I read this disturbing science fiction masterpiece in 2006 and it’s stuck with me over the years. It’s a highly effective, bloodcurdling, thoughtful piece of writing from one of sci-fi’s most talented female writers – Octavia Butler (1947-2006).
It took me 12 years to read it again, oddly enough, simply as I don’t tend to re-read many books due to a lack of spare time. It’s for the best, as I get to discover more new writers by not retreading old ground.
For this review, however, I took the plunge back into Bloodchild. I wanted to see if what I experienced as a 21 year old would have the same impact now I’m 33.
First published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine back in 1984, it made its way into book form by 1995 along with a collection of Butler’s other science-fiction stories.
Bloodchild has also made its way into educational texts. At university in Nottingham, it was part of my course. One evening, I sat and read it in a single sitting, growing increasingly uncomfortable as I did so, but enthralled by the high-concept ideas presented.
It was part of the African American series of novels we were reading, meaning it was easy to summarise the short story as an allegory on slavery. However, Butler said:
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.
Another key focus was the dastardly desire to freak out the male population.
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.
Now, it’s only natural this review contain a vast amount of spoilers. It’s a short story, so I cover most of the key developments. If that isn’t a problem, my review includes a large chunk of the text, interspersed with my thematic interpretations of Butler’s ideas.
In basic synopsis form, the story is about a race of insect-like aliens called Tlic and the strange bond they share with a colony of humans (called Terrans) on their planet.
Somewhat similarly to the terrifying Alien franchise, there’s a process of impregnation that’s quite unsettling to consider – I’ll get to that soon enough.
The protagonist, of sorts, is Gan – he’s also our narrator. This boy is part of the Terrans, who left Earth looking for a life free from an unexplained persecution.
Having formed a strange partnership with the Tlic, a species facing extinction, Gan is forced to consider his rather precarious role in the future of this insect-like species.
Symbiosis is a central theme. What becomes apparent from the off is some of the human émigrés aren’t exactly delighted with this situation.
My last night of childhood began with a visit home. T’Gatoi’s sister had given us two sterile eggs. T’Gatoi gave one to my mother, brother, and sisters. She insisted that I eat the other one alone. It didn’t matter. There was still enough to leave everyone feeling good. Almost everyone. My mother wouldn’t take any. She sat, watching everyone drifting and dreaming without her. Most of the time she watched me.
At this stage, Gan is naive to the full extent of what awaits him. This innocent lad thinks the world of the Tlic and has no issue with his intended role for them.
T’Gatoi promptly barges into their property and expects some “me” time, kind of like how a cat expects to be petted. It’s clear who the dominant species is, despite there apparently being equality in the air.
I lay against T’Gatoi’s long, velvet underside, sipping from my egg now and then, wondering why my mother denied herself such a harmless pleasure.
Gan is so enthralled with the Tlic, he even believes his mother, Lien, is being a bit miserable about all of this. He ponders over what the matter is.
Less of her hair would be gray if she indulged now and then.
He goes on to reveal his father “lived more than twice as long as he should have” thanks to indulging in the eggs. Straight up, then, we’re seeing how the Tlic help humans to prolong their live, so the two species are sharing tricks of the trade to further their existence.
But my mother seemed content to age before she had to. I saw her turn away as several of T’Gatoi’s limbs secured me closer. T’Gatoi liked our body heat and took advantage of it whenever she could. When I was little and at home more, my mother used to try to tell me how to behave with T’Gatoi – how to be respectful and always obedient because T’Gatoi was the Tlic government official in charge of the Preserve, and thus the most important of her kind to deal directly with Terrans. It was an honour, my mother said, that such a person had chosen to come into the family.
Lien isn’t exactly being sincere with that statement.
My mother was at her most formal and severe when she was lying.
But the insect-like creatures are quite accommodating, despite their habit of invading peoples’ homes. They are, at least, aware of how humans often expect privacy.
T’Gatoi and my mother had been friends all my mother’s life, and T’Gatoi was not interested in being honoured in the house she considered her second home. She simply came in, climbed onto one of her special couches, and called me over to keep her warm. It was impossible to be formal with her while lying against her and hearing her complain as usual that I was too skinny.
