Octavia E. Butler | Critical Essay by Elyce Rae Helford

This literature criticism consists of approximately 24 pages of analysis & critique of Octavia E. Butler.
This section contains 6,990 words
(approx. 24 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Elyce Rae Helford

Critical Essay by Elyce Rae Helford

SOURCE: "'Would You Really Rather Die Than Bear My Young?': The Construction of Gender, Race, and Species in Octavia E. Butler's 'Bloodchild,'" in African American Review, Vol. 28, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 259-71.

In the following essay, Helford analyzes Butler's "Bloodchild" and its implications on our conception of gender, race, and species.

"Did you use the rifle to shoot the achti?"


"And do you mean to use it to shoot me?"

I stared at her, outlined in the moonlight—coiled graceful body. "What does Terran blood taste like to you?"

She said nothing.

"What are you?" I whispered. "What are we to you?"

She lay still, rested her head on her topmost coil. "You know me as no other does," she said softly. "You must decide."

Although the invitation is to the character Gan, the questioning human voice in this conversation between human and alien from Octavia E. Butler's 1984 Hugo and Nebula Award-winning story "Bloodchild," I am thoroughly invested in getting to decide who and what the aliens are—aliens so dangerous to humans that T'Gatoi, the gracefully coiled blood-sucker, fears she will be shot. From my perspective as a (human) reader, I work to discover the powerful metaphors which control my understanding of who and what the aliens can be: Their serpent-like quality evokes fears of the dangerous animal realm; the mention of the moon and blood in reference to this female character may allude to a mythic "feminine" power; the debate over the nature of a relationship which includes dependence, exploitation, and threats of violence conjures up a metaphoric representation of the relationship between master and slave. How I decide to read these figures is determined by my own subject positions—primarily that I am a child of popular culture and a white feminist scholar invested in issues of race and species. However, the conclusions I draw are ultimately less important than is my investigation, inspired by Butler's ability to grab my attention and fire my imagination through fiction written in subtle, provocative language and populated by complex, suggestive characters. The combination of emotional power and conceptual complexity central to "Bloodchild" makes this, like all of Butler's fiction, an excellent example of literature which bridges the gap between "high" and popular culture in a manner as complex and unique as her position as science fiction's most prolific—if not only—African American feminist writer.

"Bloodchild" tells of a group of humans who escape antagonism on Earth to arrive on a planet where, generations later, their progeny become the valued property of a powerful alien species called the Tlic. Living on a protected Preserve, human families may be formed and children raised, but each family must offer at least one son to the Tlic. The young boy will serve as a host body for alien eggs which will grow to a potentially lethal larval stage within him before being removed by a female Tlic in a "blood ritual," a process in which the human is sliced open and the grubs are removed by probing Tlic limbs and mouth. The humans will never be free, but the current arrangements are better than those for the first generations, when the Tlic drugged humans and forced them to live in pens as no more than breeding stock.

The story centers on the complex relationship between T'Gatoi, the Tlic government official in charge of the Preserve, who struggles with her need to propagate and the simultaneous friendship with and enslavement of humans which such propagation necessitates; and Gan, the human boy raised from birth to carry T'Gatoi's eggs, who must face both his love for this maternal figure and his growing repulsion from her as a controlling alien being. Through these and other characters, and the setting in which Butler places them, we experience a text which simultaneously explores outer space—in its focus on extraterrestrials and human adventures beyond planet Earth—and inner space, through metaphoric figures which illustrate and invite comment upon the construction of identity. The inner space of "Bloodchild," like that in all of Butler's fiction, is filled with characters who highlight metaphoric considerations of gender, race, and species.

