Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Octavia Butler’s blood-curdling short story

By Erin Ranft

At its core, Octavia Butler’s short story “Bloodchild” is about the author’s fear: the horror she associated with the botfly, an insect she feared encountering on her trips to the Peruvian Amazon to complete research for her Xenogenesis series. The botfly burrows into wounds left by other insects and lays eggs, and humans are advised against removing these eggs because of possible infection; Butler “found the idea of a maggot living and growing under my skin, eating my flesh as it grew, to be so intolerable, so terrifying that I didn’t know how I could stand it if it happened to me.” In an attempt to purge these scary thoughts and images, Butler creates a blood-curdling story about humans, mostly males, who give birth to the larval young of an alien, cockroach-like species.

Gan is a human male, or Terran, who was raised on a Preserve for all the humans who came to the Tlic world to escape Earth, and he grew up benefitting from his close relationship with T’Gatoi because she is a powerful political figure and offers Gan’s family youth. As a delicacy and narcotic, humans ingest the liquid from sterile Tlic eggs, a substance that keeps Terrans young and strong, staving off the bodily deterioration that accompanies old age. There is a price: Gan, and many men from Terran families, must offer their bodies as hosts to the larval young of the large, insect-like Tlic females.

The act of birthing young for T’Gatoi is abstract to Gan until he witnesses a horrifying incident with another human male. In some instances, ‘birth’ begins unexpectedly, without preparation or resources, and the young aliens hatch from their egg cases and begin to eat their way out of the human body.

A stranger appears, his stomach undulating with the young that have hatched inside him. T’Gatoi is forced to slice this man open in front of Gan, to pull out the writhing grubs from his body before they eat their way out and kill the man in the process. Digging in this man’s large, gaping wound, T’Gatoi picks the young alien life forms out as they continue to ooze to the surface of his flesh, bloody and hungry for more.

This scene traumatizes Gan and directly following the incident, he puts a gun to his chin with the intention of killing himself to avoid such a fate. Both out of fear for his sister, who is the alternative host for the young, and his emotional link to T’Gatoi, Gan chooses to undergo the implantation in a scene Butler constructs as both horrifying and tender because, in addition to writing out her fears of the botfly, she also wanted to create a text about male pregnancy and birth. Butler simultaneously humanizes the supposed alien monster in “Bloodchild” while also creating a symbiotic relationship between Terran and Tlic that readers see as both monstrous and touching, but always scary.

Related: Who's Afraid of Black Women?

Erin Ranft writes about feminist science fiction, Black and Chicana feminisms, and the oppressions of US women’s bodies in the 19th and 20th centuries. She is a member of the UTSA Reading Collective

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