This review does contain potential spoilers
Years ago a group known as the Terrans left Earth in search of a life free of persecution. Now they live alongside the Tlic, an alien race who face extinction; their only chance of survival is to plant their larvae inside the bodies of the humans.
When Gan, a young, boy, is chosen as a carrier of Tlic eggs, he faces an impossible dilemma: can he really help the species he has grown up with, even if it means sacrificing his own life?
Bloodchild is Octavia E. Butler’s shattering meditation on symbiosis, love, power and tough choices. It won the Hugo, Locus, Nebula and Science Fiction Chronicle awards and is widely regarded as one of her greatest works.
If a book manages to provoke a range of emotions and have you thinking about it all day afterwards, in most cases that’s a very good thing. And that’s definitely the case with this novelette, a book where less is more. This is especially powerful here through not having to concentrate on a wider story, where the overall intensity and sharpness is maintained through a lack of unnecessary distractions.
Usually, I’d never expect a book to work better as a short story with all the potential for the world building and depth of a novel. Octavia E. Butler achieves that successfully here. She goes for a short, stinging slap to the face over a lingering ache and her story is all the more memorable for it. In fact I’m surprised this provoked such a strong reaction within me, in a book so short I finished it in under an hour.
So, why did this book have such a profound effect on me?
For a start, the plot was a little different than what I was expecting. I had imagined an imaginative sci-fi story with some allegory on men and pregnancy, but mostly exposition and backstory on the Terrans leaving Earth and their contact with the Tlic. This would have been quite a cool little read but not anything hugely original. What I actually read was so much more shocking, thought provoking and silencing. I wasn’t expecting Alien meets District 9.
We know from the synopsis that the human Terrans live “alongside” an alien race that need the humans to repopulate their species. What we don’t know is that the Terrans are basically kept as cattle in The Preserve, treated more kindly than in the past, largely to keep the Terrans subjugated, after a previous uprising. The Terrans now accept each family must allow one of their children to be implanted with the eggs of the Tlic, usually a male, to keep the female children able to repopulate the Terran race in future.
What isn’t clear is the parasitic nature of the Tlic and the sickening way in which these eggs are hatched and nurtured afterwards. It made me feel deeply disturbed and uncomfortable; both the actual process and the way in which the Tlic use the Terrans. I won’t spoil the surprise but for me the shock is up there with the ‘chestburster’ scene the first time I watched Alien.
I’ve always had perhaps what I would say is bordering on a phobia of parasites. It is probably the case with most people but parasites absolutely make my skin crawl. The first time I read about botflies for example, I was squirming all day, feeling anxious and disgusted. So it was interesting to read in Butler’s Afterword at the end of the book that the story was partly inspired by a similar experience and reaction she had.
As well as the shock factor, the author indirectly poses questions about the male pregnancy; would men take the decision to be pregnated for selfless reasons; not to match women, or for curiosity, or through being forced, but to do something necessary.
It would be easy to comment on parallels between slavery, or on colonialism (a seemingly reversed version in which the colonisers are commodotised in this book) but Butler insists that was not her intention. Aswell as this being her “pregnant man story” she also writes, “On one level, it’s a love story between two very different beings. On another, it’s a coming-of-age story in which a boy must absorb disturbing information and use it to make a decision that will affect the rest of his life.”
By that, it isn’t a traditional love story, but it does touch on the relationship between beings of two different species and whether love and respect are still viable when one of the species is using the other, though in this case not through force.
Being a short book, I don’t want to overdo the review and touch on everything in the story as it’s short enough that I think you should just go ahead and read it yourself and see how it makes you feel and what questions you begin to ask during and after reading.
I’ll make a bold claim and say this is possibly the most thought provoking and emotive read I can remember, and commend the author for having the ability to evoke this reaction within me.
This is an important piece of literature and one I very easily give 5 stars to.