T’Gatoi is insistent Lien eats an eggs, but Lien is still being obstinate. As pesky humans can be. It’s revealed these things have an intoxicating effect on humans, loosening their tongues and relaxing them out (as well as prolonging their lives).
‘The eggs are for the children,’ my mother said. ‘They are for the family. Please take it.’ Unwillingly obedient, my mother took it from me and put it to her mouth. There were only a few drops left in the now-shrunken, elastic shell, but she squeezed them out, swallowed them, and after a few moments some of the lines of tension began to smooth from her face.
T’Gatoi shows some degree of concern for her friend.
‘You should take more,’ T’Gatoi said. ‘Why are you in such a hurry to be old?’
The insinuation could be Lien doesn’t want to live a longer life. Is she frightened of the Tlic? Is she sick of her status in their society? The humans, after all, do have an unsettling purpose to fulfill. But even on this planet, politics is playing its part and interfering with biological matters.
T’Gatoi was hounded on the outside. Her people wanted more of us made available. Only she and her political faction stood between us and the hordes who did not understand why there was a Preserve – why any Terran could not be courted, paid, drafted, in some way made available to them. Or they did understand, but in their desperation, they did not care.
But the humans have been able to work out their place in this alien society. They are a commodity – an exceptional one at that.
Thus, we were necessities, status symbols, and an independent people. She oversaw the joining of families, putting an end to the final remnants of the earlier system of breaking up Terran families to suit impatient Tlic. I had lived outside with her. I had seen the desperate eagerness in the way some people looked at me. It was a little frightening to know that only she stood between us and that desperation that could so easily swallow us. My mother would look at her sometimes and say to me, ‘Take care of her.’ And I would remember that she too had been outside, had seen.
The full nature of Terrans (humans, if you will) in this society is left unrevealed. We get a mere glimpse into this alien landscape and want to know more, but we’re sadly left with a few tantalising glances.
There’s the uncomfortable consideration of humans being farmed, or used as pets. With our position on Earth, as the leading species we so proudly consider ourselves to be, it’s intrinsically disturbing to think of humans as inferior, weak, or obedient to another species.
Humans would react with hostility towards such an attempt to quell us, but in Butler’s world these émigrés have accepted it. With some reservations.
[Lien] lay down now against T’Gatoi, and the whole left row of T’Gatoi’s limbs closed around her, holding her loosely, but securely. I had always found it comfortable to lie that way, but except for my older sister, no one else in the family liked it. They said it made them feel caged.
T’Gatoi meant to cage my mother. Once she had, she moved her tall slightly, then spoke. ‘Not enough egg, Lien. You should have taken it when it was passed to you. You need it badly now.’ T’Gatoi’s tail moved once more, its whip motion so swift I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t been watching for it. Her sting drew only a single drop of blood from my mother’s bare leg. My mother cried out – probably in surprise. Being stung doesn’t hurt. Then she sighed and I could see her body relax. She moved languidly into a more comfortable position within the cage of T’Gatoi’s limbs. ‘Why did you do that?’ she asked, sounding half asleep. ‘I could not watch you sitting and suffering any longer.’ My mother managed to move her shoulders in a small shrug.
It’s then revealed what Lien’s issue is – a motherly sense of animosity.
‘He’s still mine, you know,’ my mother said suddenly. ‘Nothing can buy him. from me.’ Sober, she would not have permitted herself to refer to such things.
In reference to the “sober” issue, again, the eggs have an intoxicating effect. The question is whether this longer life is worthwhile when there’s a peculiar symbiotic relationship at play.
This is challenged later in the story when the uncomfortable situation rears itself to the full, but these quieter moments represent a sense of domesticity on an alien planet. But Lien isn’t happy, even if the others apparently are.
‘Did you think I would sell him for eggs? For long life? My son?’ – ‘Not for anything,’ T’Gatoi said, stroking my mother’s shoulders, toying with her long, graying hair.
I would like to have touched my mother, shared that moment with her. She would take my hand if I touched her now. Freed by the egg and the sting, she would smile and perhaps say things long held in. But tomorrow, she would remember all this as a humiliation. I did not want to be part of a remembered humiliation. Best just be still and know she loved me under all the duty and pride and pain.
