Wednesday, October 26, 2005
commentary on Octavia Butler's 'Bloodchild'
"Bloodchild and Other Stories" is a collection of five short stories and two essays. The title story "Bloodchild" has won her several awards since it was first published including the Hugo and Nebula awards, which are the equivalent of Pulitzers to Science Fiction writers. It is a heavily reviewed and analyzed work. The other four works are titled "The Evening, The Morning and The Night", "Near of Kin" "Speech Sounds" and "Crossover". All of these stories in one way or another deal with the dynamics of human interaction. "Crossover" and "Near of Kin" may not necessarily be considered Science Fiction stories. They fall more into the category of dramatic writing and have little in the way of Science Fiction elements in the way they are written. They are still incredibly good stories. Overall, there seems to be an air of pessimism that clings to her writing as though she expects very little of people especially in the way we interact with each other. This holds especially true for her depiction of relationships between men and women where the relationships invariably involve the woman being powerless and making the sacrifices in the relationship.
Octavia Butler is considered by many to be, along with Samuel R. Delany, the first generation of black science fiction writers. She is also considered a very important back feminist writer in some circles. Generally, all of her works that I have come across tend to contain elements that examine the power dynamics resulting involved in race and gender. Her best known works are "Kindred" and the "Parable" series of books comprising "Parable of the Sower" and "Parable of the Talents". These works deal a lot with themes of race and its scars on American society, gender roles and their associated power dynamics as well as numerous issues of social exploitation and the way human beings tend to relate to each other. I chose not to read any of those for several reasons. Firstly, I had already read them and didn't see the point in rereading works I already knew. Secondly, everyone reads those books. It made more sense for me to look to one of her less known but still respected works and maybe contribute, probably in a very minimal way, to the body of knowledge surrounding her works. There was also the fact that "Bloodchild" is her only collection of short stories and as such it would cover a wider range of topics than any one of her novels. Finally, I just like reading short stories so that book was more appealing to me.
The first story in this compilation is "Bloodchild", probably her most famous short story. The story takes a look at a group of humans forced to leave Earth for reasons that are never made clear. They are taken in by an alien race that keeps them in a 'Preserve' then uses them, primarily the males, to incubate their young in a process very similar to pregnancy and childbirth. The central character in this story is Gan, a young man coming of age who has been promised to the alien 'protector' of his family. The story focuses on several things simultaneously. On one hand, it is Butler's pregnant man' story about a man choosing to carry children out of love in a unequal relationship. Gan chooses, in the end, to not kill himself or his protector but instead to allow her to, in an almost sexual scene, implant her eggs in him. He does partly to protect his family and partly because he cant stand the thought of her being that intimate with someone else. On the other hand, it is a story about power dynamics between two different races where one has the power to dictate the terms under which the other shall live. The humans live a life slightly better than that of livestock where they are denied access to weapons and anything else the aliens feel they shouldn't have, can't leave their 'Preserve' and have to give up their children to act as incubators for alien children. In the end it is a truly disturbing story.
The next story in the collection is " The Evening, The Morning and The Night". This story deals with the experiences of a girl, who remains unnamed, born with Duryea-Gode disease. This is a fictional disease that causes a person to go crazy and attempt to dig their way out of their own skins, usually injuring themselves and people around them. As a result of how dangerous they are, they are forced to wear tags declaring they have the disease and are discriminated against and avoided by general society. She finds out in college that because both of her parents had the disease, she has pheromones which allow her to influence people afflicted with her condition. Butler's description of what her character goes through seems like it was taken from her experiences in college. All the college students with the disease are ignored and harassed by their fellow 'normal' students. A brilliant student talks about the fact that his genes will probably keep him from being accepted to medical school. They live as pariahs in a society that fears them. This kind of reaction plus their knowledge of impending death turns them into a group of very focused students and very productive citizens. The point of this , says Butler herself, is to examine how a person's genes can affect the path they choose to take in life. The other interesting point about this story is Butler's creation of a special group of women, a matriarchy of her own design, who tend to the sick in their community and who, ultimately, everyone in the community comes to rely on.
The third story in this volume is entitled "Near of Kin" I can't really characterize it as a science fiction story. It is more of a contemporary fiction story which focuses heavily on human relationships. As usual, Butler take on human relationships is more than a little cynical. The entire story revolves around a discussion between a young woman, also unnamed, and her uncle when she comes back home to bury her estranged mother. The conversation for the most part deals with her relationship with her mother. For the most part, she feels that the only reason her mother had her was to prove that she was fertile after she had miscarried four times. Later in the story it is revealed that she is actually the product of an incestuous relationship between her mother and her uncle and that the reason her mother avoided her may have been guilt over her conception. Since he mother is dead, all we have are two differing opinions on a very dysfunctional relationship. The daughter, who is hurt and bitter at being cast away, and the uncle, who still loves his sister and insists on her goodness. The relationship between the daughter/niece and the father/uncle is probably the most stable of those portrayed in the book all which isn't saying that much. They are both unsure of how to behave around each other because of the fact that their relationship is so unclear. Butler calls this her sympathetic incest story I find it sad that there is very little in the way of redeeming human relationships in the story.
"Speech Sounds" is the title of the next story. It is a grim story of a world where a strange new disease has either killed people or taken away their language ability to some degree. Some people are more affected than others but the disease hits men the hardest. The protagonist of this story, a woman named Valerie Rye, retains her ability to speak and understand spoken language, a fact she hides from the rest of the world for her own safety. In the course of the story she meets a man she calls 'Obsidian' who retains his ability read and write and continues to lead a life as an LAPD officer despite the fact that all law and order has vanished. This story is used to examine a number of themes. Among them is the idea of how little removed human society is from savagery and lawlessness and how much violence is caused by people's envy of each other's position. Rye is forced to conceal her ability to speak since it will probably get her killed. When she first finds out about Obsidian's ability to read, she initially feels jealousy and hatred. He is also initially envious after he finds out that she can speak and these are the two most sane people we are shown in the story. All the other men in the story are, for the most part, violent and irrational. All the other women in the story are basically trying to survive and willing to take any man who will have them because of the shortage of men. We see Rye court Obsidian in order to get him to stay with her. She knows he probably wont stay for long but she is willing to have him for as long as he wants because he is better than most of the men she's met. In the end, the story is another incredibly well written but pessimistic look at human relations.
The final story in this compilation is entitled "Crossover" which, incidentally, is one of the first short stories she ever sold. It is another that doesn't really qualify as a science fiction story. Its more of a story of the person she was afraid she would become if she didn't become a writer. In that way, I suppose it could qualify as an alternate history. The main character is another unnamed woman. She has a dead end job in a factory which she hates and lives in constant fear of loneliness and death. She plans to kill herself but is too scared of dying to do it. As a result of a disfigurement, she suffers from serious self esteem problems and does not consider herself to be worth the man she has so she drives him away. In the end of this story we see her behavior getting even more self destructive. Butler says in her commentary on this story that the fear of becoming someone like this is what kept her writing when she worked under similar circumstance. It makes it easier for you to understand the focus that turned her into one of the best science fiction writers of our time.
One could get the idea from my opinions of the stories that I don't like them. On the contrary, I think they are incredible, if cynical, examinations of human power dynamics. While they are kind of depressing in their conclusions on the fate of humanity in general, they are also hopeful that there might be a change in the way we treat each other.