6.02.2006

Child Porn and Octavia Butler's Fledgling

I’m currently on page 73 (of 319) of Octavia Butler’s last novel Fledgling. When I finish it, I may blog about how much the novel shares with all of Butler’s other works, other vampire novels, and dark fantasy romance such as Christine Feehan’s Dark series. For now, I just want to comment a bit on how the novel deals with age, consent, and morality.

Butler’s protagonist, the amnesiac Renee/Shori, looks 11 but is actually 53 (still a child in vampire—or, as they call themselves, Ina—years). I won’t go into too many plot details, but suffice it to say she gets involved with Wright, a 23-year-old human male (i.e. bites and unintentionally compels to become her companion). They begin what Butler calls a symbiotic relationship. This is a central core to all of Butler’s fiction, and I cannot help but think about it alongside my knowledge of the author’s relatively solitary life. Her fiction often suggests that it takes outside forces to bring people together and keep them together. When not dealing with outright enslavement, the most intense relationships in much of her writing are about beings compelled to stay together. Often it is alien chemistry that does so or an absence of other viable options. Rarely do two characters meet, fall in love, and stay together.

Now, in Fledgling, Butler pushes an interesting envelope with her symbiosis theme, as she has this pre-pubescent-seeming vampire gal have sex with Wright. She enjoys giving him pleasure through her bites—and the particularly sensuous licking of his neck—but also through sex. Wright definitely expresses concern that he’s being seduced by a flat-chested, pubic-hairless girl, but he absolutely takes the elfin "child" into his arms and does the deed. Butler makes sure to make our heroine the aggressor, to show Wright’s discomfort, and even to make jokes about it. The word “jailbait” is used (an understatement!); and, when Renee/Shori meets another of her kind (so far he says he’s her father), he taunts Wright with reference to how others might see his relationship with this apparent pre-teen.

The first sex scene between them is, so far, the only one described at all, and Butler is, as always in her fiction, hesitant to describe sex graphically. (I repeatedly feel she simply does not understand love or lust; like Orson Scott Card, I get the feeling that passion escapes her entirely or turns her off.) But choosing to depict sex between consenting people who are not both adults is a risky proposition and I have mixed feelings about it. In choosing a protagonist who appears so young and also has amnesia, is Butler offering commentary on our current obsession with stopping child porn? (I read the current administration as using child porn concerns to further its McCarthy-esque invasions of privacy, but let’s leave that lie for now.) Is Butler pushing boundaries, intentionally depicting something that makes readers uncomfortable in order to challenge a current trend to censor rather than analyze? Is she commenting on the Christian Right’s hungry brush that tars a wide path of everything it deems “obscene” or “immoral”? Or is she, less politically but very typically for Butler, just messing with our easy reliance on rigid, overly simplistic categories (adult/child, moral/immoral, human/other)?

In any case, the opening of the novel did make me uncomfortable, and I’m sure intentionally so. Furthermore, however, it also made me angry. Following the Lenny Bruce quotation I cited earlier in this blog, I am frustrated by what we deem smut and what we deem “literature” and who can get away with what and how. If it’s “literature,” then you can describe an 11-year-old female body writhing on top of a 23-year-old male one. Yes, Butler must quickly explain that she’s not really 11 and she’s not even human, but she still has this guy fuck a kid before our startled eyes. (My husband is reading the novel Aztec right now and comments that it, too, contains sex with children, in this case because it is relying on historical evidence that the Aztecs did this.)

By contrast, if Fledgling or Aztec emphasized sex as central to the novel and was brought to a publisher of erotica, it would never have made it to print. There'd be no passing the huge “NO UNDERAGE SEX” warning. They also have NO BESTIALITY, NO RAPE, and other prohibitions, upholding these to stay in business in a difficult cultural environment, like those porn sites that now have to keep consent forms for every nude photo they post.

This reminds me of another literary/porn anecdote: about 10-15 years ago, a publisher issued a reprint of Samuel Delany’s pornographic novel Equinox. At the time, I found it excessive and in no way arousing, full of sex with minors, questionable consent issues, and very unsavory (unwashed) characters. (And now I can’t find my copy to see how I'd read it today.) What I remember most is an editor’s note that preceded the text, stating that the ages of every character had been increased by 100 to address concerns with child porn and consent! So the kids were now 110, the adults 142, etc. It was simply absurd, but also an interesting way to address the issue of censorship. We couldn’t publish the book as written (and originally published in 1968), so we had to do this stupid thing and pretend they’re all longlived aliens!

In the end, I’m not sure whether Butler—who always depicts lovers with big age differences where the woman is much younger than the man (Lauren was 17 to Bankola’s 45 in Parable of the Sower, if memory serves)—is making political/social commentary, trying to make readers uncomfortable as a psychological strategy, or just exploring the nooks and crannies of her own psyche. However, as always, she does make me think. Not a bad contribution to human existence, especially in this day and age.

1 comment:

Stavner said...

That is interesting, and uncomfortable.

I remember reading "Bloodchild" in your SF class; that was also disturbing. Butler sure does know how to hit your buttons, all right.