If Barbara Christian is right when she asserts that contemporary African American women write within a long tradition of struggles to represent the self in reaction to external conceptualizations, and Samuel Delany is right to consider science fiction an ideal genre through which to challenge traditional representations of subjectivity, then Butler is the writer to illustrate the best of both worlds. Because her black feminism appears solely in the highly metaphoric genre of science fiction, it is particularly through metaphors that her texts exemplify a meeting point between "high" and popular culture. And the metaphorization of identity, according to critical theorists such as Alice Jardine, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Mary Midgley, is central to the postmodern condition, in its emphasis on addressing the tropes and gaps in traditional philosophy and the culture invoked through such discourse. By examining the ways in which Butler's metaphors construct gender, race, and species identity in "Bloodchild," I intend to illustrate some of the problems and promises of the dissolving boundaries between contemporary "high" and popular culture, and between theoretical and literary discourse. But in order to reach the point at which Butler meets "high" culture, we must make a brief journey through the space of critical theory.

From the Medusa-like appearance of the alien Oankali in her Xenogenesis Trilogy and the archetypal power of the matriarchal shapeshifter Anyanwu in her 1980 novel Wild Seed to Gan's "female" reproductive function for the Tlic in "Bloodchild," Butler is deeply invested in science-fictional metaphors for the "feminine" which challenge traditional representations. In this focus, her fiction is closely related to postmodern feminist theory, which is equally invested in examining such metaphors. In Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity, for example, Alice Jardine examines the post-modern preoccupation with rejecting and rethinking Western "master narratives"—humanistic philosophies which propose and rely upon philosophical absolutes such as "Man," "History," and "Truth"—and finds that philosophers who attempt to understand and explain existence and experience through these narratives largely fail to acknowledge their authorial subject positions (most importantly, the fact that they are generally white Western men of a privileged class). Thus, reconceptualizing such narratives necessarily involves a reexamination of the patriarchal politics of Western philosophical thought.

Theoretical approaches, such as feminism, which reexamine master narratives reveal many of the unstated assumptions of humanistic philosophies. However, these approaches often fail as challenges to tradition because they replicate certain universalizing and essentializing tendencies of the philosophical approaches and constructs they reconsider. For Jardine, the most significant problem is the tendency of such theory to replace denial of the issue of gender with an encoding of what is labeled "feminine," a process she refers to as gynesis. "Woman," she writes, "is and always has been, of course, the original problematic object"; and, therefore, "in the search for new kinds of legitimation, in the absence of Truth, in anxiety over the decline of paternal authority, and in the midst of spiraling diagnoses of Paranoia, the End of Man and History, 'woman' has been set in motion both rhetorically and ideologically."

This thesis is central to highlighting the potential limits of contemporary theory, especially for feminists who use the work of master narrative re(en)visionists without acknowledging the gynesis in these texts. Yet it is not clear that any linguistic usage of woman can be unproblematic. Jardine reasons that

to refuse "woman" or the "feminine" as cultural and libidinal construction (as in "men's femininity") is, ironically, to return to metaphysical—anatomical—definitions of sexual identity. To accept a metaphorization, a symbiosis of woman, on the other hand, means risking once again the absence of women as subjects in the struggles of modernity.

For this reason, while examinations of cultural constructions of "woman" and "femininity" are proving extremely useful for feminist theorists and activists, and while it may not be possible to transcend the gender implications of language, the limitations inherent in reliance on a "metaphorization of woman" must be acknowledged. Perhaps the most promising rhetorical response involves overt acknowledgment—in the form of critical theory such as Jardine's, and fiction such as Butler's, which foregrounds and problematizes this process. When "woman" emerges through the metaphor of an impregnated young boy, as it does in "Bloodchild," we are invited to examine and challenge our understanding of the construction of gender.

The effects of the process of gynesis reach a much wider audience than Jardine considers in her compelling and suggestive study. While she primarily addresses feminists and other academic critics through her readings of French theorists, the prevalence of gynesis clearly reaches beyond theory and academia to popular literature and culture. Moreover, the process is suggestive for studying textual representations of groups other than women. Jardine's concise and specific terminology helps me to extend examination of gender and the process of gynesis to my concerns with race and species construction through processes I term ethnesis and zoomorphesis.

