Octavia Butler’s latest novel shows us how to coexist
Octavia E. Butler has spent most of her life delving into the past and observing the present to construct stories suited to society’s misfortunes and grim futures. She wrote about a black woman in 1970s Los Angeles repeatedly transported to the antebellum South; about a teenage girl who establishes a religion to save her community from climate destruction; and on the alien colonization of Earth. She was obsessed with broad and thorny themes: intimacy and sex, hierarchy and power, the link between ancestral knowledge and eventual survival. There is always, it seems, a Butler book for our time. And as the world navigates the third year of the pandemic, one of his most singular works might be the most resonant today.
Young, the last novel Butler published before his death in 2006, is a propulsive story about Shori, a 53-year-old amnesiac black vampire who must reconstruct her past after waking up in darkness, alone and without memories. As Shori makes her way through the world, particularly the suburbs of Washington State and, later, California, she discovers more about herself and her seeming incongruities: as Ina (a species of vampire who lives relatively harmoniously alongside humans), she looks like a 10-year-old child, but she wants a woman; she needs human blood to survive, but feeding on humans can do them, in turn, physically stronger. Young is, at heart, a person who reconciles who she is with how she looks and learns to use her considerable power responsibly.
Written during a creative fallow period in Butler’s life, Young was the author’s attempt to “do something lighter,” as she said in a 2005 interview. Ironically, the resulting novel, now being republished, may be one of her most deep and emotionally acute. The early days of the pandemic revealed the depths of our mutual dependence: not only did the coronavirus require unprecedented levels of global cooperation to temper its spread; it also forced people, at a grassroots level, to recognize their intertwined fates. Shori’s arc feels particularly prescient right now, as society continues to re-educate itself about boundaries, agency, and the real issues of living together.
The opening pages of the novel follow a badly burned Shori slowly coming to her senses. She emerges from a cave and wanders aimlessly, eventually stumbling upon an abandoned village. The group of houses, charred in a fire, offers no shelter, but it activates an embryonic desire for community. “I thought the place must once have provided comfortable homes for several people,” Shori thinks. “It was just. It felt like I wanted to live with other people instead of wandering alone.
The intensity of Shori’s desire for connection becomes clearer when she, days after waking up, meets and moves in with Wright Hamlin, a white construction worker. “I didn’t want to stop talking to him,” she thinks when they first meet. “I felt almost as hungry for conversation as I was for food.” Through their initial, awkward interactions, she learns that her maturity and sex drive don’t match her underage appearance, and as she realizes how good Wright smells, their relationship turns from mildly affectionate to erotic.
Butler shakes up the conventional dynamic of consent by making Shori, who initiates a physical relationship with Wright, a child. Shori’s blackness is also relevant. She learns that she is the product of a genetic experiment that combined Ina and human genes to give Ina, who is historically white, more melanin so she can wander around during the day. As researcher Habiba Ibrahim writes in her essay “Any Other Age: Vampires and Oceanic Lifespans”, Young “invites readers to consider the strangeness of how aging works” for black people. According to Ibrahim, the age of slaves was arbitrary – who was considered a child was at the discretion of slavers trying to pack as many bodies as they could into a ship. And black adults could be infantilized in the same breath as black children, especially girls, were robbed of their youth, viewed as predatory and hypersexual.
While Young explores a multitude of wide-ranging themes – racial anxiety, co-dependency, memory (or lack thereof) – Butler seems more keen to examine power and intimacy. Unlike traditional vampires, the Ina form symbiotic bonds with the humans they feed on. Humans become physically dependent on Ina foods; without them they will die. The Inas, in turn, become emotionally attached to their humans (or symbiotes) and begin to see them as part of a family that they must house, nurture, and care for. It is only through the consent and communication of both parties that any semblance of balance is achieved.
Wright becomes Shori’s first symbiote, and their first conversations are as much about trying to piece together the vampire’s past as they are about setting up a lasting relationship. When Shori first meets Wright, she bites him without asking. But eventually, she realizes that she needs his consent. “I think it would be wrong for me to keep you with me against your will,” she says at one point, moved by her budding awareness and heightened sense of her own abilities.
Just as Shori learns that she cannot follow her desires without also recognizing her symbiotes’ vulnerability, her symbiotes must also become familiar and comfortable with her needs. When Shori confronts another male symbiote, Wright punches a hole in the wall. “You took control of my life,” he said. “And now you want me to share you with another man?” “You can,” Shori replies. “You will be. He’s part of the family we need to be. He’s one of us.
The power of Shori hovers over every interaction. On the occasions when she bites a person without their permission, she withers her autonomy and diminishes her ability to accept the relationship. She sometimes returns to command with those she feeds on, communicating her desires as commands instead of questions. The varied interactions Shori has with her symbiotes and the growing pains she encounters indicate that Butler is working hard to unravel the complicated questions of consent. The consequences of Shori’s genetic differences, those that make her stronger than any Ina or human, are also present in the novel. She learns that some see her existence as a threat to racial purity – that her entire family has been killed in an attempt to stop further experimentation and that she is also in danger. But Shori wrests control of her story and, by trying to exert her influence without harm, offers her community a new model of existence.
Butler’s placement of a black woman at the center of a vampire tale recalls the work of Jewelle Gomez, whose 1991 lesbian-feminist novel, Gilda’s stories, also follows a dark vampire hero. In the preface to her book, Gomez writes that she re-read Butler’s earlier work to remind him that “there was a place for women of color in speculative fiction.” While writing her novel, Gomez asked a series of questions relevant to our current moment: “What is family? How do we live within our power and at the same time act responsibly? How do we build community? How can we make authentic connections across gender, ethnicity and class? ” In writing Young, Butler seems to have felt the same sense of possibility as Gomez – envisioning a universe in which the powerful and the vulnerable can co-exist.