Octavia Butler’s stories don’t advertise their original content from the outset. Nor do they presuppose a delight for science fiction. Of course, their bookstore-aisle categorization and Octavia Butler’s reputation as a preeminent writer of science fiction lead us to believe something with creatures, aliens, space, or magic could enter the story, but apart from that, the stories in Bloodchild and Other Stories generally begin in plain speech from an everyday, human perspective.
We are provided details about the relationships of the narrators, with a voice that narrates the same way a person might describe their relationship to their mother or their uncle, for instance. The difference is that these relationships are not with human beings. The humans of her stories have familial bonds with giant millipedes that use humans in their parasitic birthing ritual (“Bloodchild”), plants dreamed up from elements of quantum physics that need human contact as if humans were their drugs (“Amnesty”), or other people who have conditions that make them so violent they will tear out loved ones’ eyes due to preconditioning as a result of experimental medication (“The Evening and the Morning and the Night”). In spite of these bizarre relationships, the untainted honesty and directness of her narrators makes even these odd scenarios relatable.
For this review, I will limit my discussion to these three stories, which left the strongest impression on me, personally.
Realization that the mother figure, T’Gatoi of “Bloodchild” is a giant millipede does’t fully picture into the narrative of the story until about twenty pages into the thirty one page story. We are given a rich sensory impression of her sounds and movements:
“She made a lot of little clicking sounds when she walked on bare floor, each limb clicking in succession as it touched down. Waves of little clicks. She came to the table, raised the front part of her body above it, and surged onto it. Sometimes she moved so smoothly she seemed to flow like water itself. She coiled herself into a small hill in the middle of the table and looked at me.”
Once we receive such vivid descriptions, we realize we had been waiting for them all along because as a way to build suspense, Butler seems to etch the feelings and situations of the humans first, before revealing the strangeness of their circumstances.
The common thread in the stories within this collection is interdependence. Though the “others” within her stories, those gazed upon by the narrators, appear more powerful or dangerous, both parties have come to realize the mutual benefits of working together, in spite of the risk. Humans and millipedes are bound together. The narrators in the stories may be trying to convince others of this benefit (as in “Amnesty” and “The Evening and the Morning and the Night”), or they may be learning about it in a coming of age narrative of sorts (as in “Bloodchild”). The catch, however, is that mutual benefit does not come without sacrifice.
The element of sacrifice in the form of physical pain in Octavia Butler’s stories offer the reader an immediate visceral response. We are led to imagining the risk of a grub eating its human host from within and its forestalled conclusion by way of cutting open the stomach of the human without anesthetic and delivering the grub to its next host—a larger farm animal—until it grows to the size of the regular giant millipedes who keep the humans in check. We are led to imagine a creature made of a giant mass of floating plant-like fronds that form a unified sentient ‘community’ in “Amnesty” that has exposed the narrator’s body to brutal shock treatment with its electric parts. And we are led to imagine an unimaginable physical violence that entails tearing off limbs and taking out eyes. This violence is directed both towards the selves and others of characters with this condition which is brought on by intimacy in “The Evening and the Morning and the Night.” The mutual benefit for humans is that the only way to survive as a human species is by participating in such dangerous liaisons. The benefit of the ‘others’ is a preference for their normal human counterparts. Nevertheless, the immanent threat of these powerful invasive species (or conditions) has made humans’ self-sacrifice a physical burden and reality in these highly imaginative social configurations.
In the Afterword of “Bloodchild,” Butler describes how her inspiration first came from a simple premise—male pregnancy. In addition, she was fascinated with the botfly found in South America that lays its eggs inside the flesh of an open wound on another creature, which grow until they eat their way out of the host and fly away. Mortified by this natural phenomena, she processed her fear in writing. Nature informs the thematic material of Octavia Butler’s fiction in this collection and in particular, her work provides imagined scenarios of humans engaged in symbiotic relationships.
There are three main variants of symbiotic relationships found in nature: mutualism, commensalism, and parasitism. Mutualism is described as “biological barter” in which a plant or animal species trades a service or resource with another plant or animal species. One example is the cleaning-service of the red-billed oxpecker which eats the ticks off its host’s back, such as that of an impala.
However, the oxpecker may also harm its host animal that has an open wound by widening and worsening the wound whose blood it drinks. Commensalism is a bond formed by a neutral benefit of one creature without causing benefit or harm to the other. Parasitism is of course a bond in which one organism binds itself to another in a way that harms the other. Butler uses the suspense of gradually revealing mutualism out of relationships that at first glance seem parasitic in her stories.
By extension, her stories promote a genuine understanding of a basic ecological principle: biodiversity.
