If there is one thing that Ms. Butler excels at–spoiler, there are many things that she excels at–it is creating absolutely untenable situations for her characters and then making them even worse. I’m always grimly impressed by how creative she can be when trying to make her characters miserable.
Enter today’s story. I read Bloodchild by Octavia Butler in the Foundations of Fear anthology.
Not everyone I’ve talked to classifies it as horror, but it would be a horror story for me if I was in the middle of it, so let that be that. (Please.)
I don’t want to give too much away in such a short story, but here are the broad strokes.
On an alien planet, the humans (Terrans) are pretty-much-enslaved by an alien race called the Tlic. The Tlic are weird insectoid creatures that are big, strong, and control the planet. However, in order for them to survive, they have to implant their eggs in humans, then extract them later on. The “birth” witnessed by Gan (a male), the protagonist, is…unpleasant.
What’s in it for the humans? Well, they can’t really do anything to stop the Tlic, but this is not a straightforward story of oppression or slavery. The Tlic eggs make the humans feel euphoric, as if pleasantly drugged, and they prolong their lives.
This produces a very interesting dynamic where each part is somewhat invested in cultivating relationships that aren’t completely hostile. The Tlic could simply dominate the humans, but they don’t. It’s easier if they don’t have to. So you have this weird situation where you live with giant insect things that are one day going to implant you with their eggs and make you carry them to term.
But they don’t want you to hate them for it. But if you did hate them, they’d probably do it anyway because it is the key to their survival.
Michael C. Drout mentions that when he teaches Bloodchild in college, he waits until all of the students have read it before asking “Does your perspective change at all once you know that Octavia Butler was black?”
Further, he states that it is stories like Bloodchild that make it possible to have certain touchy (a gross euphemism in this case) conversations with science fiction that might not be as easy or possible in a class.
I can see that. I took an African American fiction class once. We read a lot of Toni Morrison. There were some pretty ugly, intense discussions. This was not a bad thing, but I wouldn’t predict that the debates always accomplished exactly what the professor intended. I could be wrong.
The point is that Drout believes it’s possible to get effectively examine Big Issues in science fiction in ways that it might not be in more realistic literature.
Regardless of whether you or I agree with that, I hope you’ll give Bloodchild a try. A truly memorable story with a message. And giant insect aliens.
Is this intense, comprehensive, trenchant literary criticism? It is not. But I enjoyed reading the story and I think you ought to give it a try.
And if you’re a fan of this one, you might enjoy this list of African American fiction books that I’m compiling.
The Modern Scholar–From Here to Infinity: An Exploration of Science Fiction by Michael C. Drout.