Despite some animosity, it’s revealed Lien and T’Gatoi are old friends with a lifetime of shared experiences between them.
My mother made a wordless sound of annoyance. ‘I should have stepped on you when you were small enough,’ she muttered.
It was an old joke between them. They had grown up together, sort of, though T’Gatoi had not, in my mother’s lifetime, been small enough for any Terran to step on. She was nearly three time my mother’s present age, yet would still be young when my mother died of age. But T’Gatoi and my mother had met as T’Gatoi was coming into a period of rapid development – a kind of adolescence. My mother was only a child, but for a while they developed at the same rate and had no better friends than each other.
T’Gatoi even introduced Lien to her eventual husband. Worth bearing in mind, women of the world, should an intergalactic species one day invade the planet – you may meet your future beau thanks to an alien being 100 million light years away.
This, however, is where the central focus of Butler’s story comes to the fore. The Tlic use humans as a reproductive tool. In this alien society, it’s been structured so the Preserve offers émigrés a place to live in relative safety.
But, they’re there for a reason – the Tlic might not be so accommodating if humans weren’t so ideal for their reproductive needs.
T’Gatoi’s benevolent and measured presence permeates throughout Bloodchild. She is the only Tlic we get to know – she’s intelligent, forthright, and has clearly done her bit to keep the humans safe. She’s also in a position of some power, having maintained some semblance of peace between the two species.
T’Gatoi [had] traveled and increased her influence. The Preserve was hers by the time she came back to my mother to collect what she probably saw as her just reward for her hard work. My older sister took an instant liking to her and wanted to be chosen, but my mother was just coming to terms with me and T’Gatoi liked the idea of choosing an infant and watching and taking part in all the phases of development. I’m told I was first caged within T’Gatoi’s many limbs only three minutes after my birth. A few days later, I was given my first taste of egg. I tell Terrans that when they ask whether I was ever afraid of her.
Gan clearly has nothing but empathy here. He’s a new generation now fully immersed into this lifestyle – he has no issue with his lot. He’s even frustrated by his family members not throwing their support behind the Tlic.
Even my brother who had somehow grown up to fear and distrust the Tlic could probably have gone smoothly into one of their families if he had been adopted early enough.
‘Lien, can you stand up?’ T’Gatoi asked suddenly. ‘Stand?’ my mother said. ‘I thought I was going to sleep.’ – ‘Later. Something sounds wrong outside.’ The cage was abruptly gone. ‘What?’ – ‘Up, Lien!’
My mother recognised her tone and got up just in time to avoid being dumped on the floor. T’Gatoi whipped her three meters of body off her couch, toward the door, and out at full speed. She had bones – ribs, a long spine, a skull, four sets of limb bones per segment. But when she moved that way, twisting, hurling herself into controlled falls, landing running, she seemed not only boneless, but aquatic – something swimming through the air as though it were water. I loved watching her move.
This commotion is due to the arrival of a pretty hideous situation. Gan is ordered to hold the door open and keep his family members back – T’Gatoi carries an unconscious man past him. Gan is uncertain about what’s going on.
‘Gan, go to the call box,’ she said. She put the man on the floor and began stripping off his clothing. I did not move. After a moment, she looked up at me, her sudden stillness a sign of deep impatience. ‘Send Qui,’ I told her. ‘I’ll stay here. Maybe I can help.’ She let her limbs begin to move again, lifting the man and pulling his shirt over his head. ‘You don’t want to see this,’ she said. ‘It will be hard. I can’t help this man the way his Tlic could.’
Things are about to get distressing for naive young Gan. It’s a moment that triggers off Bloodchild in a new direction, where his place in this alien society becomes uncertain.
T’Gatoi removed the man’s shoes, then his pants, all the while leaving him two of her limbs to grip. Except for the final few, all her limbs were equally dexterous. ‘I want no argument from you this time, Gan,’ she said. I straightened. ‘What shall I do?’ – ‘Go out and slaughter an animal that is at least half your size.” Slaughter? But I’ve never…’ She knocked me across the room. Her tail was an efficient weapon whether she exposed the sting or not.
