By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
Bloodchild was first published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1984. Written by Octavia Butler, it is a story of alien encounters about love and power. The setting is pure dystopia, with the humans on an alien planet, living on a preserve, a large enclosed community from which they cannot escape. They live in symbiotic relationships with the Tlic, very large insect-like aliens.
The Tlic and T’Gatoi
In the Bloodchild, Octavia Butler describes Tlic in frighteningly fragmentary ways, a detail here, a detail there. The first-person narrator of the story is Gan, a human male teenager. The book opens with his family eating sterile Tlic eggs, which contain a powerful narcotic that extends life and good health.
These eggs are produced by T’Gatoi, an alien who is to Gan something between a family friend, a lover, and a captor. The bliss of the evening is interrupted by a medical emergency when a neighbor goes into labor while his Tlic mate is too ill to properly care for him.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Gan and Childbirth
Bloodchild opens with a pregnant man being brought into Gan’s home and Gan helps T’Gatoi in delivering the babies and in saving his neighbor’s life. Shocked at witnessing the pains of childbirth, Gan says he will not allow himself to become pregnant. He even goes so far as to grab a gun and point it first at T’Gatoi and then at himself.
“Would you really rather die than bear my young?” T’Gatoi asks wryly, but she goes on to say she will spare him, and impregnate his sister instead, even though the Tlic usually leave female humans free to bear human young.
Learn more about the cautionary tales of dystopia.
A Coming-of-Age Story
Gan is not comfortable with that situation at all, and the two have an erotic encounter in which T’Gatoi implants him with her eggs so that he too can become part of the cycle of life.
Bloodchild feels a sort of a growing-up story with gender-bending and alien sex. Here’s what Octavia Butler says in the Afterword to the story:
It amazes me that some people have seen Bloodchild as a story of slavery. It isn’t. It’s a number of other things, though. On one level, it’s a love story between two very different beings. On another, it’s a coming-of-age story in which a boy must absorb disturbing information and use it to make a decision that will affect the rest of his life.
Slavery: The Absence of Reward
However, some people think that Bloodchild is a story about slavery. The humans giving birth to Tlic babies have no genetic connection to those babies, so this really isn’t anything like Earth mammals who may experience extreme pain in childbirth, but then have their own child as a reward.
The humans—usually men, which adds a wrinkle to the gender analysis—they’re merely hosts to the alien babies. And those babies are not exactly warm and cuddly. They are born hungry, and as they are carnivorous, their first instinct is to consume their host. Part of helping out with childbirth is actually getting the new babies to eat a livestock animal instead of the human.
The Dystopian World of the Tlic
Yet, still, one might wonder what it all means. Especially that in the end Gan agrees to be impregnated. The last line, which follows his erotic encounter with T’Gatoi, is pronounced by the alien, “I’ll take care of you.”
The slavery reading in the Bloodchild, thus, seems tempting. We can see these humans caught in the dystopian world of the Tlic Compounds, where not even their own reproductive functions belong to themselves. There’s a utopian underbelly to what looks like human slavery here.
The Only Way to Survive is to Adapt
The humans live long, healthy lives in their symbiotic relationship with the Tlic. Gan really does love T-Gatoi. When she gives him the choice of being released from impregnation, he puts down his gun not because he wants to protect his sister from sex and childbearing with an alien.
He is jealous, possessive. As human conditions change, in Bloodchild too, so do humans, and this is a theme Butler comes back to again and again.
We are left, therefore, with two rather uncomfortable readings of this intersectional story. One, Gan is so subtly enslaved that even his creator doesn’t acknowledge it and/or two, Gan must fundamentally change his identity—and maybe readers must change how we understand questions of identity—in order to survive and thrive in a new context, a new world.
This duality of situation and of interpretation is central to all of Octavia Butler’s writings, and it’s probably why the story of Bloodchild has been so successful.
Learn more about dystopian stories in popular literature.
Bloodchild and Cognitive Estrangement
Readers of speculative fiction—science fiction and utopian branches alike, and Octavia Butler straddles these—those readers love to be unbalanced. Science fiction writer and critic Darko Suvin has famously called this cognitive estrangement. It is a theme Butler doubles down on in Bloodchild, exploring its most unbalancing aspects.
Bloodchild also toys with the idea that, sometimes, people might not want to survive the changes that they will be forced to make. Slavery or a coming-of-age story, whichever one we may choose, one thing is for sure, that for a writer with such a strong utopian sensibility, Butler definitely puts her characters through a lot.
Common Questions about Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild
In the novel Bloodchild, T’Gatoi is an alien who is to Gan something between a family friend, a lover, and a captor.
According to Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild is a love story between two very different beings. It’s a coming-of-age story in which a boy must absorb disturbing information and use it to make a decision that will affect the rest of his life.”
Readers of speculative fiction love to be unbalanced. Science fiction writer and critic Darko Suvin has famously called this cognitive estrangement.