavia Butler's first novel in seven years, and The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova's widely publicized debut, both acknowledge Stoker as an ancestor, but their kinship is remote. In style, tone, and immediacy the books couldn't be more different.   

Only a few pages into Fledgling, it becomes apparent that the vampire premise is perfectly suited to themes that Butler has been exploring since her earliest novels: interdependence, freedom and unfreedom, and the cost of human survival. Her stories don't rely on horror for their effects, but they aren't for the ethically or politically squeamish. In her classic Kindred, a young black woman in mid-1970s Los Angeles is called back in time to save the life of a loathsome white slaveowner—because if he doesn't survive to impregnate her slave ancestor, she won't be born. In the post-apocalyptic world of Butler’s Dawn, Lilith Iyapo casts her lot and humanity's with the alien Oankali, choosing genetic transformation and survival over stasis and extinction. And in The Parable of the Sower, even before her walled community is overrun and destroyed, young Lauren Olamina decides to hit the dystopian roads of a near-future California, in search of a life more creative than one totally focused on self-defense.   

Shori, Fledgling's title character, is cast from the same mold and confronted with challenges as dire as those of her predecessors. When the novel opens, she is alone in a cave, naked, terribly injured, and insatiably hungry. She has no memory of who she is or how she got there. Her injuries heal without medical intervention because she is an Ina, a member of a distinct species that has shared the earth with humans for at least ten thousand years; they are long-lived, averse to daylight, and nourished by human blood. In Fledgling's world—the novel takes place in an apparently contemporary Pacific Northwest—the Ina are clearly the source of the vampire tales with which humans have terrified and titillated themselves for centuries.

In classic science-fictional style, Butler starts from a "what if": what if, instead of treating human beings as prey, the Ina based their social organization on their symbiotic relationship with humans? Out of this thought-experiment arises a plausible structure that allows Butler to explore her favorite issues: power, leadership, individual integrity, interdependence, and difference. The Ina organize themselves in families, each comprising several households in close proximity. Because they are "sexually territorial,” adult males and adult females live separately; young males are raised by their mothers' family until they approach adulthood, then they join the family of their fathers, elderfathers, and brothers. Mating, the Ina equivalent of marriage, is not between individuals but between a group of brothers from one family and a group of sisters from another.

The most fascinating, complex, and potentially disturbing relationship is between the Ina and their "symbionts," the humans they depend on for nourishment. Each Ina requires several—the usual number seems to be between six and eight—and the relationship, once established, is lifelong and reciprocal. Notes one Ina female: "I've never known even one of us to survive without symbionts. We should be able to do it—survive through casual hunting. But the truth is that that only works for short periods. Then we sicken. We either weave ourselves a family of symbionts, or we die."    Although the Ina are clearly the more powerful partners, the humans benefit considerably from the partnership. The act of feeding is intensely sensual, often sexual, and over time exposure to Ina "venom" enhances human senses and physical strength, confers immunity to diseases, and extends life expectancy to nearly two hundred years. From this arises what one human symbiont calls "the closest thing I've seen to workable group marriage." Symbionts develop relationships with each other and even bear and raise children, who, when they reach maturity, may choose either to go out into the wider world or to become symbionts themselves. In Fledgling, one character, Joel, makes the latter choice, and his symbiont father is ambivalent about it.Butler, never one to flinch from the queasy-making, gives the human side of the equation another name: addiction. Shori's father explains to her, when she is briefly reunited with him, "We addict them [the symbionts] 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." Butler doesn't intend readers to feel comfortable with such dependence: in The Parable of the Sower, after all, desperate people seek refuge in a drug that encourages pyromania by giving the addict a powerful rush in the presence of fire. As in her earlier books, she holds out the prize—usually the survival of the individual, or of humanity as a whole—and then asks, "What is it worth to you? What will you trade for it; what will you give up?"
In Fledgling, Butler asks this of the Ina as well as of the humans. Shori's family, her mothers and eldermothers, have been experimenting with creating offspring who can function during the day. Shori and one of her brothers are the first successes, the result of incorporating human genetic material—notably that responsible for the creation of melanin—into Ina genes. Shori is unique: a dark-skinned, dark-haired Ina who isn't entirely nocturnal.