Not only women but also members of "minority" races, as well as non-human animal species, are all labeled and addressed as gaps or spaces in Western patriarchal culture, and slippage between the "real" and the metaphoric often occurs conceptually and textually. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., suggests that "we carelessly use language in such a way as to will [a] sense of natural difference into our formulations." For him, the term race "pretends to be an objective term of classification, when it is a dangerous trope." According to such assertions, textual representations of race are always engaged in a process of metaphorization I call ethnesis. The term may be new, but the process is already conceptually familiar to deconstructive race theorists, critics, and race-sensitive creative writers. For example, Butler, in her 1979 novel Kindred, examines the construction of race through the story of a black woman who is whisked back and forth through time from the present to the antebellum South. While in the past, she must save the life of a white boy, who is also her ancestor, in order to start her family tree. Through her experiences, we see the complex web of race relations during this period in U.S. history, which included the rape of enslaved women by whites and the arbitrary but intentional labeling of the resulting biracial children as "black"—and therefore "slaves"—by whites Butler's focus on the historical construction of race encourages our awareness that "blackness" is no more than a construction upheld to continue racist oppression.

Like the study of gender and race, reconceptualization of species can effectively deconstruct the humanist biases of traditional philosophical absolutes; textual representations of this reconceptualization result in the process I label zoomorphesis. Denial of the importance of human(e) treatment of animals—and even the fact that humans are animals—in many ways echoes the objectification and minoritization faced by women and people of color. Therefore, it is not surprising that animals, too, surface in both contemporary critical theory and popular fiction as lack, absence, and space. Just as women become "woman" through language, so living animals become symbols of "animalness" or that which we label inhuman.

Metatheorist Mary Midgley denaturalizes species in ways similar to Jardine's study of gender and Gates's examination of race. Her critical study of the representation of animals in modern Western philosophy, Animals and Why They Matter, illustrates that gender, race, and species are inseparable determinants in the construction of identity. In the chapter "Women, Animals and Other Awkward Cases," Midgley draws direct connections between the oppression of animals and women in terms of representation and metaphor:

The fear of women is a fear of the impulses they arouse and the forces they stand for. They are not seen as actual, limited beings in the world with their own wishes and problems, but as fantasy figures, angels or witches, elementals with the spiritual powers of whatever emotions they represent.

Both animals and women are most important in terms of their symbolic value. And the most problematic aspect of this symbolism is the reduction to metaphor of animals as well as humans:

As in the case of women, ambivalence produces a kind of mental squint, splitting the idea of the alien group into compensating half-images, between which the imagination oscillates in an uncontrolled way. The same thing happens about animals.

This oscillation of the imagination well describes the problematic effect of the process of zoomorphesis and its similarity to gynesis.

Race is also important for Midgley in drawing conclusions about animals. She notes psychoanalyst Carl Jung's tendency to use both animals and race symbolically in his studies of dreams. The presence of "wild" animals in dreams indicates repressed passions, as do images of people of color. Midgley quotes Jung's claim that "certain repressed complexes—i.e., repressed sexuality—are represented by the symbol of a Negro or an Indian; for example, where a European tells in his dream 'Then came a ragged, dirty individual,' for Americans and for those who live in the tropies, it is a Negro." Thus people of color become, like women and animals, significant to philosophical inquiry primarily for their symbolic and metaphoric value to the white, male human subject. From such observations, Midgley concludes:

It is therefore always dangerous to be an entity which carries one of these loads of significance. Many human beings and also many animals quite harmless to man and even useful, such as toads, spiders and grass-snakes, have suffered a great deal from being draped with unsuitable symbolic values. Camivores like wolves and lions have been viewed quite unrealistically as deliberate criminals, murdering wildly for the fun of it. The devil himself is seen as half-animal. Even creatures which, to the conscious mind, have no special distinctive symbolism, still always have the general one that they represent a vast non-human realm, in many ways alien to us and beyond our understanding. To many of us much of the time this thought is delightful, but it can also be seen as a threat.

