101 Weird Writers #26 — Octavia Butler

Strange Symbiosis in "Bloodchild"

This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.

octaviabutlerfaceOctavia Butler (1947– 2006) was an American writer who became the first science fiction writer ever to receive the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. At the time, Butler was also one of the only African American women in the science fiction field. In 2010, she was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Butler’s novels include Kindred (1979) and Parable of the Sower (1993). ‘Bloodchild’ (1984) is her most famous story, winning both the Hugo and the Nebula Award for best novelette. Although ‘Bloodchild’ might be the best example of weird science fiction by Butler, she often included horrific elements in her work. Butler wrote the story as a way of overcoming her fear of bot flies. Butler’s birthday was June 22, two days ago; she would have been 66 years old. 101 Weird Writers is honored to present the following appreciation of Butler and her work, as written by returning contributor Sofia Samatar.

 – Adam Mills, editor of 101 Weird Writers

***

1. Torn

Bloodchild” is not about slavery. It’s about symbiosis.

Octavia Butler’s 1984 story, which won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novelette, is narrated by Gan, an adolescent human boy whose family lives with a community of aliens called Tlic. Human beings, or Terrans, are immigrants to the planet: the Tlic allow them to remain because Terrans make excellent incubators for Tlic eggs. The Tlic lay their eggs inside human men, because the process is dangerous, sometimes fatal, to the Terran carriers, and human women are needed to produce more humans.

In the story, Gan becomes fully aware of the role he will play in the Tlic reproductive cycle. “Bloodchild” opens with a scene of near-perfect domestic harmony: Gan and his mother and siblings laugh and chat with T’Gatoi, the three-meter-long, insect-like Tlic who intends one day to lay her eggs inside Gan. Gan is used to T’Gatoi: he’s comfortable with her, and he loves her. We see him cradled against her body, sipping on a sterile egg: the eggs make humans mildly high, and give them increased energy and longer lives. As for T’Gatoi, she enjoys Gan’s body heat. She is also able to lull humans into a deep state of relaxation with her stinger. Terrans and Tlic seem made for each other. Yet a sense of unease haunts even the early pages of “Bloodchild.” Part of it comes from the fact that a giant insect who loves you is even creepier than a giant insect who wants to kill you, and part of it comes from the inexplicable unhappiness of Gan’s mother and older brother, and part of it comes from emerging hints about the political climate of Gan’s planet. We learn that Gan and the other Terrans live on a Preserve, to protect them from Tlic who are desperate for living incubators. We learn that Terrans and Tlic were once at war.

The unease becomes full-blown horror when Gan sees a man being devoured from the inside by Tlic grubs. But horror is not the primary effect of “Bloodchild.” The story melds love and revulsion into a single nameless emotion, a feeling as frightening and intoxicating as the touch of T’Gatoi’s stinger. This emotional resonance brings “Bloodchild” into the territory of the weird: because Butler never resolves the tensions she creates, the reader of “Bloodchild” is left with an experience of the impossible, in whose afterglow certain aspects of our lives can be seen more clearly.

It amazes me,” Butler writes in the afterword to the story in her 1995 collection, Bloodchild and Other Stories, “that some people have seen ‘Bloodchild’ as a story of slavery” (30). It’s an interpretation she consistently resisted: “Bloodchild” is about love, symbiosis, male pregnancy, and botflies, but not slavery. I am torn about Butler’s resistance. On the one hand, I respect her account of the story’s development, and acknowledge that works by black writers are often too heavily interpreted through the lens of race. On the other hand, there is something decidedly colonial about the society depicted in “Bloodchild.” Terrans have no political voice: they depend on T’Gatoi, a well-meaning Tlic, to plead their case with the wider Tlic community. The Terran “Preserve” recalls the “reserves” and “reservations” where indigenous people in places from Kenya to the United States have been required to live at certain times in our history.

Bloodchild” may not be primarily about slavery, but it is about power and physical suffering and difficult choices that take place where the personal and the political meet. I think it’s all right to be torn about how to interpret it. I think we’re supposed to be torn: torn open, like so many of Butler’s characters, by the alien, by unfamiliar emotions, by history, by love, and by the possibility of change.

2. Devil Girl from Mars

Octavia Estelle Butler was born in Pasadena, California, on June 22, 1947. Her father died when she was young, and she was raised primarily by her mother, who encouraged Butler’s interest in writing, and eventually made it possible for Butler to attend the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop. Butler studied at Pasadena City College, California State University, and UCLA, and participated in the Open Door Program of Screen Writers’ Guild of America, West (1969 – 1970) as well as Clarion in 1970. In 1995, she became the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. Butler’s interest in the otherworldly started early: at the age of twelve, she was inspired to try writing science fiction by a dreadful 1954 movie called “Devil Girl from Mars.”

As I was watching this film,” Butler explained, “I had a series of revelations. The first was that ‘Geez, I can write a better story than that.’ And then I thought, ‘Gee, anybody can write a better story than that.’ And my third thought was the clincher: ‘Somebody got paid for writing that awful story’” (“Devil Girl from Mars”).

