I confess, I’ve never actually read Octavia Butler before. It wasn’t deliberate – a lot of her work just falls more to the sci-fi side of spec, and I tend to seek out fantasy. Plus, for whatever reason (we all know why), she never comes up on those Big Fancy Rec Lists or gets assigned in school – so this is a new experience for me. And whatever it was I expected, it was not what I got!
TWs for this collection include but are not limited to: insects, oviposition, underage sex, pregnancy, surgery (Caesarian section), degenerative disease, self-harm, psychosis, cissexism/gendered medical treatment, incest, suicide, alcoholism, torture, religious speculation, anti-Blackness & misogyny (in essays as lived experience.)
Bloodchild and Other Stories is a collection – in fact, the only one – of Octavia Butler’s short stories and essays. Butler was mostly a novelist, something she talks about in the opening, which means that these were the rare ideas that were perfect for shorter fiction. As somebody who’s never read one of her full novels, though, I’m – man, is impressed the right word? Basically, “if the stories are making me feel like this, holy shit, I’m not sure I’m ready for a Butler novel.”
All of the stories are excellent, but the ones that stuck out the most to me were ‘Bloodchild’ and ‘Amnesty’. Bloodchild…admittedly freaked me out, a lot, but in a very interesting way. Bluntly, I don’t go into classic scifi really expecting oviposition kink? And while it’s obviously not written For That Purpose, it is very funny to go from Twitter’s frequent debates on “is it pedophilia for a 19 year old to date a 17 year old” to ‘Bloodchild’. In it, humans have made a deal with an insectoid race of aliens called the Tlic – in which humans can journey into space and leave Earth, in exchange for being hosts for Tlic eggs. However, being a host isn’t easy – if abandoned by their Tlic, human hosts run the risk of being eaten alive from the inside by the hatched larvae. I love this story a lot, but I really wish I’d known a little more about what I was in for going in – I do NOT like bugs or pregnancy, and so while I’m impressed and very struck by the themes, I’m also going ‘scritch scritch scritch’ even just talking about it.
Butler’s comments on Bloodchild are also super interesting – she talks about the idea of male pregnancy as well as her own fears of invasion/infestation. From a transmasc perspective, it was really neat to see somebody approach it this way, especially since there’s a big trend to see pregnancy as some Ultimate Good instead of something that can be and is very, very scary.
The other story that I really liked was ‘Amnesty’. This story features another type of alien race, this one evocative of some of the odd non-human species from Bogi Takac’s writing (particularly ‘Good People In A Small Place’ from The Trans Space Octopus Congregation) and Derek Nason’s ‘A Planet with a Lake’ from Abyss & Apex. However, the focus isn’t even on them, not really; the central character is convincing others to be translators for them because, well, sure, being abducted and unknowingly tortured by aliens trying to Understand You is bad, but the treatment from the US Government afterwards was much, much worse. It’s an interesting callout of the demonization of other countries from the US while they do worse, that never quite lets the Communities off the hook but puts them in perspective.
Two other stories intrigued me but were slightly jarring – I want to analyze them more deeply at some point from a disabled perspective. ‘Speech Sounds’ and ‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night’ both engage with disability in different ways; ‘Speech Sounds’ is about a plague that attacks human ability to understand and create language. I want to reread it and think about it more, and it’s a fascinating idea, but I think it could have done more with the idea of different kinds of expression and language as something that nonverbal/nonspeaking people still do, just Differently. ‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night’ is even more complex. It engages with a degenerative disease that causes self-mutilation, violent outbursts, etc. and was – not quite uncomfortable to read? It mostly feels validating and interesting and then the ending goes into some territory I don’t know how to feel about.
This is a great collection of science fiction, and as a first dip into the world of Octavia Butler, it’s astounding. I don’t have any of her books to compare it to yet – but I’m excited to read more. Worth a look for connoisseurs of short speculative fiction – I just wish AO3 tags were “in” for tradpub books so I could tag this somewhere with “underage mpreg ovi” and watch people freak the hell out. Haha.