Book Review: Bloodchild and Other Stories, Octavia E. Butler (2005)

March 4th, 2015 12:27 pm by Kelly Garbato

These stories will burrow into your brain like a grub into an achti carcass.

five out of five stars

(Trigger warning for rape and sexual/reproductive exploitation.)

The truth is, I hate short story writing. Trying to do it has taught me much more about frustration and despair than I ever wanted to know.

Yet there is something seductive about writing short stories. It looks so easy. You come up with an idea, then ten, twenty, perhaps thirty pages later, you’ve got a finished story.

Well, maybe.

Don’t let Butler’s apparent distaste for short stories fool you; many of the stories collected here are shiny little masterpieces in their own right.

(…although I’d be lying if I said that I wouldn’t also love to see several of the stories fleshed out into full-length novels; “Bloodchild,” “Speech Sounds,” and “Amnesty,” I’m looking at you!)

The second edition of Bloodchild and Other Stories includes seven short stories (five previously published, two brand spanking new) and two essays (both reprints). While the essays offer advice to aspiring writers as well as insights into Butler’s childhood (“Shyness is shit.” might be the realest, rawest sentence in the whole damn book), the stories are that wonderfully creepy, complex, unsettling, and ultimately deeply profound brand of SF/F that I’ve come to associate with Butler: earth-based worlds characterized by rapidly crumbling dystopias, or alien societies in which the human survivors are forced into untenable compromises with their extraterrestrial saviors/overlords. Each piece is followed by a brief (but enlightening) Afterward penned by the author herself.

* Previously Published Stories *

“Bloodchild” – Faced with a dying planet and crumbling society, a group of humans fled earth, only to arrive on a planet already occupied: by the Tlics, an intelligent species of giant, segmented, worm-like creatures. After much warring that proved costly to both sides, the two groups reached a tenuous peace agreement: the humans would be given a home on the Preserve, but in exchange some settlers – men, primarily – would be “adopted” by Tlic families, ultimately required to carry and birth their young in a gruesome and sometimes fatal process. Against this backdrop, a boy named Gan must come to terms with his future servitude to family friend T’Gatoi, the Tlic government official in charge of the Preserve. Inspired by botflies, Butler describes “Bloodchild” as her “pregnant man story.” (©1984; first published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.)

“The Evening and the Morning and the Night” – No miracle drug comes without a cost – at least not in the realm of science fiction. In “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” the downside to curing cancer manifests in the form of Duryea-Gode Disease (DGD), a debilitating and often fatal disorder that, at best, causes its victim to “drift” – dissociate from his or her surroundings, in a sort of fugue state. At worst, it causes aggression, usually in the form of self-harming behaviors. Sufferers may gouge out their own eyes, flay themselves alive, even cannibalize their own body parts.

Lynn witnessed these horrors for herself, when her parents – both afflicted with the illness – took her to a DGD institution as a sort of punishment for going off her strict diet – the only thing known to keep symptoms at bay. Like many DGD kids, Lynn’s an overachiever – trying to cram as much into her unexpectedly short life as possible – but when she visits her fiance Alan’s mother in an innovate DGD “retreat,” she finds that her special strain of hereditary DGD is a gift as well as a curse. (©1987; first published in Omni Magazine.)

“Near of Kin” – In the wake of her estranged mother’s death, the MC must come to terms with her unhappy childhood – and unusual parentage. Butler describes it as as “a sympathetic story of incest” inspired by the Bible. (“This was, of course, not exactly what my mother had in mind when she encouraged me to read the Bible.”) A more contemporary, earthly tale, “Near of Kin” doesn’t quite fit with the other stories, all of which have a SF/F bent. Even so, I found it an engaging read. (©1979; first published in Chrysalis 4.)

