52 Stories #16: “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler

brown and beige wooden barn surrounded with brown grasses under thunderclouds
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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Happy Thursday, readers! I’m (finally) back with another #52Stories selection, this time from sci-fi legend Octavia Butler. This recommendation comes from a friend named Jessica. I’ve never read Butler before, though I have heard her name many times in discussions of great modern sci-fi. This selection comes from a collection called Bloodchild and Other Stories, first published in 1995.

So, does this story live up to the hype? Let’s find out!

The Pitch

On a far-off world, a teenage human refugee faces a terrible but inescapable choice in order to protect his family.

The Pay-off

Ugh. This story.

As I told the friend who recommended it, this one left me shook. Frankly, it felt creepy, especially on a second reading. The idea of humans adrift on an alien world having to be physically “colonized” (think “Alien” but worse) by an insect-like alien race is uncomfortable at best, but adding the relationship/power dynamics and the sexual subtext of egg implantation makes it even more unnerving.

The story is well-written, there’s absolutely no doubt about that. Butler knows what she’s doing. But I wouldn’t recommend this to most readers, and to those who are still interested, I would definitely advise bracing yourself before you dive into this one. Yowsa.

The Takeaways

As this project continues, I’ve been trying to refine my approach, so I’m not just telling you what I liked or didn’t like, but what lessons I’m learning as a writer examining other writers’ work. (If you are finding this helpful, let me know! If you have suggestions for how to do this better, let me know that as well!) Despite my discomfort as a reader, I found some interesting technical elements here.

On to the creepy-crawly bullets!

  • Butler aptly demonstrates the aliens’ language and grammatical structure in her use of names and terms. I was impressed by how well she made it make sense in such a short time. The otherworldy names and terms maintained a linguistic logic, so I was able to make notes of how their naming conventions functioned. That was really well done.
  • The setting was both foreign and yet familiar, a “human” environment set on an alien world, in which any type of story could have been told if it weren’t for the presence of the aliens. This helps the reader visualize the locations well. I had to remind myself that this wasn’t Earth.
  • I’ve become of connoisseur of first lines in short stories. This one stings: “My last night of childhood began with a visit home.” Oof.
  • Butler describes the appearance of the Tlic (sentient beings similar to a snake-centipede hybrid) slowly, over the course of the story. You get “glimpses” as it were, but she doesn’t front-load the story with this description. But the most uncomfortable detail is that the Tlic communicate with and relate to the “Terrans” (Earth-folk) telepathically. There’s a confusing and strange relationship between the Tlic and the Terrans, at times feeling like patron/protege, master/slave, owner/animal, and matriarch/family. But then it changes into something more intimate and horrifying.
  • While there are noble themes like self-sacrifice in this story, the gross sexual subtext spoils the experience for me.
  • What’s most interesting about this experience was actually reading the author’s commentary after the end of the story, in the edition I was reading. I was shocked to find out that, according to Butler, this story is NOT about slavery–even if it seems to be a slam-dunk allegory for it. Instead, she called it a “love story between 2 beings” (gross), a coming-of-age story, and a [SPOILER] pregnant-man story inspired by a real-life insect that lays its eggs in a living host animal. She said she used this story to work out her fears from learning about that last bit. She also called this a story about “paying the rent”–what we would trade for a livable space in a world that’s not our own (which belies an ideological subtext of race-based power inequity, if nothing else). This is a perfect of example of author and reader getting completely different ideas from the same text. Typically, I’m in the camp of the author’s intention being supreme, but this story could be argued as evidence to the contrary.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

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