‘Bloodchild’ by Octavia E. Butler

Part of the reason I love short fiction is the form’s natural consonance with science fiction and horror, the genres with which I grew up. The intersection between the two is my heartland. There are many (though too few) writers who work or have worked in that space – including a few names on this list – but on the page, no one has topped ‘Bloodchild’, and I say that with no exaggeration.

The story concerns Gan, a young Terran (aka human) living on “The Preserve”, under the governance of a vaguely insectoid alien race. The very first thing we know is that Gan’s mother does not share in the “sterile eggs” that the rest of the family loves. Thus the tension of the story is established immediately – Gan’s mother knows something that he (and we) don’t, and the conflict through the story maintains a triangular shape – Gan, his mother, and T’Gatoi, the powerful alien official whose favor Gan’s family ostensibly enjoys.

Captivity is all that Gan has ever known, and one of Butler’s great feats is the use of this naive perspective against the expectations of the reader. T’Gatoi, through Gan’s eyes, is thought of neutrally, even warmly. It’s implied that the sterile eggs the Terrans consume have a soporific, as well as regenerative, effect. And rather than being a brutish or inscrutable villain, T’Gatoi has recognizable reactions and attachments to Gan and his family, even as the unease around them and their motives never dissipate.

As readers will discover, humans – specifically male humans – are a treasured commodity. The climactic reveal is as viscerally disturbing as anything from Alien’s famous xenomorphic life cycle, but the source of the story’s lasting power is the sinister intimacy between Gan and T’Gatoi. Can it really be said to care for, or even love, Gan? And if so, what does that say?

The metaphor that seems easiest to arrive at in Bloodchild, given the details of the world parceled to the reader, is one of slavery, but Butler meant it specifically to be an allegory of childbirth and gender politics. While you could make an argument for both, it’s the big and broad aspects of the story that gesture toward colonialism and chattel slavery. 

The subtler elements, the ones that make Bloodchild a canonical work, speak to more radical critiques of gender than many if not most people would naturally assume— when considering coercion and ownership in a nominally civil state of affairs, it’s easier for them to imagine master and slave than man and woman. Perhaps it is simpler to call it an exploration of power dynamics generally.

First published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction, June 1984. Collected in Bloodchild and Other Stories, Seven Stories Press 1995, and numerous anthologies

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