Whilst Gan deliberates on how to slaughter one of the alien animals, such as an achti (“Some of those were the right size, though they had about three times as many teeth as I did and a real love of using them”), we’re introduced to a bit of political backstory.
Firearms were illegal in the Preserve. There had been incidents right after the Preserve was established – Terrans shooting Tlic, shooting N’Tlic. This was before the joining of families began, before everyone had a personal stake in keeping the peace. No one had shot a Tlic in my lifetime or my mother’s, but the law still stood – for our protection, we were told. There were stories of whole Terran families wiped out in reprisal back during the assassinations.
Gan then rushes off to gun down an achti. He does this, but is nervous about what is about to happen with Lomas.
For several seconds, I stood in front of the closed door wondering why I was suddenly afraid. I knew what was going to happen. I hadn’t seen it before but T’Gatoi had shown me diagrams and drawings. She had made sure I knew the truth as soon as I was old enough to understand it.
T’Gatoi then calls out for Gan to assist her. Trembling in fear, and ashamed for it, he pushes through into the room. Slitting the creature open, she then moves to calm the now, very much, awake and aware man.
T’Gatoi glanced at me, then placed a claw against his abdomen slightly to the right of the middle, just below the left rib. There was movement on the right side – tiny, seemingly random pulsations moving his brown flesh, creating a concavity here, a convexity there, over and over until I could see the rhythm of it and knew where the next pulse would be.
Bearing in mind, of course, this is the birth process Gan will be going through in future with T’Gatoi. What is happening is the impregnation gone wrong, an agonising development that can’t really be controlled.
Lomas’ entire body stiffened under T’Gatoi’s claw, though she merely rested it against him as she wound the rear section of her body around his legs. He might break my grip, but he would not break hers. He wept helplessly as she used his pants to tie his hands, then pushed his hands above his head so that I could kneel on the cloth between them and pin them in place. She rolled up his shirt and gave it to him to bite down on.
The idea is to get the “grubs” out of him, but this will involve plenty more pain. This next section contains quite a lot of gore, incidentally, so if that isn’t your thing then maybe go and read 50 Shades of Grey, or something.
And she opened him. His body convulsed with the first cut. He almost tore himself away from me. The sound he made… I had never heard such sounds come from anything human. T’Gatoi seemed to pay no attention as she lengthened and deepened the cut, now and then pausing to lick away blood. His blood vessels contracted, reacting to the chemistry of her saliva, and the bleeding slowed.
I felt as though I were helping her torture him, helping her consume him. I knew I would vomit soon, didn’t know why I hadn’t already. I couldn’t possibly last until she was finished. She found the first grub. It was fat and deep red with his blood – both inside and out. It had already eaten its own egg case but apparently had not yet begun to eat its host. At this stage, it would eat any flesh except its mother’s. Let alone, it would have gone on excreting the poisons that had both sickened and alerted Lomas. Eventually it would have begun to eat. By the time it ate its way out of Lomas’s flesh, Lomas would be dead or dying – and unable to take revenge on the thing that was killing him. There was always a grace period between the time the host sickened and the time the grubs began to eat him.
T’Gatoi picked up the writhing grub carefully and looked at it, somehow ignoring the terrible groans of the man.
Lomas passes out, as you’d expect, and T’Gatoi remarks “Good” as well as, “I wish you Terrans could do that at will.” She’s right, of course, it would be a useful skill. Gan, however, is more concerned with her lack of feelings in this situation.
She felt nothing. And the thing she held… it was limbless and boneless at this stage, perhaps fifteen centimetres long and two thick, blind and slimy with blood. It was like a large worm. TGatoi put it into the belly of the achti, and it began at once to burrow. It would stay there and eat as long as there was anything to eat.
He reveals more about the Tlic. Animalistic actions he finds are alienating him from his former sycophancy.
Probing through Lomas’s flesh, she found two more, one of them smaller and more vigorous. ‘A male!’ she said happily. He would be dead before I would. He would be through his metamorphosis and screwing everything that would hold still before his sisters even had limbs. He was the only one to make a serious effort to bite T’Gatoi as she placed him in the achti.
He’s, naturally, feeling a bit nauseous at this demonstration of human, and alien, anatomy.
