Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 807
Environmental Awareness ‘‘The animals we once used began killing most of our eggs after implantation long before your ancestors arrived,’’ T’Gatoi reminds Gan during the story’s climactic scene. This suggests an environmental context for the psychological drama at the center of the story. Butler does not detail the reasons why...
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‘‘The animals we once used began killing most of our eggs after implantation long before your ancestors arrived,’’ T’Gatoi reminds Gan during the story’s climactic scene. This suggests an environmental context for the psychological drama at the center of the story. Butler does not detail the reasons why the earlier host animals began killing Tlic eggs, but it is implicit that the tensions of plot have come about because the Tlic planet’s ecosystem—that is, its ecological community and physical environment considered as a unit—is no longer in balance. ‘‘Bloodchild’’ explores the troubled interdependence between Tlic and human species during what might be understood as an environmental crisis on the Tlic planet. This reflects a sense of environmental crisis here on earth at the time that Butler wrote the story, when there was growing awareness of damage to the earth’s ecosystem. Starting with the energy crisis of the mid-1970s, the direct consequences of human exploitation of the earth’s resources increasingly occupied public consciousness. In 1979 the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant had a near meltdown, contaminating the immediate area with radioactive waste. In 1984 a large hole in the earth’s protective ozone layer was discovered over Antarctica, caused by decades of pollution. In the 1980s many communities began recycling programs and there were visible protests of the development of rain forests and other wilderness areas, reflecting awareness of the relationship between the actions of individuals and the life of the planet.
Many of Butler’s other works deal explicitly with racial oppression. In ‘‘Bloodchild’’ Butler refers to this issue only obliquely, when T’Gatoi reminds Gan that ‘‘your ancestors, fleeing from their homeworld, from their own kind who would have killed or enslaved them—they survived because of us.’’ However, the story may be seen as a metaphor for the conflicted relations between racial and ethnic groups who live in the same society and share common interests, yet who see each other as irreconcilably different. This was the racial climate of 1980s Los Angeles where Butler lived and wrote. In this way, ‘‘Bloodchild’’ may be interpreted as a parable about the sacrifices and satisfactions of living in a multicultural society. Multiculturalism— the recognition and appreciation of cultural differences that exist within a larger society—became a catchword in the 1980s. Many workplaces and schools incorporated the value of multiculturalism into their training and curriculums.
Butler has described ‘‘Bloodchild’’ as a story about male pregnancy. Gan’s nurturing role as an egg carrier is also a fearsome one—something Gan realizes fully only when he witnesses the bloody delivery of grubs from Bram Lomas’s body. Butler challenges common ways of thinking about the meaning of pregnancy by placing a male character in this position. The inversion of sex roles that the story dramatizes may be understood as a feminist project. Butler redefines pregnancy as brave and heroic, qualities conventionally considered masculine. Such challenges to conventional thinking make sense in terms of the cultural climate in which Butler wrote. Despite the fact that the 1980s were not a moment of historical feminist solidarity, it was a time when women reaped some of the benefits of the legal and social progress of the feminist movement of the 1970s. It was also a time of backlash against feminism by men and women alike. In the 1980s the men’s movement was born, which was intended to awaken ‘‘feminized’’ men to the masculine and powerful heroes inside of them. Butler, who describes herself as a feminist, may be responding to them with this story of heroic male pregnancy.
At the center of ‘‘Bloodchild’’ is the drama of Gan’s uncertainty over whether his role as an incubator to T’Gatoi’s eggs is a matter of honor and sacrifice, or of power and exploitation. Surrogate parenthood—in which a woman agrees to be artifi- cially inseminated and to carry a baby in exchange for monetary compensation—was one among a host of new options in the 1980s opening up to couples unable to conceive. One high profile court case in the 1980s revealed the complicated emotional and social issues surrounding surrogacy. A surrogate mother named Marybeth Whitehead broke her contract and decided to keep the child she had conceived and carried for another couple. Public opinion was sharply divided over whether the birth mother’s connection to her offspring was more important than the father’s. Feminists supported Whitehead, interpreting the contract as a form of exploitation of a working-class woman’s body by a more powerful middle-class man. The father initially won custody of the child but this decision was overturned by a state Supreme Court. While in ‘‘Bloodchild’’ humans have no interest in parenting Tlic offspring, similar issues of power and exploitation are at the forefront.
