“Bloodchild,” which won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, was first published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. Butler has said that she wanted to experiment with the idea of a man bearing children. The “children” in the story are worm-like creatures that will grow into adults resembling sea serpents with tentacles. The central event is the horrifying birth of the alien worms, which are torn from the body of the male host in a bloody operation.
Butler imagines an alien planet to which Terrans have escaped from the disasters of their native Earth. The alien Tlics cannot bear their own young and must use the male Terrans as hosts. The Tlics use a form of narcotic to seduce the Terrans and develop familial bonds with their hosts, a strange love-hate relationship which foregrounds the conflict.
Gan is a young man whose mother, in exchange for the right to bear her own human children, has agreed to sacrifice her son as a host for the alien embryos. The female Tlic T’Gatoi has an honored place in the home, but the original friendship between the mother, Lien, and T’Gatoi has turned into hostility. Gan, torn between his horror at witnessing an alien birth and his desire to secure his family’s well-being, agrees to be impregnated by T’Gatoi. This impregnation is grotesquely reminiscent of human sexuality but with the reversal of the male and female roles.
In this story Butler explores favorite themes: the reversal of gender roles and the inevitable power struggle between two species who must become interdependent if they are to survive. Butler called this a love story, but readers who find the explicit details repulsive might not agree.
Bloodchild: A Present Day Dystopia
In her short story “Bloodchild,” Octavia Butler presents a dystopian society in which humans draw little agency. Isolated from Earth, Humans (who are referred to as Terran throughout the story) are stranded animals on a far away world and are used by Tlic as birthing vessels. Despite its very overt science fiction elements, Bloodchild is as much as story about a far off dystopia as it is a story located in present conditions. That is to say, Bloodchild embeds enough elements of current Western civilization within its narrative that the story positions itself as a dystopia of the present day.
First, Bloodchild confuses the reader’s notion of space and temporality by gradually revealing its science fiction and dystopian elements. The story opens with the line, “My last night of childhood began with a visit home” (3). Here, Bloodchild positions itself as a coming of age story. This is critical because immediately, at the stories inception, the story posits an exploration of distinctly human themes: rites of passage, coming of age, loss of childhood, etc. This is juxtaposed with the way the gradual revealing of dystopian elements in Bloodchild. For instance, it is not until page 25 (out of 32) that the reader finally learns that the story does not take place on earth. T’Gatoi says, “And your ancestors, feeling from their home world, from the own kind who would have killed or enslaved them – they survived because of us” (25). The overall effect of the gradual development of the dystopian elements is that it encourages the reader to locate the story in the present. The dystopic elements of the story are overshadowed by universally human themes in such a way that the story becomes less concerned with its science fiction elements and more concerned with exploring the present conditions of a modern reader.
One of the most dystopian elements of Bloodchild is the way in which humans are deprived of their humanity and reduced to a function. At one point in the story Gan narrates, “She parceled us out to the desperate and sold us to the rich and powerful for their political support. Thus, we were necessities, status symbols, and an independent people” (5). Here, humans are reduced to a commodity and a bargaining point. However, more critically, humans are reduced to simply a birthing vessel for the Tlic. This reduction is most expressed in the figure of Bram Lomas. Unlike the other characters in the story who have some dynamic interaction with each other, the narrator, T’Gatoi, etc, Lomas only appears briefly as an unwilling participant in a Tlic birth. Throughout Lomas’ narration he is both physically and figuratively dehumanized. Physically, Lomas is reduced by the parasitic Tlic larva within his body that eat away at his flesh and by T’Gatoi, who cuts open Lomas in an effort to extract the Tlic Larva. Figuratively, Lomas is reduced by the blunt narration offered in the passage. For instance, to describe the birthing procedure, Gan presents a single line paragraph: “And she opened him.” (15). This line becomes symbolic of the dehumanized status of Lomas. Lomas, who is unconscious for a majority of his presence in the narrative, functions as a merely as a container for the Tlic Larva, a technology of Tlic birth He does not behave as any of the other humans or Tlic, who speak and express a gamut of emotions.
The reduction of humans to technology complicates Andy Clark’s notions of humans as “natural cyborgs”. Clark says, “It is our special character, as human beings, to be forever driven to create, co-opt, annex and exploit non-biological props and scaffoldings. We have been designed, by Mother Nature, to exploit deep neural plasticity in order to become one with our best and most reliable tools” (Clark6). That is to say, it is human nature to want to and to successfully merge with tools and technologies. Bloodchild puts a critical spin on this concept. First, Bloodchild demonstrates when the binary between being a technology and being a human who uses technology is broken. But more inline with Clark’s theory, Bloodchild speculates human relation to alien or foreign technology. Throughout the story characters reject Tlic technology, especially Lien – Gan’s mother, who refuses to eat the sterile eggs that T’Gatoi. But even Gan, the person who identifies most with the Tlic exclaims at one point, “I don’t want to be a host animal; not even yours.” This is critical because it is a rejection of technology by both characters that ultimately need to sustain themselves. If we are to strictly follow Andy Clark’s notions, by rejecting technology, these characters are dehumanizing themselves because they are ignoring their natural tendency. This is juxtaposed with the way in which the Tlic have merged with the humans. T’Gatoi says, “We wait long years for you and teach you and join our families to yours. You know you aren’t animals to us” (24). That is to say, to the Tlic, the humans are more than host animals but rather, an extension of themselves. This is critical because it reverses who we think of as human. The Tlic function more in accordance to what Andy Clark defines as human nature than the actual humans in the story.
Yet this reduction of humans to a function is also an essentially human and modern condition. Though Butler says in the afterward that this story is not about slavery but rather about love, there are very overt slavery references. Languages of entrapment pervade the text; T’Gatoi “cages,” “grips” “pins,” etc. Lien is described as “unwillingly obedient” (4). But most critically, the way in which humans are reduced to a mere function echoes the conditions of modern metropolitan life in Western civilization. In his essay, “’Ulysses’ in History” Frederic Jameson writes of the human reification in city life:
Such fragmentation can be seen on any number levels: on that of the labour process first of all, where the older unities of handicraft production are broken up and ‘taylorised’ into meaningless yet efficient segments of mass industrial production; on that of the psyche or psychological subject, now broken up into a host of radically different mental functions, some of which are privileged and others are marginalized. (Jameson130).
That is to say, at the advent of city life within the modern metropolitan sphere, human communities and complexities are radically diminished. Humans function as a “meaningless yet efficient” component to the mass production. This is exactly how humans function in Bloodchild. Humans are diminished yet efficient producers of more Tlic.
Overall, Bloodchild is a jarring science fiction representation of a dystopian life of humans, who are reduced to a mere technological function. Yet, at its core, Bloodchild comes to represent distinctly humans themes. From the way that the human elements, such as coming of age, overshadows the science fiction components to the way that the human reduction to a function reflects modern metropolitan life, Bloodchild ultimately presents a dystopia of the present day.