Paler worms oozed to visibility in Lomas’s flesh. I closed my eyes. It was worse than finding something dead, rotting, and filled with tiny animal grubs. And it was far worse than any drawing or diagram.
Gan is mortified. He is already questioning the nature of this ritual.
I had been told all my life that this was a good and necessary thing the Terran and Terran did together – a kind of birth. I had believed it until now. I knew birth was painful and bloody, no matter what. But this was something else, something worse. And I wasn’t ready to see it. Maybe I never would be. Yet I couldn’t not
see it. Closing my eyes didn’t help.
He’s also shocked by T’Gatoi, for the first time viewing her as an alien species. “I wouldn’t have thought anything about her could seem alien to me”, he thinks.
In the meantime, she tells him to go outside and “empty your stomach”. For his part: “I staggered out, barely made it.” Vomiting and crying at once, his naivety is gone.
Every time I closed my eyes I saw red worms crawling over redder human flesh.
A Tlic doctor arrives on the scene in a car (humans are forbidden from driving them), having been fetched by Gan’s brother Qui. The doctor, T’Khotgif Teh, is purely interested in the births, whilst Qui finds his younger brother in quite a state.
The Tlic driver surged out of her car, reared up half her length before me. She was paler and smaller than T’Gatoi – probably born from the body of an animal. The Tlic born from Terran bodies were always larger as well as more numerous. ‘Six young,’ I told her. ‘Maybe seven, all alive. At least one male.’ – ‘Lomas?’ she said harshly. I liked her for the question and the concern in her voice when she asked it. The last coherent thing he had said was her name. ‘He’s alive,’ I said. She surged away to the house without another word.
The siblings share a bitter moment together. Qui remonstrates with Gan.
‘Finally found out more than you wanted to know, eh?’ I looked at him. ‘Don’t give me one of her looks,’ he said. ‘You’re not her. You’re just her property.’ One of her looks. Had I picked up even an ability to imitate her expressions?
It transpires these two had been friends as children, but adolescence had taken all of that away. Qui is now a headstrong young man and it’s obvious he doesn’t trust the Tlic. It’s a tipping point for the story – will Gan rebel?
Having seen such horror, would he plunge himself into such agony for the species claiming to treat Terrans as equals? Qui levels a basic, if slightly skewed, truth at him.
‘So now you know what you’re in for.’
They discuss Lomas and what they’d do in his situation.
‘Did he say anything?’ Qui asked. ‘Lomas, I mean.’ – Who else would he mean? ‘He said ‘T’Khotgif.’’ Qui shuddered. ‘If she had done that to me, she’d be the last person I’d call for.’ – ‘You’d call for her. Her sting would ease your pain without killing the grubs in you.’ – ‘You think I’d care if they died?’ No. Of course he wouldn’t. Would I? ‘Shit!’ He drew a deep breath. ‘I’ve seen what they do. You think this thing with Lomas was bad? It was nothing.’
Gan doesn’t respond, but Qui is determined to get to his younger brother.
‘I saw them eat a man,’ he said.
This provokes an angry reaction – the two bicker.
‘It was when I was little. I had been to the Hartmund house and I was on my way home. Halfway here, I saw a man and a Tlic, and the man was N’Tlic. The ground was hilly. I was able to hide from them and watch. The Tlic wouldn’t open the man because she had nothing to feed the grubs. The man couldn’t go any further and there were no houses around. He was in so much pain, he told her to kill him. He begged her to kill him. Finally, she did. She cut his throat. One swipe of one claw. I saw the grubs eat their way out, then burrow in again, still eating.’
Gan is shell-shocked.
His words made me see Lomas’s flesh again, parasitised, crawling. ‘Why didn’t you tell me that?’ I whispered. He looked startled as though he’d forgotten I was listening. ‘I don’t know.’
A brief aside here as Bloodchild doesn’t have any chapters. For a minor break from the story, and for a bit of grisly fun and frivolity, let’s take a look into the fantastical world of parasites.
Recently, I reviewed Alien over on my other blog. The facehugger from that landmark series exhibits trademark parasitical behaviour – acquire a host, subdue the host, and perform its duty (in this case, make a break for it from inside Sir John Hurt). What happens next is visceral and terrifying, but not at all far removed from the real world. Parasites from science fiction most certainly are not improbable.