By situating humans as the less powerful creature in a symbiotic relationship, she emphasizes our complicity in nature. Since the symbiotic pairings in her stories are easy to transpose as allegories for human interactions (in her afterword of “Bloodchild,” she complained that someone had misinterpreted it as a story of slavery), she draws out the oddly complicit and symbiotic phenomena that is also inherent to humanity that requires us to bridge social divisions. Though her stories incorporate imagined, unnatural phenomena, by way of symbiosis, she folds humans back into nature, rather than exempting us from it, with her fiction.
However, her stories also invite interpretation as visions that potentially detail the relationship of a black body to a white, or Western, “alien society.” Her narrators are usually female and described as having dark skin, somewhere in the middle of their narratives. It is never a pronounced description, as emotional and perceptive descriptions are offered more weight than descriptions of physical appearance, but it offers a subtle, important gesture. It helps the reader to recognize that Octavia Butler is indeed writing about her own experience, her own reality. However, this analysis gives way to more specific investigations brought on within Butler’s fiction.
I was particularly struck by parallels to institutionalization in “The Evening and the Morning and the Night.” Like prisoners or mental patients, the participants in the institutionalized system in which characters carrying a genetic disorder bear social markers that prevent them from going unnoticed. They must wear special restrictive garments. The genetic disorder, which triggers violent behavioral disorders, is furthermore the result of medical testing on humans. Only inside a special building where they respond to the pheromones of the female “warden” who is inspired by the “queen bee” found in nature, can the people with the genetic disorder live without restriction. There, they’re left to work with their hands to make art. Her characters in this story participate in a system that does not grant them the liberty of free will and her characters must begrudgingly accept this reality and make the best of it.
By applying the authoritarian role of a queen bee to her story (in place of a warden-like figure), Octavia Butler reorganizes the typically patriarchal power relationships in an institutionalized settings. Furthermore, the characters who are invited to see this phenomenon are wary of the dynamic, but they, too, soon recognize they would benefit from it, as it provides a safer environment. The idea of a beneficial institutionalization is borne out of a perfect merger of ideas from nature and institutionalization in this story. I find it interesting that Butler is able to shed light on our complicity in perpetuating such institutions, while offering a refreshing remix of the power dynamics and causes (criminality or mental instability) it hinges on.
Furthermore, her story displaces the blame upon the subjects participating inside the institution because it comes from a pre-existing condition derived from an external cause. Likewise, PTSD or infantile drug addiction displace the blame upon people with behavioral disorders in society, since it is known to have been derived from an earlier source for which society, not the individual, is to blame. It is this perspective that she seems to highlight of bondage to conditions derived from socially induced causes. Reading “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” in this light reminded me of people with conditions as drug-test patients, military service, or even institutionalized racism.
The unnatural physical harm of human torture, which we may mentally but not viscerally understand, is etched with precision in Butler’s story, “Amnesty.” In this story, the humans are more treacherous than the invasive species. Her story combines the social, emotional, and physical dimensions of torture in a way I had not fully conceived of prior to reading the story. At the end of the story, she gives a brief afterward, which informs us that her story is based on the experience of Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-born scientist at Los Alamos nuclear laboratory. I was not aware of his experiences, prior to reading her fictional story. His life experience, by proxy, led to accusations that he was a spy collecting and transferring classified weapons information to China. However, none of the accusations held any weight upon full investigation. In fact, they way the FBI interrogated him was to psychologically manipulate him in order to get a confession, which is now considered a point of misconduct by the FBI.
Drawing us into allegories of geopolitical power plays, we understand that her story “Amnesty” offers a valid critique of sanctioned torture and offers an interpretation of the role of Wen Ho Lee as a scientist obtaining classified information as a pursuit motivated at least in part by curiosity, rather than ill-will. The story’s description of the alien “communities” as a conglomerate of individuals matches our assumptions about the collective nature of communist China with its massive population, but on the contrary, it could also reflect the many mysterious open ended questions and elements of Wen Ho Lee’s story. A conglomerate of independent clues that does not seem to amount to a united identity.
Finally, without Butler’s afterwords, I never would have been able to draw these interpretive conclusions. In this sense, her afterwords serve as useful guides for making connections between her stories and the real world. She is generous to her readers, whether they themselves are practitioners of the art of storytelling or social critics. She offers the beauty of transparency, knowing that it does not harm her highly original from the threat of mimicry. Indeed, this is a sign of a truly successful artist. Her art does not reveal cheap tricks of the imagination nor does it become vulnerable to the threat of plagiarism when she grants us clues to the inception of the work. On the contrary, it is strengthened by her willful generosity.