In preparation for writing this essay, I watched “Devil Girl from Mars.” It is terrible. Many twelve-year-olds could do better. It’s easy to imagine the young Octavia Butler’s disgust with the awkward, unfocused plot, the canned dialogue (“Come, Earthman! It is Time!”), and the fact that the Martian looks like a human dominatrix rather than an alien life form. But what strikes me about “Devil Girl from Mars” is what never gets onto the screen, and that is the movie’s very Butlerian premise: sex with aliens. The Devil Girl has arrived on earth seeking men, because there aren’t enough on Mars: like the Tlic, she wants human beings for reproductive purposes. Similarly, the Oankali of Butler’s Xenogenesis novels have sex with humans to obtain new genetic material. “Bloodchild” and the Xenogenesis books take the idea of sex with aliens – an idea which is just a titillating way of getting the action going in “Devil Girl from Mars” – and delve inside it. They pry it apart. What might sex with aliens actually be like? What would it mean? How would it affect our survival – and theirs? Butler’s imaginative leap makes “sex with aliens” a site for examining adaptation, survival, and body politics. Transformation is key: if, in weird fiction, “some other element, like weird ritual or the science fictional, replaces the supernatural while providing the same dark recognition of the unknown and the visionary” (VanderMeer and VanderMeer Loc. 283), then for Butler this “other element” is change. “God is Change” is the central tenet of Earthseed, the new religion of her Parable novels; in “Bloodchild,” as in many of her works, the change that enables visionary recognition takes place in the inescapable center of identity, the body.

After a while,” Butler said of her teenage years, “it seemed that everything I’d ever wanted to write about had already been condensed and trivialized on television” (Francis 15). Later, she’d learn it didn’t matter. Time travel in Kindred, dystopia in the Parable novels, vampires in Fledgling: Butler took them all on. She revived tired tropes with her curious, demanding imagination, and she used black female protagonists who never would have appeared in a film like “Devil Girl from Mars.” Writing about marginalized bodies, alien and hybrid bodies, and bodies in the process of change, she permanently altered the body of science fiction.

3. The Kid in the Back of the Room

Nobody can see how long their books will last or how much influence they’ll have, so I just assume that at least I can make a few people think. I don’t know what will come of that, possibly nothing, but you never know what that one kid, for instance, sitting in the back of the room is going to wind up doing.” — Octavia Butler, interviewed by Marilyn Mehaffy and AnaLouise Keating, 1997 (Francis 116)

I read “Bloodchild” for the first time last year, in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. I can’t remember another story that’s had such an immediate and powerful effect on me. I spent two days in a kind of trance, writing my own symbiosis story called “Honey Bear.” It wasn’t the creepiness of “Bloodchild” that set me spinning, or the idea of alien conquest, which has been around longer than “Devil Girl from Mars.” It was the love. It was the passion between the characters: a passion bought and paid for and expressed in blood. “I’ll take care of you,” T’Gatoi tells Gan – and we want it to be true, and we know it can’t be true, because both Terrans and Tlic are at the mercy of their bodies. There’s nothing alien about that. It’s got nothing to do with slavery, either. It’s how we live.

There’s no way of predicting or even precisely following this kind of influence, the literary kind. We can’t know who’s going to be possessed by Octavia Butler’s work in the future, or who’s writing Butler-influenced stories right now. But there’s another type of influence that can be estimated to some extent, and that is the increasingly visible presence of women, people of color, and many other traditionally underrepresented groups, in the field of fantasy and science fiction. When Butler attended her first science fiction convention in 1970, there was only one other black person there. While it’s still correct to refer to people of color involved in speculative fiction as “minorities,” times have changed. Some of the most visible change has taken place under Butler’s name: the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Fund, created after Butler’s death in 2006 and administered by the Carl Brandon Society, enables writers of color to launch or advance their careers though the Clarion writing workshops. This is one sign of the literary landscape Octavia Butler helped create: a landscape in which nobody will ever be asked what it’s like to be the only black woman writing science fiction. Whatever new struggles come with these changing demographics, and whatever work remains to be done, the change itself is an important part of Butler’s legacy. Her use of black and female protagonists, and the diversity of her fictional worlds, invites others – especially those who feel they’re sitting way in the back of the room that is science fiction – to imagine themselves into the future.

Octavia Butler often said that she had a three-part audience: black people, feminists, and science fiction fans. Her vision, however, is for everyone. Her work shows no interest in separatism, but rather a sustained and daring examination of how we come together. In Butler’s worlds, we come together because our survival depends on it. We are joined in blood, bound for a future marked by traces of the past. “Bloodchild,” with its heady mix of beauty and terror, offers one variation on this theme: community as paradox, as dissonance, as mystery, and as symbiosis.

 

Works Cited

Butler, Octavia E. Bloodchild and Other Stories. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1995. Print.

—. “‘Devil Girl from Mars’: Why I Write Science Fiction.” MIT Communications Forum, 2004. Web. http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/papers/butler.html

Francis, Consuela, ed. Conversations with Octavia Butler. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2010. Print.

VanderMeer, Ann, and Jeff VanderMeer, eds. The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. New York: Tor Books, 2012. Kindle ebook file.

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