Reactions to Octavia Butler

The name Octavia Butler was familiar to me when I read it on the booklist. My only guess is that my sister mentioned it at some point in time: she is an English major and we frequently discuss literature. However, I didn’t know anything about her before picking up “Bloodchild and other stories.” I was shocked to discover I was reading science fiction. It definitely was not what I was expecting. I was even more shocked after looking up Octavia Butler online. Not only did I discover that Butler was black, but that she was a black female publishing science fiction in the 70s and 80s. After reading more from her memoir included in the collection and reading some about her wikipedia, I was impressed by her tenacity, persistence, and passion. She worked her way into a white-male dominated field, and, from the sense I get from her autobiographical writing, she did it with unflinching confidence in her ability as a writer. Immediately she became a kind of heroin in my eyes.

I am also extremely impressed (and excited) about her work. Bloodchild is progressive. (This is true today, however, it was extremely true considering the time it was originally published in 1984.) This is mainly because of its male pregnancy narrative. I am always curious when creators attempt to capture or understand a man’s reaction to this particular female experience. I think that is, firstly, because it is something men will never be able to experience. Therefore, it is always hypothetical, always imaginary. Secondly, I think it is because there are two extreme negative male reactions to pregnancy and birth (as far as I can see as portrayed in popular media): one is the reaction of disgust and fear, the other is the downplaying of the intensity or pain. Thirdly, because we live in a male-dominated society, to think of men preforming the role of the repressed gender flips our societal structure on its head. In the case of “Bloodchild,” the male must choose to house and eventually breed in an act of love, selflessness, and sacrifice. Thus, the male must take on the qualities that are often classified as feminine, qualities that are considered lesser because the represent subservience and therefore weakness. At the end, the narrator understands the pain he must endure and the sacrifices he will have to make in order to house and raise the children of T’Gatoi, but in the end he chooses to give his life to her because he loves her.

Also interesting to me is its exploration of human subservience. Historical narratives, like colonialism, display the earthly struggle of dominance and control. Broadly speaking, our existence wrapped around the fight for control. In “Bloodchild,” humankind willingly sacrifices their control and power for resources, thus contradicting popular science fiction stories of the time that told stories of otherworldly colonialization. However, not only does Butler’s peaceful story of subservience break the norms developed in the genre, but it also contradicts most western narratives that parade the success and glory of colonialism. However, after doing some reading, I discovered that the story is not attempting to be a metaphor for slavery. Rather than attempt to show the humankind as slaves to this new superior race, Butler is attempting to convey a kind of peaceful cohabitation.

Overall, I am intrigued by Butler’s use of science fiction to address real-world controversial social issues. Creative plot devices often successful give new and clear insight onto the human condition in ways that I not considered before. I am excited to read more of her work.

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8 Comments

  1. McKaye Peterson

    I share some of your feelings about Butler’s work. I felt that she does a wonderful job of imagining a “what-if” world and creates a story line that is new and progressive like you said. Her first story gave me chills because of how unique it was. Your reflection on the flipped gender roles was so true! The male had to take on feminine qualities of bearing and raising children which the very image of made me fascinatingly uncomfortable. I appreciate stories that break away from the usual tropes to create their own exciting plot line.

  2. Elizabeth Condie

    I like your analysis here, but I wonder if he really loved her. In the end, it was all about control. The main deciding factor that leads to him choosing to let T’Gatoi impregnate him was to save his sister. When I read it, it was all rather “rapey” and I saw their resolution less as an act of love and more as a result of conditioning. I don’t think it was love, but more of a fight for some sort of recognition in this strange relationship. It is only after T’Galoi gets what she wants that she even considers Gan’s emotions.

    • Jaidyn Eardley

      Elizabeth, I agree with you. The story really disturbed me at first, and I was trying to figure out why. It was violent, but not overly so. The language was clean and simple, and I actually really enjoy Butler’s prose style. I realized that the thing that got to me was the odd sexual tension between Gan and T’Gatoi. It didn’t feel like love… but there was a bond/attraction that was inexplicable and freaky. I couldn’t decide if T’Gatoi was manipulative, genuine, or perhaps just operating on a totally different emotional spectrum than Gan.

  3. Susannah Kearon

    I particularly appreciate your analysis regarding the reversal of the usual colonialization trope. It was fascinating to see humans as the ones who were being somewhat oppressed. I think it’s interesting that Butler intended to portray a relationship of peaceful cohabitation; to me, the relationship seemed controlling and patronizing, at best.

  4. Considering how much Gan’s older brother mentioned that they couldn’t escape, I wonder how influential control really is in this situation. While I agree that Gan willingly made the choice to take in T’Gatori’s eggs, I got the feeling that Gan made that decision out of the realization that any alternative would be worse in his mind. Humans were not allowed to have weapons, there was nowhere to run, and he did not want the pain involved in raising T’Gatori’s offspring to be inflicted on his sister. As much as Gan may have felt love for T’Gatori in this situation, I think that there was a sense of hopelessness that contributed to his decision as well.

    • This is the general feeling I got as well: Gan was at the point of killing himself to avoid taking the eggs, but realized that doing so would only mean that another of his family would have to endure it, and he didn’t want that, so he chose to bear the burden himself. While he may house some love for T’Gatoi, I think that he would choose to not take the eggs in a heartbeat if the option were provided and if no one else in his family would have to take them. It’s an interesting take on a sort of male pregnancy that Butler gives, and maybe it’s just because it’s obviously alien and fake, but it felt very predatory and parasitic reading through the story, and I’m sure that this is what Gan felt as well. Whereas human pregnancy is (most often, and is meant to be) a mutual act of love and procreation, this seems like more of a forced breeding by a parasitic species other than the host, where each human family is raised knowing that one child must be chosen to be subjugated to this and given no choice.

  5. Absolutely ace analysis, Allison. You’ve brought up a number of pathways that will be worth exploring as a class. In particular, is the question of love and whether we need to take Butler at her word…

  6. Lauren Engle

    I agree that Gan decided to have T’Gatoi’s offspring out of love, but I believe it is out of love for his sister Xuan Hoa rather than any love for T’Gatoi. Gan almost seems terrified of T’Gatoi by the end of the story even asking her “what are you?” on page 24. Meanwhile, Gan does think through the possible pain he will be causing his sister if he stands by and allows T’Gatoi to impregnate her. He mentions that Hoa is supposed to have human life in her and that he doesn’t want to use her as his shield on page 26. Now, I think it could be argued that T’Gatoi could have some sort of love or attachment to Gan in choosing him and that would be an interesting argument to try and prove.

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