Book cover: BloodchildGan has been raised with alien T’Gatoi as part of his extended family, comfortable with the knowledge that he will one day incubate her eggs inside his body. But he has no idea what this actually entails, and witnessing the agonies of a birth provoke second thoughts.

I always think Octavia Butler is above my likes and dislikes. I don’t even know how I feel about this short story, which could easily inspire essays (which could be longer than the story itself). That’s the wonderful thing about Butler: she wrote fiction that makes you think. And think some more. And I can’t argue with that, because I’m too busy being utterly awed by it, and thinking.

The Tlic are a dying race. They must plant their eggs in a warm-blooded – traditionally animal – host for incubation. Normally, the larvae eat their way out, killing the host. A person’s warm body is perfect for snuggling up to on the sofa, and for hosting the young; if the birth is carefully managed, the larvae are removed on hatching and the host survives.

 

We are told the story from Gan’s perspective. He’s young and naïve – he has no real idea what’s in store for him, and only a passing understanding of his real situation. It’s clear that the Tlic are protecting their human symbiotes as well as essentially farming them. They prefer to use men as hosts, as women carry babies of their own and ultimately increase the incubation stock for the Tlic.

On the other hand, it could be a lot worse. Only one child from the household has been designated as a host – Gan has an older brother who has no obligation to do so (as well as a sister). It’s not a forced breeding programme, and it’s not technically captivity. Humanity lives on a preserve to keep them safe from the wider Tlic population (and it’s implied that they are desperate enough to breed that they would observe none of the niceties in place), but they get to live as they choose. It never occurs to Gan that he is anything but free.

See? All the things for discussion!

Because on the one hand, it’s clear that Gan genuinely loves T’Gatoi (and I think she loves him); he has known her since he was born, and she is part of his life and family. It’s an honour to bear her young. On the other, the family have guns secretly stashed away in case they ever need to defend themselves from the Tlic – guns that are prohibited. The Tlic don’t actually want humanity to be able to protect themselves.

It’s hard not to look at the situation and see humanity as controlled but comfortable breeding stock. Whether you choose to consider the story in terms of slavery, sexual politics or even sociopolitics (there aren’t enough humans to go around, otherwise the general population of Tlic wouldn’t be such a threat – so either that’s a false threat made to control humanity through fear, or there are haves and have-nots within Tlic society. Who gets the right to plant eggs in a human host?) is up to the reader.

Butler went on record as saying she was surprised by those who read this as a story about slavery, and said that it was about love and loyalty. I can see that too – it’s entirely focused on Gan’s feelings for and trust in T’Gatoi in the face of understanding what bearing her young will mean for him (possible hideous, agonising death) – but… it’s hard not to look at that broader context of control and feel uneasy. I can’t look at the gender flip – pregnant men! – and not draw the parallels to our traditional gender roles and values.

This is what you get when you read Butler. It’s elegantly, concisely written and pushes the onus for contemplation and response on to the reader. On the one hand it’s a simple short story that takes place in a matter of hours, about growing up and confronting hard truths; on the other, it’s as demanding as you choose to make it. Well worth a read.

 

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