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The Science Fiction Genre
The particular stylistic features that shape ‘‘Bloodchild’’ must be understood in terms of the story’s genre. A genre is a category of art or literature distinguished by distinctive style, form, and content. As early as the second sentence of ‘‘Bloodchild’’—‘‘T’Gatoi’s sister had given us two sterile eggs’’—most readers will recognize that it belongs to the genre of science fiction. Science fiction explores the implications of future scientific and technological advances for individuals and society as extrapolated from the current states of science and society. Science fiction represents fantastic material in a realistic manner, treating highly imaginative situations as hypothetically possible. Qualities that mark the story as science fiction include, most obviously, the fact that it is set in the future and involves an encounter with an alien race. However, Butler’s emphasis on character and her development of the plot around psychological con- flict are characteristics not typical of the genre, which often relies on conventions associated with the genre, such as space travel and high technology, as the driving force behind the narrative.
In keeping with the science fiction genre, the story’s setting is detailed, dramatic, and fantastic.‘‘ Bloodchild’’ is set at an indeterminate point in the future, some generations after a colony of humans— known as Terrans—has fled oppression on earth and landed on a planet inhabited by powerful insect-like beings called Tlic. The Tlic control the planet, which is after all theirs, but they make special provisions for Terrans because the Tlic species is dependent on them for survival. Before the Terrans arrived, the Tlic were dying out. The animals they used to incubate their eggs had started to kill them. By taking on this role as incubators, Terrans saved the Tlic from extinction.
Terrans live in an area set aside for their use called the Preserve. It is theirs to live on and farm, but they are subject to Tlic government, including rules such as the prohibition of weapons. Before the Preserve was created, Terrans were exploited indiscriminately for their reproductive powers, so the Preserve offers a modicum of security to Terrans. Despite separate living arrangements, Tlic and Terran societies are closely intertwined. Tlic join with Terran families and choose one member to carry and incubate their eggs. This role is seen as both a sacrifice and an honor as it keeps the tenuous balance of power between the two species. These egg carriers live outside of the Preserve with their Tlic partners.
Point of View
‘‘Bloodchild’’ is narrated in the first person by Gan, the Terran protagonist. Because it is described from his perspective, the situation, which seems bizarre to the reader, is treated as normal. Details of the setting and situation are revealed only as the action of the story unfolds, partly through Gan’s narration of unfolding events and partly through the speech of other characters. Despite the fact that the story tells of a highly volatile personal situation, Gan’s narration is rather matter-of-fact. As indicated by the first line of the story, ‘‘My last night of childhood began with a visit home,’’ Gan narrates the story with the advantage of retrospective knowledge. He tells his story with the with the distance and coolness acquired by experience.
Some critics see science fiction in general and Butler’s science fiction in particular as metaphoric explorations of contemporary social issues. In this way, all of the main features of the story can be understood as symbolic of present cultural tensions. For example, the relationship between the Tlic and Terrans may be interpreted as symbolic of the struggles between human groups who see each other as essentially different, yet who are forced to live together, such as racial groups in the United States and many other places in the world. This interpretation might be supported by the fact that many of Butler’s other works take up racial themes more explicitly. On a more specific level, Tlic eggs are symbolic of the contradictory nature of Terran- Tlic relations. Sterile eggs are a source of pleasure and health for Terrans, signifying the Tlic’s benevolent and nurturing qualities as well as the Tlic’s vulnerability to extinction. But when these eggs are fertile—necessary for the Tlic’s own pleasure and health—they become an object of fear and disgust for Terrans, and soon hatch into violently selfpreserving grubs.