The snake-like alien T'Gatoi, as described in the quotation with which I open this study, is an excellent metaphoric example of the threatening nature of representations of the "vast non-human realm."

The key, according to Midgley, is to attempt to divest animals of the symbolism we place on them and, realizing our inability to "understand" them, to act with the care and respect we show (or should show) other humans whom we can comprehend little, if at all, better. This suggestion provides a helpful superficial behavioral response; however, Midgley does not address the political implications of textual representation. All representations metaphorize, and this is as true for animals as it is for women and people of color. The next step is to learn how to understand and use such representations. And this is where "Bloodchild" comes in. Reading the characters T'Gatoi and Gan as metaphoric representations of man and woman, master and slave, and animal and human highlights the processes of gynesis, ethnesis, and zoomorphesis.

Emphasis on the metaphoric impregnation of human males in "Bloodchild" makes the process of gynesis central to the story. In a 1986 article on Butler in Ms. magazine, Sherley Anne Williams reports that Butler "gleefully" describes "Bloodchild" as her "pregnant man story." Williams interprets the story as an exploration of "the paradoxes of power and inequality," as Butler portrays "the experience of a class who, like women throughout most of history, are valued chiefly for their reproductive capacities." I'd add that this "class" must be examined through issues of race and species as well as gender; however, Williams describes well the imaginative feminist space which makes the story so compelling a site for the study of gynesis in popular culture. Although human women tend to have more body fat—thus reducing their risk of damage or death at the bloodsucking mouths of the Tlic larvae—we learn that only men are "implanted." Human women are left to bear human children, especially sons for future Tlic usage and, at least superficially, human family bonding and happiness. Without such bonding, both species fear humans would become little more than pets or breeding stock.

One of the primary ways in which "Bloodchild" encourages a view of the Tlic power structure as a metaphor for human gender relations under patriarchy is through its depiction of men suffering the pains of childbearing (and when "birth" means removing grubs from around your internal organs, the pain can be intense). Even more powerful, however, is the suggestive complication of traditional gender roles during intercourse. Consider a description near the end of the story, as the young human male Gan recounts being drugged and "implanted" with T'Gatoi's eggs:

… I undressed and lay down beside her. I knew what to do, what to expect. I had been told all my life. I felt the familiar sting, narcotic, mildly pleasant. Then the blind probing of the ovipositor. The puncture was painless, easy. So easy going in. She undulated slowly against me, her muscles forcing the egg from her body into mine.

The image of the female penetrating the male and impregnating him clearly complicates the traditional gendering of sexual imagery. The undulating body of T'Gatoi, forcing the egg into Gan's body, recalls human intercourse from both female and male positions: T'Gatoi's action embodies both possession of the female egg and male penetration and ejaculation. To this is added a representation of acquaintance rape in Gan's passivity, despite his agreement to be implanted. This example of popular cultural gynesis invites consideration of the gender complexity of the "pregnant man" and the "impregnating woman."

My argument that representation can destabilize the reencoding process, thereby providing readers with images (if not language) to reject limiting and misleading categories of identification, necessitates more intensive examination of these figures. For the metaphoric sex scene in "Bloodchild," the question of destabilization vs. replication becomes whether the "pregnant man" and "impregnating woman" enable readers to reach beyond shock value to consider the scene a complication rather than a simple reversal of traditional gender types.

The image can be read as destabilizing primarily because neither character is clearly identifiable in terms of gender. When we look closely at the figure of the alien T'Gatoi, we see more than a reversal of gender roles. The Tlic's insect-like reproductive cycle (which I will also discuss in terms of species) complicates the gender absolutes of human culture. Tlic eggs are fertilized by the short-lived male of the species, then implanted by the female in a host body, in the kind of reversed sexual act described above. The female raises the infants when they are old enough to exist outside the host. Thus, T'Gatoi can be seen metaphorically to fill all biological and social parenting roles—leaving the Tlic male a less clearly identifiable role—or to problematize the case with which we ascribe gender roles in terms of parenting at all.