“Speech Sounds” – In a future dystopia, a mysterious and devastating illness has robbed many humans of their ability to use and even understand language – written as well as spoken. Nothing more than hairless chimps, humans have been reduced to communicating with grunts, gestures – and violence. On the way to Pasadena to search for her long-lost brother, Valerie Rye has lost everything: not just her husband and children, but her purpose in life as well teaching and writing). She connects with a mysterious stranger in an LAPD uniform – just another vestige of a forgotten past – long enough to lose him; and, in her grief and despair, discovers that her work isn’t done quite yet. (©1983; first published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.)

“Crossover” – A factory worker is haunted by her disfigured jailbird lover. (©1971; first published in Clarion.)

* Previously Published Essays *

“Birth of a Writer” – In fragments and flashbacks, Butler shares her obsession with writing and her development as a (black, female, science fiction) writer. (©1989; first published in Essence.)

“Furor Scribendi” – “A Rage for Writing” offers advice to new and aspiring writers. (©1993; first published in L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Volume IX.)

* New Stories *

“Amnesty” – Twenty years ago, a group of plant-like aliens known as the Communities landed on earth via a one-way shuttle, with no way to leave or return home. They quickly established “bubbles” in dry desert lands – 37 of them worldwide – and, like scientists with lab animals, they set about studying their strange new neighbors: humans. After several waves of abductions, much suffering and death, and a brief but decisive war (we lost), humans and Communities reached an impasse. Though they heralded a global depression, the Communities are exceedingly wealthy, thanks to the resources they’re able to extract from deep within the earth’s surface. In exchange for a handsome salary, select humans are given fixed-term jobs in the bubbles, teaching the Communities about human culture and allowing themselves to be “enfolded” within their employers – a powerful drug for humans and Communities alike.

Abducted as child and kept for twelve long years, Noah is one of just thirty people who are able to communicate with the Communities; in fact, she helped them develop their shared language. Now working as a Translator, it’s her job to find new recruits to work in the bubbles. But with the prevailing mistrust of and outright hostility toward these alien invaders – and, by extension, herself – Noah’s work isn’t always easy…or even pleasant. Yet communication is vital to ongoing peace, so translate she must.

“The Book of Martha” – God tasks Martha Bes – a black, middle-aged writer of fantasy – with saving the human species from itself. Her answer is the only kind of utopia that Butler could imagine working: your own personal utopia that comes to you in dreams.

While all the stories are both enjoyable and thought-provoking, I preferred those planted firmly in the realm of science fiction; in particular, “Bloodchild,” “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” “Speech Sounds,” and “Amnesty.” The exploitative extraterrestrials in “Bloodchild” and “Amnesty” are reminiscent of the Oankali who populate Lilith’s Brood (and Noah begs a comparison to the titular Lilith); and Rye, the protagonist of “Speech Sounds,” feels a distant cousin to Lauren Olamina of the Parables duology. This is classic Butler, alright, pared down to short story form. And it is glorious.

A must for Butler fans; those looking to diversify their shelves; and anyone who just plain loves great scifi.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: YES! The stories in Bloodchild are quite diverse in terms of race and gender. In “Bloodchild,” Gan and his family (siblings, mother) aren’t described in detail, though their names suggest that they’re of Asian descent (Lien, Xuan Ho, Qui). In “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” Lynn’s fiance Alan Chi is Nigerian. In “Amnesty,” Noah is black, as is one of her recruits, James Hunter Adio; another recruit, Piedad Ruiz, is described as “a small, brown woman.” Finally, the titular Martha in “The Book of Martha” is a middle-aged black woman; at first, she sees God as a white man, but later he morphs into a black man and then a black woman.

 

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2 Responses to “Book Review: Bloodchild and Other Stories, Octavia E. Butler (2005)”

  1. Mylène Says:

    I was just recently introduced to Butler’s work and after having read her Xenogenesis trilogy, am hooked! I look forward to reading this at some point, too. Thanks for the review!

  2. Kelly Garbato Says:

    Xenogenesis was my first experience with Butler, too! It’s amazing – such complex world-building, and I love how she challenges ideas of gender, sexuality, and family through the Oankali – but is actually my least favorite Butler novel/series (at least of what I’ve read so far. I’m trying to pace myself!) Just wait until you get to Kindred and The Parables duology!

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