They’re Fired

While reading Fledgling by Octavia Butler, I found it crucial to pay specific attention to Butler’s creation of an Earth-like world that was not identical to the reader’s reality, but could still plausibly exist parallel to the reader’s own existence. Like many science-fiction novels, Butler’s narrative stays true to the scientific laws of the physical world, with the exception of her description of the Ina and their history. Considering that the Ina are a fictionalized species, or so I hope, and the laws that govern their world are similarly imagined, these details therefore become especially salient in analyzing her work as a whole. I was specifically interested in the repeated use of fire to vanquish Ina families and symbionts that were in connection with Shori. This repeated plot scenario became more poignant when I began to think of the symbolic, connotative value of fire as both a destructive and purifying force of nature.

For this reason, I began to contemplate the historical and psychological ramifications connected to death or execution by fire. Historically, fire has been used in situations of heresy, or an opinion profoundly at odds with what is generally accepted as defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Contrasting the ideology of heresy to the Silk’s perception of Shori, the Silk family believed Shori to be an experiment that equated her to a “clever dog” more than it equated her to a true Ina. For this reason, the Silk family could have easily labeled Shori, her families and her allies as heretics in direct opposition to the Ina species.

Because I grew up in a devoutly Christian home, my first encounter with fire as a destructive power was in the Bible. In Isaiah 66:15 it is written “ He will bring down his anger with fury, and His rebuke with flames of fire,” which is a perception of fire as a divine means of reparation and retribution from God. This verse shows God as a god of wrath and justice that uses fire to cleanse and reprimand the nations. Fire is also used to allude to one’s character and purity in 1 Peter 1:7 where it is written that “so that your genuine faith, which is more valuable than gold that perishes when tested by fire, may result in praise, glory, and honor when Jesus, the Messiah, is revealed.” Both of these Biblical accounts shed some light on the act of arson within Fledgling in that the perpetrators can be seen as trying to imitate a God-like fury of retribution over heresy, and conversely, Shori now takes on the character of being, quite literally, tried and tested by fire in a symbolic purification process.

Furthermore, looking into the origins and psychoanalysis of fire, I discovered the flame is seen to be an unprecedented force of nature. In Psychoanalysis of Fireby Gaston Bachelard, Bachelard aims to describe both the inanimate and life-like existence of fire when he writes “it is intimate and it is universal. It lives in our heart. It lives in the sky. It rises from the depths of the substance and offers itself with the warmth of love. Or it can go back down into the substance and hide there, latent and pent-up, like hate and vengeance.” This excerpt shows a salient view of fire as inescapable, without prejudice, and both comforting and dangerous. This psychoanalytic viewpoint is important to turn back on Butler’s work because with the Ina’s weakness to fire, including the fire in the sky– the sun, the flame then becomes the great equalizer of the novel. The Ina households that were once powerful, turn to ash, just as all victims of fire do, and they become indistinguishable from the dirt of the ground.

Lastly, to insert Lockean theory into the conflict among the Ina communities being assaulted and destroyed through fire, these acts are directly opposing to the Law of Nature which states that your actions should bring no harm to others or yourself. Locke states in his Second Treatise of Government that “in transgressing the law of nature, the offender declares himself to live by another rule than that of reason and common equity, which is that measure God has set to the actions of men, for their mutual security and so he becomes dangerous to mankind […] trespass against the whole species.” The Ina community rightly follows this Lockian belief of justice for one equating to justice for all when they call a council to judge the Silks on the account of Shori. And furthermore, the use of a natural element– in this case fire– to assault and harm the natural rights of another that Locke states are “life, health, liberty, [and] possessions” illuminates the degree of perversity and depravity present among the Silks.

To connect all of these tangent forms of thought, I’ll conclude by stating that Butler had the opportunity to write a story in which any element could cause harm to the Ina people, but she chose to use fire. The Ina in turn showed weakness to the sun, which Bachelard describes as fire in the sky, and to the literal contact of fire to their bodies. The significance of death by fire draws heavily upon the Biblical values of wrath and retribution while still drawing on the psychoanalytic viewpoint of fire being universal. It seems clear to me that Butler not only drew inspiration from vampire mythology, but that she drew from human history and the law of nature that Locke believes to be present in every human. Butler’s decision to have the criminals incinerate the Ina households rather than dagger each individual through the heart with a wooden stake, like many other vampire tales would have done, shows that the ugliest part of prejudice that we find in the members of the Silk family is the detachment and the perversion of natural law that it requires.

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