Though some Ina celebrate the success of this genetic engineering, others do not: Shori's existence exacerbates their latent contempt for the humans on whom they depend as well as their racism, which, ironically, they seem to have acquired by osmosis from the humans they despise. One Ina family, the Silks, using coerced humans as its tools, slaughters Shori's mothers' family; Shori alone escapes, to wake wounded and amnesiac in the novel's first pages. By luck she is not present when her fathers’ family is likewise massacred. Thanks in large part to her ability to remain alert during the day, she helps thwart two subsequent attempts to kill her, the members of her new family, and the Ina family that shelters them.
Nearly half the novel is devoted to preparing for and holding a Council of Judgment, at which the Silk family is called to account for its actions. It's a courtroom drama without the courtroom, and with strong overtones of Nuremberg—if the Nazis could have been brought to justice soon after they took the law into their own hands, and before they could corrupt the entire social fabric and destroy millions of people. Courageous readers may well feel grudging sympathy with the Silk spokesman when he calls the Ina council's attention to the inhumanity of humans: "We Ina are vastly outnumbered by the human beings of this world. And how many of us have been butchered in their wars? They destroy one another by the millions." Because of the symbiotic relationship between human and Ina, "We could not live without them,” he says.

"But we are not them!

"We are not them!

"Children of the great Goddess, we are not them!"

By this point, though, his family's actions have shown beyond doubt that "we" are far more like "them" than he is able to admit. At the same time, Shori has proved that the blending of "us" and "them" can be a source of strength. As another Ina tells her: "They thought mixing human genes with ours would weaken us. You proved them very wrong."

In Octavia Butler's worlds, change can be and often is terrifying, but the biggest folly is to refuse it; to deny change is to abdicate one's responsibility to help shape it.

In The Historian Elizabeth Kostova explores both the historical Dracula—Vlad III "the Impaler," the fifteenth-century Wallachian warlord and nemesis of the expanding Ottoman Empire—and the legends that grew in his wake and have survived to the present day. The novel braids three timelines. In the early 1930s, Bartholomew Rossi, a history professor at Oxford, passionately pursues answers to his questions: Where is Dracula buried? And just how dead is he? In the mid-1950s, Paul, one of Rossi's graduate students at a US university, takes up the quest, and shortly thereafter Rossi disappears under mysterious and bloody circumstances. Finally, in the early 1970s, Paul's teenage daughter is drawn in, and shortly thereafter Paul—no longer a historian but a freelance diplomat affiliated with no particular government—departs Oxford abruptly for parts unknown, with his daughter in hot pursuit, accompanied by a slightly older Oxford undergraduate.   

The three journeys, each a generation apart, range through the Netherlands, France, England, Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria, also touching down in Istanbul and a college town in the northeastern United States. All are told in first person, through Rossi's letters to "my dear and unfortunate successor" (who turns out to be Paul); the stories Paul tells his daughter; and the daughter's own narrative. Despite the generations that separate the tellers, the voices are remarkably similar. They might as well belong to disembodied tour guides, not characters in a novel. Kostova's storytelling skills are likewise weak. The result is an almost unrelievedly slow slog from page ix to page 642. Several secondary characters offer temporary respite: the Turkish historian Turgut Bora, for one, and especially Helen Rossi, the unacknowledged daughter of Rossi and eventually Paul’s wife; her Romanian peasant mother, Élena; and her aunt Éva, a VIP in pre-1956 Hungary. The trouble is that none of the plot points add up to very much, and after hundreds of pages, the reader loses interest in whether Rossi will find Dracula or Paul will find Rossi, or his daughter will find her father or her mysterious mother, who vanished not long after her birth?   

In marked contrast, Octavia Butler goes for the jugular, with a force and accuracy even Dracula would envy, rescuing vampires from musty crypts and dusty archives and setting them loose in our world. There's plenty of life in the undead yet.

Susanna J. Sturgis has been reading, reviewing, and yakking about science fiction since the late 1970s. She lives on Martha's Vineyard and holds virtual court in the bloggery at

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