Bloodchild and Other Stories
by Octavia Butler (2005)
According to the introduction Octavia Butler considered herself a novelist and thought much less of her own short stories, but out of the five books I’ve read of hers I like this one the best. It’s the most consistently enjoyable and the best marriage of brilliantly original premises with a compelling narrative.
What she does better here than almost any other author I’ve ever read is to imagine truly alien scenarios. It’s not just “humans confront aliens” but a deep reckoning of how the confrontation might progress, how the aliens and humans would interact, and what sacrifices humanity would have to make in order to continue existence.
Two of the most affecting stories, “Bloodchild” and “Amnesty,” deal directly with human beings being subordinated to an alien species in a manner that is not quite slavery. Both alien species in each of the stories are separately unlike anything I’ve ever seen or imagined before.
And maybe most fascinating about each story is that Butler is sincerely attempting to imagine a world in which humanity is not the dominant species. I think she’s better at this than most because she was so pessimistic about humanity’s prospects for survival that she had to imagine something superior to us that would render us obsolete. So many of her books have elements of this: the Parables, Fledgling, Patternmaster and Xenogenesis. Or in other words, every single thing she wrote except for Kindred.
And while these imaginings fascinate me they also disturb me a little, just because she’s so certain that the “solution” for humankind must inevitably be some deus ex machine in the form of another species that will “save” us or help us “evolve.” It’s a fundamentally hopeless point of view and one that negates not only human autonomy but our agency as a species. I can’t fully agree with it but that doesn’t prevent me from enjoying her musings.
The best stories here are “Bloodchild,” “Amnesty,” and “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” which is another story about a kind of superhuman evolution with very negative side effects. “Near of Kin,” “Speech Sounds” and “Crossover” felt lesser, perhaps because they departed from Butler’s wheelhouse described above. “The Book of Martha” was more just bizarre and maybe a little juvenile but a good think piece: how would you change the world if you had God’s power? Butler’s answer is not intuitive.
As valuable as anything else here for fans of Butler are the two essays she includes about writing along with her own preface and afterwords to each story. They enable you to see inside her brain a little and the results are endearing. The more I read of her and about her the more I admire her — the circumstances she had to overcome, the racial and sexual discrimination, her sustained humility and inherent goodness. She’s not a perfect writer but I love the way her brain works — I love how almost everything she writes is an implicit rebellion against systemic injustice and discrimination. I look forward to reading the rest of her works.