Above is the video for zombie snails, but this is fairly common behaviour for some parasites. Horsehair worms are a curse on the existence of grasshoppers and crickets, for example, often forcing them into suicidal journeys to find water so they’ll get eaten by larger animals. The worm then procures a “proper” host.
Sir David Attenborough is next up for the BBC, examining the lives of bullet ants. These insects are high up the Schmidt sting pain index (developed by entomologist Justin O. Schmidt, who documented the agony induced by insect stings as he kept getting stung by the bloody things whilst researching) – they’re so named as, if bitten by one, it’s like being shot. Even these little gits can’t escape the world of parasites, as you can see above.
There’s also the botfly, which I first came across in 2003 during another BBC documentary. These flies are fairly analogous to what Butler describes in Bloodchild – they drop larvae on a host’s skin and this thing burrows into the flesh (wherever it lands, including human flesh).
It’s pretty grotesque what then develops, but there are efficient ways for removing them from humans and other common hosts, such as cattle, and the whole process can often be benign. It’s just also positively disgusting.
It’s an unpleasant consideration – parasites are typically small and have little trouble making their way into a host, where they then manipulate their way towards their intended goal. Their outlandish capabilities may be frightening to behold, but they do play an essential part in the natural world.
Parasites are generally feared by humans, to the extent we have sayings such as “He’s a parasite”. Some are completely harmless (parasites, I mean, not humans, although some of us are harmless sorts), such as leeches. These were often used by doctors from centuries back as a cure-all.
Despite their inefficiency in being able to take on, for instance, scurvy, they’re still considered something of a blood cleanser and are used by some today in the medical profession. They’re not all bad, is the point I’m trying to make, but they’re always endlessly fascinating. If you can stomach it.
The final stages of Bloodchild deal with Gan’s big decision. He’s still in denial over the nature of his relationship with the dominant species.
‘It’s not supposed to happen that way.’ – ‘Sure it is. You weren’t supposed to see it, that’s all. And his Tlic was supposed to do it. She could sting him unconscious and the operation wouldn’t have been as painful. But she’d still open him, pick out the grubs, and if she missed even one, it would poison him and eat him from the inside out.’
Despite their bitter argument (which briefly involves the pair coming to blows), his brother does finally attempt to console him.
‘Look, it probably won’t be that bad with you. T’Gatoi likes you. She’ll be careful.’
For Gan, there’s only one option – confront her about the nature of the impregnation. He takes himself inside his home and picks up his father’s gun, preparing to put it back into storage.
‘Gan?’ She made a lot of little clicking sounds when she walked on bare floor, each limb clicking in succession as it touched down. Waves of little clicks. She came to the table, raised the front half of her body above it, and surged onto it. Sometimes she moved so smoothly she seemed to flow like water itself. She coiled herself into a small hill in the middle of the table and looked at me. ‘That was bad,’ she said softly. ‘You should not have seen it. It need not be that way.’
It’s revealed, despite his hideous ordeal, Lomas will live. For Gan, this no doubt plays a major part in his decision, although the precarious nature of what he has to do will be more than evident. Gan wonders aloud if Lomas would ever have to give birth again, to which T’Gatoi insists no one would force him to. She does show genuine concern for him, noting a lump from where his brother had lamped him one.
She moved her head slightly. ‘What’s the matter with your face?’ – ‘Nothing. Nothing important.’ Human eyes probably wouldn’t have noticed the swelling in the darkness. The only light was from one of the moons, shining through a window across the room.
Gan is still holding the rifle. She asks him if he intends to shoot her with it. Butler’s writing is exceptionally good here as the pair grapple with the nature of their relationship.
I stared at her, outlined in the moonlight – coiled, graceful body. ‘What does Terran blood taste like to you?’ She said nothing. ‘What are you?’ I whispered. ‘What are we to you?’ She lay still, rested her head on her topmost coil. ‘You know me as no other does,’ she said softly. ‘You must decide.’ – ‘That’s what happened to my face,” I told her. ‘What?’ – ‘Qui goaded me into deciding to do something. It didn’t turn out very well.’ I moved the gun slightly, brought the barrel up diagonally under my own chin. ‘At least it was a decision I made.’ – ‘As this will be.’
