‘Bloodchild’ is the title story of American writer Octavia E. Butler’s only collection of science fiction short stories Bloodchild and Other Stories, originally published in 1995. Winner of both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award, this story is about the relationship between humans (called ‘Terrans’ here) and an alien species, and delves into the issue of reproduction as a result of that relationship.
Bloodchild | Summary
In Butler’s own words, ‘Bloodchild’ is ‘a story about paying the rent—a story about an isolated colony of human beings on an inhabited, extrasolar world … Sooner or later, the humans would have to make some kind of accommodation with their um . . . their hosts’. The story is set in an unspecified alien planet and time. Humans are referred to as Terrans here. They live in a protected space called the Preserve. The ruling alien race, the Tlic, uses the humans as host animals for their eggs. After years of violence between the two communities, the following arrangement has been made between the two: Tlics offer protection to the Terrans and the Terrans offer their males to serve as a host to Tlic eggs. This arrangement is a political one and has ensured peace and stability.
A Terran named Gan is soon expected to be implanted with the eggs of a female Tlic named T’Gatoi. T’Gatoi is politically a significant entity in ensuring the safe survival of the Terrans in this alien world. They are visiting Gan’s family. Gan and his family drink the sterile Tlic eggs, which for Terrans have a pleasant, intoxicating and even invigorating effect. Gan’s mother, Lien, initially refuses to drink the egg but she later gives in when T’Gatoi chides her for letting old age catch up with her because the eggs can prolong life. Gan’s father frequently drank eggs and lived longer than most Terrans, giving birth to Tlics three times and to Terrans four times.
Gan knows very well how T’Gatoi, as ruler of the Preserve, protects all of the Terrans from the masses of Tlic, and how the Terrans are all indebted to her. In a flashback it is revealed that T’Gatoi and Gan’s mother Lien were good friends when they were young and that Gan was promised to T’Gatoi before he was even born.
T’Gatoi rushes outside sensing something is wrong. She comes in with Bram Lomas, a Terran male who has been impregnated by a Tlic and whose eggs are ready to hatch. If the eggs are not removed from the host’s body before the gestating Tlics eat through their egg shells, they will begin to eat their Terran host from the inside out. Qui, Gan’s older brother, is sent to call for help while Gan is told to slaughter and bring an animal for the Tlic hatchlings to eat once they are removed from Bram Lomas’s body.
While taking the animal carcass inside, Gan realises that he is afraid to witness the gory birthing process. He returns to T’Gatoi with the dead animal when he is called. He finds that she has stripped Bram Lomas’s clothing off and is tying up his legs. Ideally, Bram Lomas’s Tlic mate should have performed the procedure but it is revealed later that she is ill and hence, absent.
T’Gatoi cuts open Bram Lomas’s belly with a claw and begins retrieving the Tlic grubs out of him. Bram Lomas screams in agony and Gan feels miserable seeing all of these. T’Gatoi is indifferent to Bram Lomas’s pain and wholly focused on the operation. She licks the blood off of the wounds. The grubs are then inserted into the carcass of the animal so that they can feed on the animal now. Gan is sick at these sights and T’Gatoi lets him go outside to vomit.
After Gan does so, he comes across Bram’s mate and a doctor who rush inside. Gan now meets Qui. Qui presses Gan for details of what happened, but Gan is unwilling to reveal anything. Qui reveals descriptions of a horrible birthing process he saw when he was young, one where the grubs ate through the impregnated man because there was no secondary host animal to eat through. The Tlic mate let this happen rather than risking the lives of her young ones. This story disturbs Gan sufficiently for him to think of T’Gatoi with suspicion now. He is afraid and horrified. Qui pesters Gan with questions and remarks that irritate Gan to the point that the two siblings engage in a fight. Gan passes out briefly. When he regains consciousness, Qui is gone. It is revealed in the story that Qui was actually supposed to be offered to the Tlic as a human host but T’Gatoi had chosen Gan even before he was born and hence, Qui is safe as long as Gan is healthy. The future as a host to Tlic eggs now repulses Gan.
Alone in the kitchen, Gan takes his father’s contraband rifle from its hiding place and instead of cleaning it as intended, he loads it with ammunition. T’Gatoi finds him in the kitchen with the rifle. She knows that he is shaken. She admits that that is not the ideal instance of a birthing process and that Gan should never have had to see it. T’Gatoi sees the rifle, and asks Gan if he intends to kill her with it. Gan, howeven, puts the gun under his own chin. He laments that he was never given a choice in the matter of bearing T’Gatoi’s eggs and that he is afraid after what he has seen and he does not want to be just her host animal. Suicide seems the only way out for him now.
