Need vs. Morals: Where’s the line in symbiotic relationships?

In response to today’s class, there are a few points I would like to make.

I had stated in class that we, as readers, tend to focus more on the humans. Yes, we are human, and yes, we will read things with a human perspective (obviously). However, that doesn’t mean that we cannot try to grasp or understand a different culture or society, whether it’s between other humans or other species. Humans today have trouble doing that in interactions between different parts of the world, for example, the US and Middle East relations – differences in culture, education and understanding. When we look at the Ina culture in Butler’s Fledgling, they share similar aspects of culture that we do: history, language, use of resources, etc.

Furthermore, when we read this book, a big theme is the idea of mutual symbiosis. The idea that there is a mutually dependent relationship between organisms – in this case, humans and Ina. However, we tend to focus on the power structure and the culture that goes into this complex idea. But let’s start with this: culture aside, the biology of the mutual symbiosis makes them NOT equal – there is a tendency to overlap and make the words “mutual” (held in common by two or more parties) and “equal” (a person or thing considered to be the same as another in status or quality) one and the same in this text, when they are not synonyms.

I had also stated in class that humans are independent of the Ina, they exist with or without them. Humans can survive, live and thrive without ever becoming a symbiont. However, the Ina NEED something, or someone, to feed on. They are more dependent because of that need. Humans are born independent, the Ina, dependent. Their relationship is not mutually dependent from the get-go, because Ina are the ones in need of this interaction. A person’s need can place them at a disadvantage, which we do see with the Ina, and Shori’s initial relationships with her symbionts. And Locke would advocate this, seeing as his philosophy is based on being able to take what you need without being greedy, and therefore avoiding a state of war.

Culturally speaking, between the Ina and humans, is a different story: the Ina and symbionts have their own culture. There is an understanding of making informed decisions between the two species. And the Ina do explain the circumstances of a new culture, and lifestyle, to them. Then there’s also the point that symbionts talk to other, possible, soon-to-be symbionts. This occurs between Brooke and Wright. Brooke states, “Iosif told me what would happen if I accepted him, that I would become addicted and need him. That I would have to obey. That if he died, I might die . . . But he told me all that. Then he asked me to come to him anyway, to accept him and stay with him because I could live for maybe two hundred years and be healthy and look and feel young, and because he wanted me and needed me. I wasn’t hooked when he asked. He’d only bitten me a couple of times. I could have walked away – or run like hell” (Butler 161).

“I would become addicted” – the implication here being that she is not yet, and that she is in less of a precarious state of influence, and sound of mind in both this conversation and understanding. If you still question the soundness of Brooke’s mind in this conversation, go back. She states “I wasn’t hooked yet”. Readers run the risk of undermining character agency with the implication that they do not know, nor comprehend their actions. If we do this, then we also run into the problem of which characters we can and cannot trust. Seeing as there aren’t a wide range of characters that we consistently deal with throughout the novel, undermining character agency may not be the wisest course of action because we rely on them for information. Symbionts like Brooke do.

Tearing the prior quote apart, Brooke lays down the foundation of her symbiotic relationship with Iosif. Their relationship is built on a mutual understanding. And for those who argue that you cannot truly understand it until it occurs or happens to you, you would be right. But both the Ina and human symbiont speak from an intellectual understanding, rather than a experiential one, because neither of them have been a symbiont yet. But both operate with the comprehension that, “We protect and feed you, and you protect and feed us. That’s the way an Ina-and-symbiont household works, or that’s the way it should work” (177), as Brooke states.

However, one cannot speak for all, as Brooke acknowledges in the aforementioned quote, with the implication of the word “should”. Someone in class suggested that to look at specific examples of Ina-human interactions was not acceptable, and that we needed to look at the big picture. But that runs the risk of generalizations, which that person argued for. You cannot generalize a whole culture and population. Readers see that there are different lifestyles and different ways in how all Ina treat symbionts – that is a more acceptable and modified generalization because it accounts for possibilities, rather than a definitive action and thought for all. But one clan cannot speak for all. The violent ways of the Silk clan do not parallel to how the Gordans treat symbionts in their community. Generalizations are not acceptable, and therefore readers are forced to rely on specific examples for assertions such as this. The risk also run when using generalizations, is that morals become involved in the mix.

This leads me to this last idea to spin around: morals don’t have a place in needs. Morals are for people who are privileged, who can afford to do more than just survive, and live beyond their basic needs. Morals play into this because of the power differences that can lead to inequality in a mutually symbiotic relationship. The Ina have developed a society in which they can live comfortably and have both needs and wants met without trouble. However, the book plunges into a state of war that reverts people back to focusing on their needs, and doing what they must to survive, for both Ina and humans alike, which is something to bear in mind as we finish this novel.


For clarification, in relation to the last paragraph: I am not aiming to argue that morals and survival are not intertwined, or that the ends justify the means. That is not my intention. My intention is to draw attention to the idea that when we talk about morals and ethics, it is difficult to place our views on other cultures and people because of cultural, historical and other differences. But to view this novel through lens of moral superiority is to illustrate a failure to attempt in understanding a different means of life, one that operates within different boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable, but arguably places a greater emphasis on consent when our culture fails to do so.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.