This destabilization of gynesis is limited, however, by an emphasis typical in Butler's fiction: Biological roles necessarily lead to the construction of social roles. T'Gatoi is both the government official in charge of the Preserve (filling a dominant and more traditionally "masculine" role, in terms of metaphoric reference to human culture) and caretaker of the humans against other Tlic who wish to return humans to the status of domesticated animals (the role of caretaker illustrating a more traditionally "feminine" role). It may seem merely logical to assign T'Gatoi both "masculine" and "feminine" social roles and personality traits to echo the gender implications of her reproductive functions. However, the emphasis on this parallel within the story evokes a problematic biological essentialism, for the problematization of gender roles seen in the complexity of the reproductive cycle becomes reduced to a simpler and more limiting role reversal when paired with biological determinism. That is, the depiction of reproduction we see in the scene between T'Gatoi and Gan cannot help us to destabilize the construction of gender if social roles reinforce a view of (biological) sex as determinant of subjectivity. Female Tlic dominate in this alien culture; males fill a passive, primarily reproductive function. Through this reversal of traditional human gender roles under Western patriarchy, we see a biologically determined matriarchy whose hierarchical nature limits its effectiveness as a creative textual response to patriarchy. Ultimately, destabilizing social roles would be more effective if biology were not destiny in Tlic culture, regardless of whether it resulted in a patriarchy or a matriarchy.

The issues of power and control which determine human-alien gender relations in "Bloodchild" are also suggestive of racial and species metaphors. Throughout the events of the story, Gan becomes increasingly aware of the way humans are controlled and used by the Tlic, enabling a reading of the text through metaphors of enslavement on both racial and species levels. To recontextualize Gan's growing cynicism, T'Gatoi recasts the situation from her perspective:

"The animals we once used began killing most of our eggs after implantation long before your ancestors arrived," she said softly. "You know these things, Gan. Because your people arrived, we are relearning what it means to be a healthy, thriving people. And your ancestors, fleeing from their homeworld, from their own kind who would have killed or enslaved them—they survived because of us. We saw them as people and gave them the Preserve when they still tried to kill us as worms."

T'Gatoi clarifies that the Tlic must be seen as protectors, to be contrasted, not compared, to the potential murderers or slavemasters the group of humans faced on Earth. The Tlic are fair beings who endured human violence to share in a mutually beneficial relationship. However, when we consider the situation as readers who can see the perspectives of Gan and T'Gatoi from increased critical distance, we also see an outsider faction of humans trading one form of oppression for another. Through Butler's representation of Gan, the product of this exchange of oppressions, we have the opportunity to examine the process of ethnesis in a metaphoric figure of the encultured "slave."

My reading of "Bloodchild" through metaphors of slavery would not necessarily sit well with Butler. In a 1990 interview, she made clear her concern with claims, such as interviewer Larry McCaffery's, that, "in one way or another, all [her] books seem to explore different forms of slavery or domination":

I know some people think that, but I don't agree, although this may depend on what we mean by "slavery." In the story "Bloodchild," for example, some people assume I'm talking about slavery when what I'm really talking about is symbiosis…. Let me tell you an anecdote about slavery. When I was about thirteen I found out on a visceral level what slavery was; before that I hadn't understood why the slaves had not simply run away, because that's what I assumed I would have done. But when I was around thirteen we moved into a house with another house in the back, and in that other house lived people who beat their children. Not only could you hear the kids screaming, you could actually hear the blows landing. This was naturally terrifying to me, and I used to ask my mother if there wasn't something she could do or somebody we could call, like the police. My mother's attitude was that those children belonged to their parents and that they had the right to do what they wanted with their own children. I realized that those kids really had nowhere to go—they were about my age and younger, and if they had tried to run away they would have been sent right back to their parents, who would probably treat them a lot worse for having tried to run away. That, I realized, was slavery—humans being treated as if they were possessions.

