Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 720

In 1982, early in Butler’s career, black feminist scholar Francis Foster Smith summed up her critical reputation in Extrapolation : ‘‘Reviewers consider her a speculative fiction writer who is adequate, potentially outstanding, but at present neither particularly innovative nor interesting. However, Octavia Butler is not just another woman science fiction...

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In 1982, early in Butler’s career, black feminist scholar Francis Foster Smith summed up her critical reputation in Extrapolation: ‘‘Reviewers consider her a speculative fiction writer who is adequate, potentially outstanding, but at present neither particularly innovative nor interesting. However, Octavia Butler is not just another woman science fiction writer. Her major characters are black women, and through her characters and through the structure of her imagined social order, Butler consciously explores the impact of race and sex upon future society.’’ Since then, Butler has apparently lived up to her potential. In 1995, the year that Bloodchild and Other Stories appeared, Butler won a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. Popularly known as the ‘‘genius’’ award, MacArthur Fellowships are awarded to artists and thinkers in all mediums who push the boundaries of their fields.

Butler is known primarily as a novelist and her formidable critical reputation has been won on the strength of her Patternist and Xenogenesis series books. (‘‘The truth is, I hate short story writing,’’ she admits in the introduction to Bloodchild and Other Stories.) But ‘‘Bloodchild’’ is Butler’s most prize-winning piece of writing. When the story first appeared in 1984, it won science fiction’s two most prestigious awards, the Hugo and the Nebula, signaling Butler’s ascension in the male-dominated world of science fiction. It was also recognized for awards by two science fiction magazines, Locus and Science Fiction Chronicle Reader. When Bloodchild and Other Stories was published more than a decade later, Butler had gained the attention of the mainstream literary establishment. The collection was widely and favorably reviewed, was selected as a New York Times Notable Book, and was placed on the Teenager List by the New York Public Library.

Butler has often been lauded for creating strong but believable female characters. Academic critics have embraced her, especially those interested in race and gender. Despite the fact that ‘‘Bloodchild’’ focuses on a male protagonist and a male rite of passage, the story is similar to her novels in its focus on gender relations and themes of interdependence and empathy. Writing in Ms., novelist Sherley Anne Williams describes the themes of ‘‘Bloodchild’’ in feminist terms: ‘‘The story explores the paradoxes of power and inequality, and starkly portrays the experience of a class who, like women throughout history, are valued for their reproductive activities.’’ In her afterword to the story, Butler expresses surprise that some scholars have interpreted ‘‘Bloodchild’’ as being about slavery. Butler herself characterizes it as ‘‘a love story between two very different beings,’’ ‘‘a coming of age story in which a boy must absorb disturbing information and use it to make a decision that will affect the rest or his life,’’ and ‘‘a pregnant man story.’’

Butler’s following among sci-fi fans has broadened to include readers who would not normally be interested in fantasy novels. Reviews in mainstream publications have exposed an increasingly wider audience to her work and there is some critical consensus that Butler’s fiction transcends the genre of science fiction. In fact, since Butler has gained such prestige, criticisms of Butler tend come from within the sci-fi community from critics who see Butler’s science fiction as too ‘‘soft’’—that is, too focused on delineating characters and exploring psychological and cultural issues to the exclusion of scientific plausibility and rigor. This is an accusation leveled against many of the female sci-fi writers who became visible in Butler’s generation. However, the mainstream press has praised her writing for these same ‘‘soft’’ qualities. For examB ple, in the Literary Review, Burton Raffel describes being compelled by the ‘‘rich dramatic textures, the profound psychological insights and the strong, challenging ideational matrices of virtually all of her books.’’ ‘‘Bloodchild,’’ like her strongest novels, has been highly praised as a serious literary study of character and of ideas. ‘‘Butler’s imagination is strong—and so is her awareness of how to work real issues subtly into the text of her fiction. . . . Although the book is small in size, its ideas and aims are splendidly large,’’ Janet St. John writes in her Booklist review of Bloodchild and Other Stories. Gerald Jonas of the New York Times Book Review praises the collection for ‘‘never ask[ing] easy questions or settl[ing] for easy answers’’ and for its power to ‘‘jar us into a new appreciation of familiar truths.’’

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