Through fear, Gan is finally able to challenge her.
‘Ask me, T’Gatoi.’ – ‘For my children’s lives?’ She would say something like that. She knew how to manipulate people, Terran and Tlic. But not this time. ‘I don’t want to be a host animal,’ I said. ‘Not even yours.’ It took her a long time to answer. ‘We use almost no host animals these days,’ she said. ‘You know that.’ – ‘You use us.’ – ‘We do. We wait long years for you and teach you and join our families to yours.’ She moved restlessly. ‘You know you aren’t animals to us.’ I stared at her, saying nothing.
Gan is in no way obligated to go ahead with the process, but if he doesn’t do it then someone else will have to. It does make you wonder how complicit the Tlic are with a basic drive – furthering their species’ survival at the price of a human life. To what lengths would they go to if the humans refused them?
‘The animals we once used began killing most of our eggs after implantation long before your ancestors arrived,” she said softly. ‘You know these things, Gan. Because your people arrived, we are relearning what it means to be a healthy, thriving people. And your ancestors, fleeing from their homeworld, from their own kind who would have killed or enslaved them – they survived because of us. We saw them as people and gave them the Preserve when they still tried to kill us as worms.’ At the word ‘worms,’ I jumped. I couldn’t help it, and she couldn’t help noticing it. ‘I see,’ she said quietly. ‘Would you really rather die than bear my young, Gan?’ I didn’t answer.
She asks if she should turn to Xuan Hoa, his sister, instead. Gan is vociferously for this, shouting out in a panic in favour. But as she scuttles off, his sense of duty returns and he’s able to overcome his fear.
‘These are adult things, Gan. This is my life, my family!’ – ‘But she’s… my sister.’ – ‘I have done what you demanded. I have asked you!’ – ‘But…’ – ‘It will be easier for Hoa. She has always expected to carry other lives inside her.’
That last line goes back to one of the central premises Butler raised – male pregnancy. It may be unsettling for some men to read the story simply due to that. The very idea of becoming pregnant could utterly freak some male readers out, threaten their masculinity, or whatever else.
As a literary device it’s ingenious, hitting a gender hard in the way Alien, which remains more of a universal visceral assault, doesn’t quite reach. I’m not sure if female readers of the story nod their heads knowingly at all of this, but there must be some sort of vicarious satisfaction in seeing men squirm.
I shook my head. ‘Don’t do it to her, Gatoi.’ I was not Qui. It seemed I could become him, though, with no effort at all. I could make Xuan Hoa my shield. Would it be easier to know that red worms were growing in her flesh instead of mine? ‘Don’t do it to Hoa,’ I repeated. She stared at me, utterly still. I looked away, then back at her. ‘Do it to me.’
It’s a complex decision, then, an acquiescence of sorts in order to support his family, as well as T’Gatoi’s. She attempts to remove the gun still in Gan’s hands, but he has an epihany right there and then.
‘Leave it here!’ I repeated. ‘If we’re not your animals, if these are adult things, accept the risk. There is risk, T’Gatoi, in dealing with a partner.’ It was clearly hard for her to let go of the rifle. A shudder went through her and she made a hissing sound of distress. It occurred to me that she was afraid. She was old enough to have seen what guns could do to people. Now her young and this gun would be together in the same house. She did not know about the other guns. In this dispute, they did not matter.
The awkward nature of the deal is confirmed – these two are, essentially, about to mate. There is acrimony and arguing here, like your standard relationship on Earth.
‘I will implant the first egg tonight,’ she said as I put the gun away. ‘Do you hear, Gan?’ Why else had I been given a whole egg to eat while the rest of the family was left to share one? Why else had my mother kept looking at me as though I were going away from her, going where she could not follow? Did T’Gatoi imagine I hadn’t known? ‘I hear.’
But this is an order – it’s either Gan or his sister. Having just seen the ordeal with Lomas, he’s manned up and will take it on. His commitment to the cause has been challenged, his life is at risk, but he’s asserted what little say he has in the matter and taken charge. Even T’Gatoi doesn’t seem delighted with the development, but it’s procreation – it’s got to happen; motherly instinct rears itself. She’s insistent it has to happen that night – the process begins.