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Butler, Octavia. Bloodchild and Other Stories, New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1995.
Jonas, Gerald. Review of Bloodchild and Other Stories. The New York Times, October 15, 1995, p. 33.
Raffel, Burton. ‘‘Genre to the Rear, Race and Gender to the Fore: The Novels of Octavia E. Butler.’’ Literary Review, Vol. 38, No. 3, Spring, 1995, pp. 454-58.
Sargent, Pamela, editor. Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years, San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1995.
Smith, Frances Foster. ‘‘Octavia Butler’s Black Female Fiction.’’ Extrapolation, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 37-49.
Williams, Sherley Anne. ‘‘Sherley Anne Williams on Octavia E. Butler.’’ Ms., March, 1986, pp. 70-71.
Donawerth, Jane. Frankenstein’s Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction, Syracuse University Press, 1997. An inquiry into female science fiction writers and the characters they create, focusing on utopian explorations of sex roles, the figure of the beautiful alien monster-woman, and stories written by women but narrated by male characters.
Lublin, Nancy. Pandora’s Box: Feminism Confronts Reproductive Technology, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998. A sophisticated approach to the cultural and political dilemmas raised by the host of new reproductive technologies of the last decades, including surrogate parents, infertility treatments, and fetal surgery. Readers interested in the relationship between technology, reproduction, and sex roles will find challenging food for thought.
McCafferty, Larry, editor. Across the Wounded Galaxies, University of Illinois Press, 1990. A collection of in-depth interviews with many of the major figures in the science fiction world, along with informative introductions. An interview with Butler is included.
Sheehan, William. Worlds in the Sky: Planetary Discovery from the Earliest Times through Voyager and Magellan, University of Arizona Press, 1992. A lively study combining science history with anecdotes about human’s long fascination with the real and hypothesized worlds in outer space.
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Allison, Dorothy. “The Future of Female: Octavia Butler’s Mother Lode.” In Reading Black, Reading Feminist, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Meridian, 1990.
Fry, Joan. “ Interview with Octavia Butler.” In Poets and Writers Magazine 25, no. 2 (March/April, 1997): 58-69.
Govan, Sandra Y. “Octavia Butler” in Notable Black American Women. Detroit: Gale, 1992.
Potts, Steven W. “We Keep Playing the Same Record: A Conversation with Octavia E. Butler.” Science Fiction Studies 23 (November, 1996): 331-338.
Stevenson, Rosemary. “Octavia Butler” in Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson, 1993.
Zaki, Hoda. “Utopia, Dystopia, and Ideology in the Science Fiction of Octavia Butler.” Science Fiction Studies 17, no. 2 (1990): 239-251.
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1980s: A chemical test to determine whether life exists on Mars renders inconclusive results.
1990s: A meteorite from Mars is found in Antarctica that has structural features indicating the existence of microbes, providing evidence of life on Mars.
1980s: Developments in space technology make it possible for astronauts to spend more time in space. In 1982 the Soviets set an endurance record of 211 days in space. In 1984 the first untethered space walks are performed using rocket packs.
1990s: The Soviet Mir space station, where astronauts test long term effects of living in space, experiences technological problems and is phased out. A new space station is an international endeavor.
1980s: After the first ‘‘test-tube’’ baby, Louise Brown, was born in England in 1978, clinics are established worldwide for in vitro fertilization as a solution to infertility. Only about 200 test-tube babies have been born. The first successful embryo transfer and the first successful fetal surgery are performed.
1990s: Infertility is on the rise worldwide. An estimated 4.9 million married couples in the Unites States want to be parents but are unable to conceive. There are over 300 in vitro fertilization clinics in the country. They perform more than forty thousand procedures each year.
1980s: Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial becomes one of the most popular films in history. It portrays the special relationship between a sweet, gentle alien and a young boy.
1990s: The X-Files, a tongue in cheek thriller about a government plot to cover up evidence of an alien invasion, attains cult status. The TV show gains widespread popularity and is made into a major motion picture.