Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #72 of 107: “Bloodchild” by Octavia E. Butler

I’ve been waiting months for us to get to “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler. It’s the #1 story on our Classics of Short Science Fiction list. It has 18 citations that remember it over the last 35+ years. I’ve read “Bloodchild” three times now, and it is a great story. But I keep asking, “Why is it great?” What ingredients did Butler use to cook up such a tale?

The first time I read “Bloodchild” I assumed it was about slavery. I partly assumed that because Butler is African-American, but Butler herself assures us it’s not in her afterward to the story in her collection Bloodchild and Other Stories.

IT AMAZES ME THAT some people have seen “Bloodchild” as a story of slavery. It isn’t. It’s a number of other things, though. On one level, it’s a love story between two very different beings. On another, it’s a coming-of-age story in which a boy must absorb disturbing information and use it to make a decision that will affect the rest of his life. 

On a third level, “Bloodchild” is my pregnant man story. I’ve always wanted to explore what it might be like for a man to be put into that most unlikely of all positions. Could I write a story in which a man chose to become pregnant not through some sort of misplaced competitiveness to prove that a man could do anything a woman could do, not because he was forced to, not even out of curiosity? I wanted to see whether I could write a dramatic story of a man becoming pregnant as an act of love—choosing pregnancy in spite of as well as because of surrounding difficulties. 

Also, “Bloodchild” was my effort to ease an old fear of mine. I was going to travel to the Peruvian Amazon to do research for my Xenogenesis books (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago), and I worried about my possible reactions to some of the insect life of the area. In particular, I worried about the botfly—an insect with, what seemed to me then, horror-movie habits. There was no shortage of botflies in the part of Peru that I intended to visit.

Butler, Octavia E.. Bloodchild: And Other Stories (p. 30). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition. 

This morning, as I reread the story, I tried to observe myself reading it. First of all, it succeeds because it’s compelling. “Bloodchild” draws us in immediately. It has page-turning power. Partly, that’s the vivid writing, but partly it’s the horrifying details. We’re watching a trainwreck we can’t turn away from. I’ve commented quite often how the VanderMeers keep picking science fiction horror stories, and this is another one. How many readers find the horrific a stimulus to keep reading?

I don’t like horror as a genre, but I have to admit that many of the stories I love involve elements of the gross, the ugly, the terrifying, the depressing, etc. Reading “Bloodchild” again makes me ask myself: “What makes me love science fiction?” Always before, the quick answer was science fiction was about things I wanted from the future. There is no path in “Bloodchild” I’d want to follow. Then, why do I admire it so much?

The setting of the story is another world, and I love stories about humans colonizing alien planets. I also love stories about aliens. However, these aliens are pretty damn strange. They are three meters long and insect-like. They lay their eggs in host animals, but at the time the humans arrive at their planet, their eggs, are beginning to fail in the local host animals. Humans then develop a symbiotic relationship with the Tlic, becoming the new hosts. The Tlic prefer human males, thus allowing human females to focus on producing more humans.

Gan, a teen boy, is our point-of-view character, and as the story progresses, we learn about his future as a host, and what it means to become a host. This is why when I first read the story I thought it was symbolic of slavery, but it’s not. It’s about a new kind of relationship, a new kind of love, a new kind of obligation.

Men have always wondered how women could choose to become mothers knowing all the pain they will suffer. Like Butler says, this is her pregnant man story. She is giving us a story that answers the question, “Why would you give birth knowing the pain involve?” The story is even more complicated than that. On a science-fictional level, it asks, “What would you do to survive on another planet?” and “How far would you go to develop a relationship with another intelligent alien species?”

As a kid growing up I read science fiction because I wanted to become a Mars colonist. In 1964 I didn’t expect that to be much of a sacrifice. But in 2022, I know living on Mars would involve a tremendous price in suffering. Maybe “Bloodchild” is a symbolic lesson in the cost of our SF dreams? Or maybe, it’s merely Butler imagining a very exotic situation.

One of the most important aspects of a great work of science fiction is imagining something very strange and different. That involves creating a lot of details to paint such a picture. “Bloodchild” is dense with such details.

This leaves me wondering. Are my favorite stories about characters living lives I envy, or just living fascinating lives? As a teen in the 1960s, I loved Heinlein’s juveniles because I wanted to trade my mundane existence with his characters leading exciting science-fictional lives. Can I say I’d never want to exchange places with Gan? The only story I can remember from those we’ve read in The Big Book of Science Fiction that I think I’d like to jump into is “The Martian Odyssey.”

The novel I’m listening to when I’m not reading these stories is Bewilderment by Richard Powers. It’s about a father struggling with an emotionally disturbed nine-year-old son. The boy keeps having meltdowns because he worries about all the doom and gloom in our future. One technique the father uses to calm his son is to tell stories from his collection of 2,000 paperback science fiction books.

You know what’s scarier than “Bloodchild?” Our future. At what point in our timeline will kids consider “Bloodchild” a positive escape? Is that why we read science fiction now? Is any world better than this one? Even Gan’s world?

Update: 1/10/22

My comment to the group:

Whenever I read this story I'm horrified by what Gan and the other males have to go through. It's pretty awful. But then I've been thinking, is it any worse than what women have to go through when having a baby? I've been thinking about that ever since I read that Butler called this her pregnant man story. When I first read "Bloodchild" years ago I tried to interpret it in terms of slavery. But Butler said it's not about that. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if Butler isn't just giving us a metaphor for women and birth. Then do the Tlic represent men?

James Wallace Harris, 1/9/22

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