I undressed and lay down beside her. I knew what to do, what to expect. I had been told all my life. I felt the familiar sting, narcotic, mildly pleasant. Then the blind probing of her ovipositor. The puncture was painless, easy. So easy going in. She undulated slowly against me, her muscles forcing the egg from her body into mine. I held on to a pair of her limbs until I remembered Lomas holding her that way. Then I let go, moved inadvertently, and hurt her. She gave a low cry of pain and I expected to be caged at once within her limbs. When I wasn’t, I held on to her again, feeling oddly ashamed.
Gan finally admits his love for T’Gatoi, revealing why he had committed himself to this potentially fatal endeavour.
‘Yes. How could I put my children into the care of one who hates them?’ – ‘It wasn’t… hate.’ – ‘I know what it was.’ – ‘I was afraid.’ Silence. ‘I still am.’ I could admit it to her here, now. But you came to me… to save Hoa.’ – ‘Yes.’ I leaned my forehead against her. She was cool velvet, deceptively soft. ‘And to keep you for myself,’ I said. It was so. I didn’t understand it, but it was so. She made a soft hum of contentment. ‘I couldn’t believe I had made such a mistake with you,’ she said. ‘I chose you. I believed you had grown to choose me.’
What Gan had feared instead turns out to be a surprisingly intimate experience. It’s one that enables him to admit his true feelings – his fears, his love, his frustrations. It’s the same for T’Gatoi, who is concerned about inter-species violence, the future, and her children.
But the tensions of the recent events remain – still impregnating Gan, she brings up the topic of the gun, which she considers to hold the potential to incite riots and wars between the Tlic and humans.
‘You won’t see it again,’ she said. ‘I don’t want you thinking any more about shooting me.’ The small amount of fluid that came into me with her egg relaxed me as completely as a sterile egg would have, so that I could remember the rifle in my hands and my feelings of fear and revulsion, anger and despair. I could remember the feelings without reviving them. I could talk about them. ‘I wouldn’t have shot you,’ I said. ‘Not you.’ She had been taken from my father’s flesh when he was my age. ‘You could have,’ she insisted.
She asks if Gan would have, instead, “destroyed” himself. He responds it was a very real possibility. There’s a moment of affirmation between the two, but it’s the potential for rifts between the two species make for an openended finale.
‘You will live now.’ – ‘Yes.’ Take care of her, my mother used to say. Yes. ‘I’m healthy and young,’ she said. ‘I won’t leave you as Lomas was left – alone, N’Tlic. I’ll take care of you.’
The story ends. In her afterword, Butler concludes with the following, leaving plenty of room for thought on how far humanity is willing to plunge in order to ensure the species continues on its way.
I tried to write a story about paying the rent – a story about an isolated colony of human beings on an inhabited, extrasolar world. At best, they would be a lifetime away from reinforcements. It wouldn’t be the British Empire in space, and it wouldn’t be Star Trek. Sooner or later, the humans would have to make some kind of accommodation with their um… their hosts. Chances are this would be an unusual accommodation. Who knows what we humans have that others might be willing to take in trade for a livable space on a world not our own?
Science fiction seems to have a bad reputation in some literary circles.
It’s as if many writers believe it can’t have the same level of profundity as “normal” fiction or non-fiction. Bloodchild is an example of how the genre can work wonders.
It not only raises disturbing questions about the future of humanity, but it’ll also make you think (particularly if you’re a man) about your human relationships, and the nature of humanity in the world.
I’m not sure if Butler was writing from a environmental activist viewpoint, but Bloodchild can be taken that way as well.
The use of a species to further survival, no matter how violent and fatal the consequences can be (an uncomfortable symbiosis, if you will), is spread throughout human history. Particularly with the arrival of the Agricultural Revolution.
Putting aside the theoretical considerations, this is just an excellent short story. Quite why it’s not been adapted into a film, I don’t know.
Butler, however, deserves continuing respect and appreciation for this alarming, thoughtful, and gritty contribution to the world of literature.