Our Octavia Butler discussion gleamed like a beetle’s carapace! Potent imagery and penetrating themes abound in this thought-provoking, and creepy, short story.
A human child living in a human preserve on an alien planet is about to come of age. The humans fled Earth to escape persecution and ended up here. On this planet, the insect-like dominant species, the T’lic, rely on humans to be the host bodies in which the parasitic T’lic incubate their young. Newborn T’lic are surgically removed before they devour their human hosts. T’lic can reproduce by infesting any living tissue, of course, but humans make the best hosts, and tend to produce stronger and larger T’lic. For this reason, humans are kept on a preserve, their reproduction orchestrated, and their host bodies traded to political leaders and wealthy elites.
Meg: I have a great unit in my Science Fiction class on sex with aliens, and this is in there.
Meg: Butler gave Gan a choice, but did she? Butler takes issue in her commentary with people who simplify this as a slavery story. She calls it reductive. She even calls it a love story.
Chris: She’s pulling your chain. Slavery is everywhere in her works. It’s not reductive. These people were chattel. Owned creatures, bred selectively, and used based on their reproductive quality.
Meg: On a trip to South America Butler learned about a species of parasite to take special precautions against. If it infests your body, it has to work out its life cycle in your body. It reaches a stage of development along the way where, if you remove it too early, it does even more damage to the your body than leaving it there. This seems like the actual science behind the T’lic race.
David: From a Freudian read, we can interpret this story as a cathartic release of the fear and disgust the parasite invoked in the author.
Nikita: The other issue is: Do the parasites love the humans? T’Gatoi seems to love Gan’s father (who was the host T’Gatoi was incubated in).
Chris: There is an attachment the T’lic call “love” when they exploit the host beings’ language. We have no way of knowing if they have any way of comprehending the emotional state humans call love. It’s the ultimate gaslighting, using the host being’s terminology to bind the host being into their dependency.
Meg: Butler is really good at this technique. She casts the central deep conflict of the story on a biological level. It’s not just war, or politics. It’s parasitism and biological need.
Chris: It’s all about sentient animal husbandry and preserving their race. If there’s any relationship at all, it’s the relationship of a completely dominated slave animal to its owner. Like the way we have “pets.”
David: But our biological imperatives do lead us into animal husbandry.
Chris: These are human pets. Sure, we love our pets, but we utterly dominate them. And that’s why this subset of humans fled Earth in the first place, by the way, to escape domination. And they end up here. Utter helplessness is made viable, but not survivable.
David: Think of the ovipositor!
[David mischievously proceeds to find and share images of ovipositor sex toys. Look them up yourself.]
Chris: Let’s find another twist! What would Ayn Rand say?
David: There’s definitely a Marxist reading in here…
David: Philip K. Dick wrote a story called “The Pre-Persons.” He wrote it in response to Roe V. Wade. In his story, fetuses are allowed to be aborted up until their soul enters their body…which is when they learn Algebra.
Meg: “Bloodchild” appeared in Asimov’s as the cover story in June 1984.
David: Do we know how this was received when it was published?
Meg: The Stockholm syndrome. Being bred into that life.
Suhail: He can escape his fate, but then it will happen to his sister.
Meg: And the T’lic would rather not use female Terrans as hosts, so they can get pregnant and create more humans.
Chris: So he has no choice.
Suhail: Gan is like his dad, totally institutionalized, a house slave. Taken in claw and caressed by T’Gatoi as soon as he was born.
David: This is a perfect distillation of where science fiction is right now. She predated it by 36 years.
Chris: Her themes are even more appreciated now. Butler is in ascendence, resonating.
David: This story makes the literal into the figurative in a potent way.
Suhail: It depressed me the way Martian Time Slip depressed me. But it was so much better integrated than Martian Time Slip. I took more substance away from it. It gave me the notion that this would convey, just maybe a tiny sliver, but it could make a male feel how terrible, just a sliver of how it feels to be raped, and domestically abused. It is deeper than just a slavery allegory. There are all kinds of coercive control dyads and this one between Gan and T’Gatoi encapsulates all of them. It’s not just about slavery, it’s about subjugation. Slave/master, domestic abuse, child abuse. It touched on stuff for me that I, frankly, reserve for my therapist.
David: I can’t believe they published this in 1984. Which is more a commentary of how restrictive publishing has become. Man, look at that cover art. That’s heavy.
Chris: Reading suggestion. Check out Lucius Shepard, a short story called “Human History” in a collection called Beast Of The Heartland.
Thank you for reading. Reading rules!