Alarm bells have been sounding in my reading of Fledgling around the issue of implicit prejudice. As Shori (and by extension, we the readers) becomes better and better acquainted with the world of the Ina, the more the relationship between the symbionts and “their” Ina is explored (by both Shori and Butler), and I felt that something was amiss. It seems to me that the more important trope of race in Fledgling is not the way that the other Ina treat Shori, the member of their species who differs from them in appearance, but rather how the Ina of the novel treat humans, another group of sentient beings who are vastly different from the Ina in culture, history, and genetic makeup. Through the narrative device of her amnesia, Shori functions as an objective observer to these different attitudes.
The different ways in which “tribes” of Ina treat their human co-dependents are significant. When Shori meets her father, I was pleasantly surprised to see this exchange in their conversation: “How many people?” “Seventy-eight. Everyone except you” (p.65). We don’t learn until later how many of those were Ina, and neither Shori nor Iosif treats the difference as important. Iosif’s subconscious use of language reveals that he categorizes both humans and Ina as “people” in his mind; to use the parlance of social psychology, he includes humans in his “in” group, treating them more or less as he would like to be treated. The sincere grief he feels is obvious to the reader, and it is enough to make Shori feel comfortable around this stranger who claims to be her father. Everything he says when he is enumerating the Ina way of life for Shori indicates that he, his tribe, and Shori’s mother’s tribe treat their human symbionts as equals, and when Shori and Wright visit the settlement this assumption is corroborated. So our first encounter with Ina culture is encouraging; there seems to be respect on both sides.
Yet the other groups of Ina ruin this utopian vision. The Silks are blatantly repulsive to any audience interested in political correctness. Russell Silk’s final address to the Council is particularly indicative of a racial purist attitude: “We Ina are vastly outnumbered by the human beings of this world… We could not live without them. But we are not them! We are not them! Children of the great Goddess, we are not them! Nor should we try to be them. Ever. Not for any reason. Not even to gain the day; the cost is too great” (p.291-2). They clearly have not made the cognitive leap to categorizing humans as equal to Ina, and Katharine Dahlman shows a similar disregard for symbionts. After ordering her symbiont to kill Theodora, she feels no remorse: “The punishment is too extreme. It does not fit the minor crime I committed” (303). This shows that she does not feel that human lives are valuable enough to be mourned. The Silks and Dahlmans depend on their human symbionts, but they resent this dependency; while their relationship is symbiotic in the sense that both groups depend on each other for survival, the Silks do not foster an equitable environment, instead disregarding the interests of the individual humans in favor of their own. Unfortunately, by nature of their relationship, Ina of this disposition are able to fully enforce their wills on human beings through the hypnotic effects of their venom.
If we are to take Shori’s two families as the “good guys” of this metaphor for race relations, and the Silks and the Dahlmans are the “bad guys,” than the Gordons inhabit the grey area of “most people.” They strike Shori as basically decent: they treat their symbionts well and they are dismissive of the Silks’ insistence on racial purity. But what set off my alarms was that even though the Gordons give their symbionts the freedom to choose in most situations (Joel being able to refuse to be their symbiont, for example), they have not yet made the cognitive leap to treating the humans as full equals. Like the Silks, though to a much lesser degree, the Gordons “other” human beings, treating them as a separate group, and, seemingly, a lesser one. When Shori is talking to Preston about Theodora’s death, he shows that his mental math is a little different from Shori’s. She says “I will have a life for her life.” “Roan’s?” he asks. “Katharine Dahlman’s!” For Shori, one human life equals the life of the person responsible; Preston hasn’t quite gotten there yet. The small but important line that the Gordons draw in their minds between human and Ina shows up again at the end of the trial. After Milo Silk declares that Shori is not a true Ina, Preston’s response is: “Listen to me. Shori Matthews is as Ina as the rest of us. In addition, she carries the potentially life-saving human DNA that has darkened her skin and given her something we’ve sought for generations: the ability to walk in the sunlight” (p. 272). Preston feels the need to defend Shori against the accusation that she isn’t Ina, because to him that’s shameful. It’s ridiculous really: Shori isn’t as Ina as the rest of them. She has her own genetic identity, and what’s more, she lost her memory, meaning that “she doesn’t have much in common with anybody,” according to Octavia Butler. Yet Preston Gordon feels the need to defend her Ina-hood, and in doing so he betrays to the reader that he is not as equal-minded as he would like us to think.