Butler's response reveals the usefulness of the term slavery both as historical experience and as a metaphor for other oppressions, while she apparently struggles with the uses critics make of her fiction as it addresses this issue. While I can sympathize with a resistance to having all of one's novels and short stories reduced to explorations of enslavement, I believe McCaffery is right to point to this powerful theme in Butler's fiction. When aliens control your destiny as fully as the Tlic control the humans, I call it enslavement. Nevertheless, while Butler refuses to label "Bloodchild" a story about "humans being treated as if they were possessions," she does offer a definition of slavery that encourages metaphoric readings (abused children as slaves).

As I argue above, a reencoding of race, whether as part of a metaphor for enslavement or "symbiosis," replaces a former philosophical and cultural tradition of denial of race issues. However, if, as Jardine asserts in reference to gender, this tendency is unavoidable in a system in which the alternative to metaphorization is a return to anatomical definitions, the promise of postmodern literary enactments of the process of ethnesis will be in their resistance to simple categorization and identification. In the context of "Bloodchild," the metaphoric representation of slavery between Tlic and humans offers such promise.

Butler's tendency to fall back on biological determinants at times in her representation of gender does not carry over to her depiction of race within "Bloodchild." Her approach to literary representations of race is generally similar to that of contemporary race theorists such as Gates, who sees this category as always already metaphorical. In addition, we are exposed to no literal human race relations in the story. T'Gatoi refers to an apparent oppression of humans in generations past which was so intense that it impelled Gan's ancestors to leave Earth, but we do not hear of conflict among humans at any level beyond the familial at the time of the story. Tlic understanding of humanness apparently neither permits nor recognizes racial difference among humans. Race relations become central to the story only in the metaphoric representation of alien-human conflict and the master-slave quality of the relationship between T'Gatoi and Gan.

One way to examine this site of ethnesis is to return to the previously discussed implantation scene. As a portrayal of a sexual relationship between dominant Tlic and disempowered human, the scene encourages a reading through the metaphor of white male slavemaster and enslaved female. T'Gatoi makes it clear to Gan that he must submit to her reproductive demands or she will take his sister, Xuan Hoa. She promises to care for Gan and to ensure that the "birth" of her children will not kill or cause him overmuch pain; however, the threat of the rape of his sister is behind this promise. The text seems to play on historical images of slavemasters who achieved sexual cooperation through threats and coercion consisting of simultaneous promises (for example, to free a slave or not to sell her children) and repeated threats (of beatings, death, or the breaking of former promises). Such methods demonstrate in graphic form the slavemaster's control over female slaves' bodies and the slave community.

In "Bloodchild," T'Gatoi literally owns Gan: his mother promised him to their Tlic protector at an early age. Gan's mother considered T'Gatoi a friend when she was young, before she fully understood the nature of their relationship. By the time of the story, however, she realizes that the only way she will escape Tlic domination is through death. She rejects T'Gatoi's attention and the sterile Tlic eggs which are given to humans to drink for their intoxicating and rejuvenating properties.

Gan is saddened by his mother's depression and the distance from her children which this grim emotional state encourages. He knows her attitude is related to T'Gatoi's power in his household, but he is helpless to change the situation. When T'Gatoi wants attention, she gets it. If she doesn't like a family member's behavior, she alters it. Gan's awareness of the power imbalance in human-Tlic relations is made particularly evident when he observes T'Gatoi's manipulation of his mother early in the story. He must watch as she is unwillingly reduced from a defiant state of tension and rigidity to one of drugged tranquillity as T'Gatoi strokes her shoulders, "toys" with her hair, convinces her to ingest the liquid from a sterile egg, and finally stings her to sleep with a scorpion-like tail. Observing this process, Gan thinks:

I would like to have touched my mother, shared that moment with her. She would take my hand if I touched her now. Freed by the egg and the sting, she would smile and perhaps say things long held in. But tomorrow she would remember all this as a humiliation. I did not want to be part of a remembered humiliation. Best just to be still and know she loved me under all the duty and pride and pain.