T’Gatoi offers to impregnate Gan’s sister, Xuan Hoa, instead of Gan. Xuan Hoa has always liked T’Gatoi and would be willing to be a host. It is important to note that the Tlics could impregnate either the human males or females but they usually chose the males, keeping the human females to bear children of their own kind. Gan accepts the offer, but quickly asks T’Gatoi to get back to the original arrangement of impregnating him since Gan does not want to use Xuan Hoa, whom he truly loves, as a shield, just as Qui uses him. T’Gatoi wants to confiscate the rifle, since after the violent past between the Terrans and the Tlics, possession of guns was made unlawful. Also, guns pose a threat to her future children, but Gan demands that she let it stay with him despite the risk. Gan insists that T’Gatoi accept the same risk that he is accepting, and that her acceptance would signify that she sees him as a partner and an adult, and not just a subject or as property. T’Gatoi eventually consents, trying to establish trust between Gan and herself.
That night, Gan undresses and lies with T’Gatoi, and she implants an egg in his abdomen. Afterwards, as they are lying there together, Gan admits that he does not actually hate T’Gatoi; he is just afraid of what will happen to him when it will be his time for the birthing process. At the same time, Gan also admits that he is afraid of losing T’Gatoi and that he does not want her to go to someone else. T’Gatoi is pleased with this expression of love. In return, she promises that since she is ‘healthy and young’, she would never leave Gan alone the way Bram Lomas was left alone. She would be there beside him when it was his time to give birth.
Bloodchild | Analysis
In the ‘Afterword’ to the story, Butler explains that the story is her ‘effort to ease an old fear’ of hers- the fear of the parasitic incest botfly. Also, she states ‘Bloodchild’ is her ‘pregnant man story’ where she tries to imagine a ‘story of a man becoming pregnant as an act of love—choosing pregnancy in spite of as well as because of surrounding difficulties’. The issues of power imbalance and hierarchy seen in the story can be traced back to Butler’s experience as a black woman in America. However, it should be noted that she claims ‘Bloodchild’ is not a ‘story of slavery’.
Bloodchild | THEMES
Imbalance of power is a significant theme in the story. The hierarchy between the Tlics and the Terrans is a rigid one and though the relationship between the two communities is supposed to be a mutually dependent one, there is a perpetual tension in the air when the issue of the Terrans’ acting as host to the Tlics’ eggs is broached to T’Gatoi by Gan in the story. To be fair to T’Gatoi, she does come across as a sensible Tlic who might not see the Terrans as mere means to an end after all but the imagery of the ‘cage’ used frequently in the story does not let one conclude that the relationship between the two communities is an equal one. Gan, the first-person narrator of the story, remarks, ‘I had always found it comfortable to lie that way, but except for my older Sister, no one else in the family liked it. They said it made them feel caged’.
Also, political maneuverings are effectively brought out in the story; the Terrans are a vulnerable species in this world and had it not been for the political influence of T’Gatoi, they would have faced far more difficult time here than they ever have to do now.
Her [T’Gatoi’s] people wanted more of us made available. Only she and her political faction stood between us and the hordes who did not understand why there was a Preserve—why any Terran could not be courted, paid, drafted, in some way made available to them. Or they did understand, but in their desperation, they did not care. She parceled us out to the desperate and sold us to the rich and powerful for their political support. Thus, we were necessities, status symbols, and an independent people. It was a little frightening to know that only she stood between us and that desperation that could so easily swallow us.
This passage hints at T’Gatoi’s generosity towards the Terrans but also highlights the extremely precarious state of existence of the Terrans. Their ‘independence’ comes across as a hollow concept.
‘Bloodchild’ is also a coming-of-age story. The very opening line of the story -’My last night of childhood began with a visit home’- foreshadows the loss of the narrator’s innocence. By the end of the story, Gan is ready to discuss and indeed even participate in ‘adult things’.
The process of giving birth is extensively dealt with in the story. The process as depicted in the text is a painful one for the male Terrans. There is, of course, an inversion of human reproductive functions here- the female Tlic impregnates while the Terran male gives birth. One could read this inversion as Butler’s strategy to indirectly but nonetheless effectively bring out the pain many women are made to go through during the process.
The story is also an ambiguous commentary on love. Whether there is love between T’Gatoi and Gan, and whether love between them is possible in the first place – are matters of debate. However, the ending of the story does indicate that there is affection between the two and Butler, in the ‘Afterword’ herself explains that on one level, ‘it’s a love story between two very different beings’.
Bloodchild | CHARACTERS IN THE STORY
Gan: protagonist and narrator of the story. He is a Terran male who is supposed to carry Tlic eggs in him. The story charts his fear for his future as he witnesses the gory process of birthing, to his eventual acceptance of his allotted role.
T’Gatoi: Tlic female and Gan’s mate. She is a powerful politician who has arranged to keep the Terrans safe in the Preserve. She carries out the operation on a Terran male when the latter gives birth to Tlic offsprings. She promises Gan that she would be there when it would be Gan’s turn.
Lien: Gan’s mother. She and T’Gatoi were friends when young. She offered Gan to T’Gatoi out of gratitude for the latter. However, she is now somewhat resentful to see Gan being T’Gatoi’s mate.
Qui: Gan’s elder brother. Gan’s being chosen as T’Gatoi’s mate has saved Qui from bearing that responsibility.
Xuan Hoa: Gan’s sister. They are fond of each other. Xuan has always had a liking for T’Gatoi.