Octavia E. Butler was one of a small handful of African American SF authors back in the 1970s, an era when SF was often whiter than a collection of things that are very, very white. Butler’s stories often focused on people doing their best from a position of profound weakness, striving despite slavery, apocalypse or worse. This example of her work won the 1984 Nebula Award for Best Novelette, the 1985 Hugo Award for Best Novelette, the 1985 Locus Award for Best Novelette and the 1985 Science Fiction Chronicle Award for Best Novelette.
Overall, I found this story creepy, disturbing and disconcerting, but I can’t quite put my finger on why. Maybe it’s that the aliens remind me of giant, lithe, fleshy centipedes. Or maybe the armbands on the Terrans remind me of concentration camps.
I kept thinking the narrator was female, maybe because the most developed and prominent characters are female, or because the narrator’s experiences are a lot more like typical female experiences. He has his body assessed and commented upon and is valued for looking a certain way. He’s going to grow up to be in service to someone else, and the best that he can hope for is the has a good master, and he sacrifices himself for his family. This is the repeated story of women sold and/or married to powerful families to make advantageous political ties. Adding to that, Gan is the method by which his owner reproduces, making it even more resonant of female experience.
At a basic level, the story asks a common question: if a cage is nice (nicer even than the outside world), is it worth it? Many humans value freedom, and we have many highly individualistic cultures worldwide that would refuse golden handcuffs. But these Terrans were persecuted by other humans and fled to something better. The question remains: was it worth it? Or will these humans do like others in human history and revolt against enslavement?
Perhaps what’s most distressing of all is the idea that persecution and enslavement will never end. That even after millenia, there will always be people attacked and enslaved — that morals do not progress and develop over time. But I hope humans do get better over time.
Octavia Butler has been on my to read list since I started reading more science fiction, so I was excited to read this story. I didn’t really understand a lot of what was going on in the first half, and it frankly reminded me why I don’t really read SF with fantastical elements. There’s a lot of stuff about eggs and stinging and hatching and whatnot that reminded me a little of the Aliens movies. The latter third of the story was stronger for me as the character of Gan watches T’Gatoi perform an implantation and discovers that things aren’t exactly as he was brought up to believe. Oddly enough, I had imagined the character of Gan as a girl for some reason, but the Wikipedia entry about this story says that Gan is a boy. So I missed something somewhere, but it doesn’t change the strength of Butler’s allegory for me at all. Although I suppose it does make me realize that Butler flipped the script by having the male character be the host in this case. The concluding discussion between Gan and T’Gatoi reveals that Gan’s decision to save his sister from being a host, so I guess the gender of a host ultimately doesn’t matter. Throughout this story I also felt like I was missing something, as if these characters were part of a larger story and knowing other details about their lives would help. Perhaps that was Butler’s intention: to drop the reader into the middle of this alternate reality. I didn’t really connect with this story necessarily, but I’m glad to have read it and to have a sense of Butler’s command of language. She was a master in that regard. I didn’t have trouble imagining anything that she wrote about in Bloodchild, even if I couldn’t really make sense of it, and that’s definitely a testament to her ability as a writer.
Well, that was horrifying. The Tlic I imagined as looking a lot like the giant centipedes here on earth (i.e. Scolopendra gigantea) but even bigger. And the parasitic angle was even more upsetting.
I considered rooting for an armed insurrection by the Terrans, but then again they are the interlopers and have no inherent right to the planet they are on. First contact can’t all be Columbus landing on Hispaniola, sometimes it’s going to go differently.
Two things come to mind after reading this story. First is that I recall reading about how human reproduction is kind of adversarial between the mother and the fetus, which is why periods and all that bleeding are even a thing. Human reproduction is much more parasitic in nature than for most other mammals.
Second thing is that it is interesting to think about what kind of morality would develop in obligate parasites. Nobody really sets out to develop a moral code that doesn’t allow your people to exist, I don’t think. I don’t know what kind of moral system the original Terran colonists adhered to, but it probably has some conflicts with the Tlic system which lead to events like this story. Thinking more on it, I’m actually sure that with some more time and effort the Terran and Tlic morality could be reconciled. Actually the Terran moral code could be shifted enough to allow Tlic parasitization as a part of life, just like some moral codes in our world accept and even expect constant childbearing after a certain age even with the increased risk of death. It might be abhorrent to think about from this societal standpoint, but it could be done.
I took issue with the coercion going on, threatening Gan’s siblings if he won’t comply. It shows that even though a system could be constructed where parasitization is morally acceptable to all parties, at the time of the story it is not consensual at all. It is always forced by the Tlic, who will not countenance holding off on reproduction just because a host is unwilling or not fully informed.
Verdict: gave me the creeps, made me think.
My expectations for this story were high going in. I’ve never read anything by Octavia Butler before, but I’ve seen many people recommend her stories.
There is a lot I like about this story. I like how the world building is complete enough to give a sense of the world these the characters inhabit, but that the characters are the focus of the story, and how the situation they live in and the events of the story impact their lives and relationships. I really liked how the story is told, with the details being presented a bit at a time.
This story did not feel dated to me. I think the lack of focus on the details of technology helped it age better, and the way it handled characterization and relationships feels more in line with the modern speculative fiction short stories that I enjoy.
Unfortunately I only enjoyed the story up until the point where it revealed why the Tlic needed humans. I can’t really handle any kind of body-horror (or any other kind of horror, really), so this was definitely not a story suited for me.
I appreciate this story, despite it not being something I can enjoy. I would happily recommend it to someone who likes horror.