"Would You Really Rather Die Than Bear My Young?": The Construction of Gender, Race, and Species in Octavia E. Butler's "Bloodchild." (Black Women's Culture Issue)

Article excerpt

"Did you use the rifle to shoot the achti?"

"Yes."

"And do you mean to use it to shoot me?"

I stared at her, outlined in the moonlight--coiled graceful body. "What does Terran blood taste like to you?"

She said nothing.

"What are you?" I whispered. "What are we to you?"

She lay still, rested her head on her topmost coil. "You know me as no other does," she said softly. "You must decide." ("Bloodchild" 50)

Although the invitation is to the character Gan, the questioning human voice in this conversation between human and alien from Octavia E. Butler's 1984 Hugo and Nebula Awardwinning story "Bloodchild," I am thoroughly invested in getting to decide who and what the aliens are--aliens so dangerous to humans that T'Gatoi, the gracefully coiled blood-sucker, fears she will be shot. From my perspective as a (human) reader, I work to discover the powerful metaphors which control my understanding of who and what the aliens can be: Their serpent-like quality evokes fears of the dangerous animal realm; the mention of the moon and blood in reference to this female character may allude to a mythic "feminine" power; the debate over the nature of a relationship which includes dependence, exploitation, and threats of violence conjures up a metaphoric representation of the relationship between master and slave. How I decide to read these figures is determined by my own subject positions--primarily that I am a child of popular culture and a white feminist scholar invested in issues of race and species. However, the conclusions I draw are ultimately less important than is my investigation, inspired by Butler's ability to grab my attention and fire my imagination through fiction written in subtle, provocative language and populated by complex, suggestive characters. The combination of emotional power and conceptual complexity central to "Bloodchild" makes this, like all of Butler's fiction, an excellent example of literature which bridges the gap between "high" and popular culture in a manner as complex and unique as her position as science fiction's most prolific--if not only--African American feminist writer.

"Bloodchild" tells of a group of humans who escape antagonism on Earth to arrive on a planet where, generations later, their progeny become the valued property of a powerful alien species called the Tlic. Living on a protected Preserve, human families may be formed and children raised, but each family must offer at least one son to the Tlic. The young boy will serve as a host body for alien eggs which will grow to a potentially lethal larval stage within him before being removed by a female Tlic in a "blood ritual," a process in which the human is sliced open and the grubs are removed by probing Tlic limbs and mouth. The humans will never be free, but the current arrangements are better than those for the first generations, when the Tlic drugged humans and forced them to live in pens as no more than breeding stock.

The story centers on the complex relationship between T'Gatoi, the Tlic government official in charge of the Preserve, who struggles with her need to propagate and the simultaneous friendship with and enslavement of humans which such propagation necessitates; and Gan, the human boy raised from birth to carry T'Gatoi's eggs, who must face both his love for this maternal figure and his growing repulsion from her as a controlling alien being. Through these and other characters, and the setting in which Butler places them, we experience a text which simultaneously explores outer space--in its focus on extraterrestrials and human adventures beyond planet Earth--and inner space, through metaphoric figures which illustrate and invite comment upon the construction of identity. The inner space of "Bloodchild," like that in all of Butler's fiction, is filled with characters who highlight metaphoric considerations of gender, race, and speicies.

If Barbara Christian is right when she asserts that contemporary African American women write within a long tradition of struggles to represent the self in reaction to external conceptualizations, and Samuel Delany is right to consider science fiction an ideal genre through which to challenge tradtional representations of subjectivity, then Butler is the writer to illustrate the best of both worlds. …