Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild swept science fiction awards when it was published in 1984 for its depiction of a terrifying interdependent relationship between a parasitic extra-terrestrial life-form called the Tlic and a colony of humans who escaped earth to live on their planet. In this world, Tlics impregnate male humans with their eggs—which, if they aren’t cut out in time, will fatally poison their human hosts—in order to give birth to their young. The story centers on a young human boy, Gan, living alongside his family within a government preservation, who has been chosen to carry a Tlic named T’Gatoi’s eggs. Yet, when an emergency “birth” needs to be performed on another human by T’Gatoi, Gan witnesses what this ritual truly entails: cutting a human open and ripping out the worms that have hatched from the eggs before they can eat their human hosts. Reeling, Gan confronts T’Gatoi about the severity of the human sacrifice for this ritual—yet, when prompted to designate the task to his sister, he agrees, either for love, sacrifice or futility, to carry T’Gatoi’s eggs.

The central themes of Bloodchild concern immigration, radicalizing traditional gender roles, and colonialization. The tale invites us all to consider what kind of exchanges and sacrifices humans might have to make for—yes, their curiosity to explore the expanse of space—but also in our daily interactions with moral norms and the institutions that uphold them.

When Bloodchild & Other Stories was published, New York Times critic Gerald Jonas wrote, “Where another writer might have wrung drama from the original interspecies confrontation and accommodation, Ms. Butler picks up the thread generations later, in a scene that veers from edgy domesticity into unmentionable horror and ends in what can only be described as triumphal love. It is a fine example of how science fiction, by subverting expectations, can jar us into a new appreciation of familiar truths.”

This awakening to familiar truths is uniquely explored in SUNY scholar Beth McCoy’s essay, “Accept the Risk: Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild and Institutional Power.” As a professor, McCoy makes a practice of reading the short story alongside a Code of Conduct for Students at the university where she teaches, in order to provoke a compelling point at the heart of the text: Should we accept the rules that have been created for us, agree to abide by them, and trust that our institutions have our best interest in mind?

McCoy writes, “It’s really Butler’s insistence that “Bloodchild is a story about “paying the rent” that unsettles student readers the most. They often express this discomfiture by ignoring the insistence altogether and by refusing to consider Butler’s key question: “Who knows what we humans have that others might be willing to take in trade for a livable space that is not our own?” McCoy uses the text of Bloodchild as a tool to discuss this notion of livable space, juxtaposing the contract humans and Tlics have made with the terms humans and institutions enter into around the world.

After all, in Bloodchild, human exploration has put them on a planet where their bodies are found to be the perfect vehicles for birthing Tlics, who were already living on the planet. In order for both species to coexist, an arrangement was decided for humans to fulfill the role of birther, and in return, Tlics must ensure that humans are “protected” in the preserve and aren’t killed during the birthing process. But, of course, questions arise: who created this arrangement, who does it ultimately serve and who is it truly protecting?

McCoy argues that reading Bloodchild alongside standard policies allow students to examine the contracts they enter into with institutions with a new interest. She finds that ensuing conversations always bring up discussions related to control, authority and the nuances that these terms have, proving “an indication of Butler’s ability to productively provoke readers into confronting the fact that—intentionally or not—they refuse even imaginary worlds where people “like” themselves…have, are and will not always and only be in control.”

Bloodchild prompts us to consider the social and political agreements of a completely alien world in a new light: it allows us to newly consider the familiar contracts we all live and abide by as if they were completely foreign to us. It compels us to ask: what am I complicit in? What am I abiding by that doesn’t ultimately serve to protect my wellbeing and future prosperity?

For one example, consider the oft-overlooked consumer contract on every App downloaded from the Apple Store, on each agreement to use the very technological devices that promise to advance us further into the future—what are we all negotiating, trading and sacrificing for “livable space?” Our privacy, our agency, our ability to focus on what we want, when we want to? The gradual erosion of personal freedom and choice?

Butler’s Bloodchild explores alien political realities in order to shine a very real light on the current contracts we are bound by, complicit in and reinforce, begging the question: do these rules truly serve and protect us? Above all, the text is a testament to the unique ability of science fiction to render a future that bears the consequence of under-examining our present reality.

 

Works Cited

  1. Butler, Octavia. Bloodchild and Other Stories, Seven Stories Press, 2005.
  2. Jonas, Gerald. “Science Fiction,” The New York Times. 1995.
  3. McCoy B.A. (2020) “Accept the Risk”: Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” and Institutional Power. In: Japtok M., Jenkins J. (eds) Human Contradictions in Octavia E. Butler’s Work. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-46625-1_5