Octavia E. Butler is one of those big names in science fiction I haven't read much of. In fact, my reading is limited to a single short story, Speech Sounds (1983), which I encountered in an anthology some years back. Her most famous work is in the long form. Butler didn't produce much short fiction. Bloodchild is probably the most famous short story in her oeuvre. She received three of the biggest awards in the genre for this particular story. There are not that many works of fiction who have done the same. She deserved those awards as far as I'm concerned. Bloodchild is a moving and emotionally complex tale.
Gan is a boy, growing up in a colony where humans live among an insect-like alien race called the Tlic. He is quite comfortable in the company of the lead female Tlic in his household. Gan and his younger siblings consider it an honour to be around her. He also perceives there is something about the relationship between humans and Tlic he isn't being told. He discovers the true nature of the relationship when a seriously ill man is brought into the house. What follows is a night that will change the way Gan views his relationship with the Tlic permanently.
Butler's work, I've been given to understand, often deals with themes like gender and race relations and slavery. There is some of that in this story. Butler flips gender roles by having the males carry Tlic larvae for instance. There is also a clear element of exploitation. The Tlic use humans to carry their young and they do not appear to have much say in it. In fact, it is implied that they were once seen as little more than cattle. Although Gan's treatment is more humane, there is still an element of control by the Tlic in it. The gory details of what exactly the Tlic need humans for can't cover up the deeper issue involved here.
Where you might expect the problematic relationship between humans and the Tlic to be the main issue in the story, that is not quite the case. Butler uses it to draw the main character's attention to the choice he should be able to make. When Gan sees what life has in store for him, he feels he should have a say in it. In one bloody night, he steps into the world of adults and quite possibly permanently changes it. It is probably more a coming of age story than one about slavery or oppression. There is an unexpected kind of mutual respect between Gan and the Tlic who needs him to carry her young. The story leaves you with the feeling that the Tlic might be willing to take the final step from oppression and enslavement to a relationship based on equality. That is, if other Tlic feel as the one in the story does.
I very much liked this story. Although the middle in particular is quite horrific, the story ends on a note of hope for the future. What I also liked about it is that Butler manages to do so much with it in so few words. Any of the themes she uses could have been enough to carry a story. Despite the elements of exploitation and gender relations, the story is not overly political or moralizing. Butler channels it all into the confrontation in a way that makes you feel she needed those elements in her story rather than add them because she felt she had something to say about these issues. Bloodchild is so very well constructed that it is not surprising it has remained her most popular short story. I guess I really should get around to reading one of her novels.
Author: Octavia E. Butler
Originally published: Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, June 1984
Read in: The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Story length: Novelette, approximately 7,500 words
Awards: Hugo, Nebula and Locus Award winner
Available online: Baen