Book Reviews, Non-fiction, Short Stories

Octavia E. Butler’s Bloodchild and Other Stories (1995)

Bloodchild and Other Stories was my introduction to Butler’s writing, and it reflects a masterful (and masterfully-thoughtful) writer. This collection features every short story — and two essays — that Octavia Butler wrote between 1971 and 2003. At just over 200 pages, it’s not many, and she herself admits to not being a writer or fan of short stories in her comments.

‘Bloodchild’ (1984)

I should find the title story, ‘Bloodchild,’ cheesy, with its insect-like aliens and technological magic: It’s steeped in old-fashioned sci-fi cheese without ever getting drowned in the magic and wonder writers like Bradbury relied on.

‘Bloodchild’ is about a future where humanity has come under the control and protection of a space-faring species most akin to preying mantises and spiders. They’re benevolent, but still very clearly in charge. Humanity is, coincidentally, an ideal host species for the Tilc’s larva; human families live on vast preserves, and are free to live as long as they supply one child per family as an N’Tilc — a host of Tilc larvae.

The ’83 and ’84 issues of Asimov’s Science Fiction featuring ‘Speech Sounds’ and ‘Bloodchild.’

This is an uncomfortable story, and infinitely imaginative. Humanity is conflicted about this — it is a sort of slavery, after all. The hosts form close bonds with their Tilc partners, but the host process is violent, painful, gory, and can easily lead to the host’s death if they’re not careful.

‘Bloodchild’ never quite focuses on that, however. This story is all about the bond of human boy and his Tilc partner; in forming a loving relationship despite the requisite pain and suffering.

‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night’ (1987)

‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night’ continues the first story’s excellence, introducing a genetic disorder that causes unpredictably violent and suicidal behavior in those affected by it. Society, being how it is, punishes those born with this genetic disorder, pushing them to the outskirts of  society much as our culture silently does with special needs individuals (which, of course, exacerbates their condition, turning the violence into a cycle).  Like ‘Bloodchild,’ this story is required reading.

‘Near of Kin’ (1979), ‘Speech Sounds’ (1983), and ‘Crossover’ (1971)
The 1979 cover of Chrysalis 4 featuring ‘Near of Kin.’

The original edition of Bloodchild and Other Stories only had three more stories, all shorter and less consistent. ‘Near of Kin’ and ‘Crossover’ aren’t sci-fi, and are brief moments in the lives of fragmenting families: In ‘Near of Kin,’ a young woman goes through her mother’s belongings after she passes away. She reflects on her poor relationship with her mom, and of her better, if timid, relationship with her living uncle — who, it’s suggested, is her dad. ‘Crossover,’ Butler’s first-published story (1971), follows a young, miserable woman struggling with an abusive boyfriend, a miserable job, and thoughts of suicide. These two aren’t bad, but didn’t leave much of an impression.

‘Speech Sounds’ is a fairly standard mid-’80s post-apocalyptic story. The world’s social order has broken down after a virus causes every living person to either lose their ability to speak or read/write. Each group — speakers and readers — is led by jealousy and trouble communicating, leading to a plot straight out of the Road Warrior. This story, about a young woman who makes a fleeting acquaintance with someone not awful, is exciting, yes, but the apocalypse was never believable, and, like the page-count, the characters are in and out of the story too quickly to be memorable.

It’s rare that I can get into short stories as it is, and these three, while good, remind me more of every other short story writer I’ve had trouble getting into despite accolades (Ray Bradbury, Amy Hempel).

‘Positive Obsession’ (1989) and ‘Furor Scribendi’ (1993)
‘Furor Scribendi’ was originally featured in the Writers of the Future series.

The two essays that closed the original ’95 publication of Bloodchild, ‘Positive Obsession’ and ‘Furor Scribendi,’ include stories from Butler’s life as well as advice to aspiring writers. Her writing background is fascinating, publishing sci-fi at a time when Samuel Delany was the only accepted black sci-fi writer. Octavia didn’t have much in the way of role models or family encouragement: Black women shouldn’t write, especially genre fiction.

Her writing advice that accompanies her flash-biography is simple: Keep writing, keep trying — become obsessed. Butler intentionally shuns the garbage of  the self-help industry to get her message across: There’s no talent — nothing innate in respected writers — there’s only their obsessions that drive them to try and try again.

These two short essays may be far more valuable than any self-help book or guide for writers.

‘Amnesty’ (2003)

Butler’s return to short stories is stunning, with both ‘Amnesty’ and ‘the Book of Martha’ being some of the most intellectually- and emotionally-demanding work in the collection. ‘Amnesty’ is a marriage of classic sci-fi tropes, careful characterization, and damning social commentary.

An alien civilization has landed. Like in Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life,’ the Communities landed quietly in the world’s deserts, barely interacting with us as we’re studied from a distance. People have been abducted — never with any nefarious intent, though some have suffered simply due to communication issues — and slab cities have been erected around the Communities. The Communities are peaceful, each individual actually a population in itself of plant-like entities, minds working as one.

Such a baller.

The story revolves around a former abductee interviewing candidates from outside the Communities to work for the Communities. As the interviewer, she gets a number of questions about why she is working for the species, and her reasoning is the meat of this story, relevant particularly to political events in 2017:

After her abduction, Noah was kidnapped by her own government and tortured for years.  They didn’t understand the Communities — rather feared them — and wouldn’t believe that she wasn’t an agent working on the aliens’ behalf to harm mankind. Mankind, embroiled in heated competition with itself, is hardly prepared to handle an alien species which, they assume, must be after the same thing. It’s a cycle of fear and hatred, and Noah felt no choice in escaping persecution. What the Communities offer her is a home: She’s no longer welcome among mankind, tainted by this alien experience.

Octavia Butler’s gleamed more truths about humanity than most of us ever could.

‘The Book of Martha’ (2005)

The final story Butler ever wrote, ‘the Book of Martha’ is another bombshell on the reader’s feelings. The idea is simple (and even cliche): God meets with Martha in her dreams. Martha’s an everywoman figure, rising from nothing to moderate success. S/he asks for her help in shaping humanity’s future, in helping dilute anger and hatred and religious persecution in favor of a paradise.

The rest of this story is their conversation, their debates on how her varying ideas would help or harm the vision of an earthly paradise: Who would benefit, who would suffer. The only way to benefit everyone — hopefully — they realize, is through that individual’s dreams.

‘The Book of Martha’ offers an interesting thought experiment, and it’s surprising that a philosophical conversation with the self makes for as entertaining a story as this is.

Short stories rarely appeal to me the way novels do, but Bloodchild and Other Stories is an excellent introduction to Butler’s writing. Her ideas are brilliantly creative, her social commentary sharp, the empathy of her characters deep — I can’t wait to move on to her other work.


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