Gan seems remarkably aware of the nature of his mother's pain, and respectful of her desire to retain her dignity. After all, it is from his mother that he learned the importance of showing respect. He remembers her words: "It was an honor, my mother said, that such a person [as T'Gatoi] had been chosen to come into the family." But he also recalls that his mother "was at her most formal and severe when she was lying." She has passed on a respectful attitude that will keep her son alive, but cannot hide her true contempt for the oppressive system under which she must live.

T'Gatoi, like slavemasters of the antebellum South, attempts to win cooperation through coercion and contentment through narcotics. Gan's mother knows that humans have no control over their lives, yet she still resists in whatever form possible (without risking further her children's lives). Although Gan longs for the motherly affection that only submission to T'Gatoi will enable, he at least intellectually comprehends his mother's resistance and is, perhaps, inspired by it later in the story.

Gan's intellectual understanding becomes internalized after he witnesses the "blood ritual," which literally refers to the blood T'Gatoi devours as she removes living grubs from the body of an advanced implanted human whose own Tlic female was unavailable. Witnessing this scene, Gan loses his ability to live within the fantasy that humans are truly loved and protected by the Tlic. He had been watching his (human) mother growing daily more angry and resistant to T'Gatoi as the time for Gan's implantation nears. However, only after Gan has seen what this alleged affection can mean in terms of human life does he attempt to face the true nature of human-Tlic relations.

The conversation between Gan and T'Gatoi prior to implantation shows us Gan's growing awareness of his oppression. And through this emotionally charged discussion the ease with which we place these characters in a master-slave opposition begins to destabilize, because here we see T'Gatoi's vulnerability and Gan's strength, challenging the process of ethnesis as well as gynesis. Gan looks deep into T'Gatoi's yellow eyes and reflects, "'No one ever asks us … you never asked me.'" When T'Gatoi refuses to respond to Gan's statement, he poses the provocative question "'What does Terran blood taste like to you?'" and demands, "'What are you?… What are we to you?'" Finally, T'Gatoi answers, "'You know me as no other does…. You must decide.'" This enigmatic reply demands that Gan accept responsibility for constructing the terms of a relationship over which he has no control—and he refuses.

Gan cannot escape his destiny as the bearer of T'Gatoi's alien offspring, except at the cost of risking his sister's life; however, he is not content to construct his own image of their bond. He hopes to make T'Gatoi at least acknowledge the coercive nature of the relationship. When she refuses this responsibility by telling him to answer his own questions, he more forcefully demands that T'Gatoi at least ask him to carry her children, rather than demanding obedience. T'Gatoi, ever the skillful manipulator, reminds Gan that he is asking her to beg for the lives of her children; however, his demand also reminds her that the Tlic are dependent on humans for their survival. Cooperation is the only way to ensure that humans do not become like the unthinking native animals which destroyed the eggs to protect their lives. Only sentient and rational beings can trust that the grubs will be removed before killing their host. Awareness of this dependence does not prevent the Tlic from using many forms of manipulation to achieve cooperation, yet such awareness challenges a reading of slavery in terms of strong vs. weak or intelligent vs. ignorant. Both Gan and T'Gatoi have conflicted feelings about their relationship. The lives of both peoples are symbolically at stake unless they can come to some sort of agreement.

Humans will always be in a disempowered position in relation to the Tlic. Yet Gan can intervene, finding the gaps in T'Gatoi's apparently dominant position, forcing her to admit the contradictions in Tlic manipulation of humans, reenvisioning himself as more than purely victim. The best T'Gatoi can do when faced with the shock and indignity of having to beg for her children's lives is to ask, "'Would you really rather die than bear my young, Gan?'" Observing Gan's anguish at this manipulative remark, T'Gatoi rises to go to Xuan Hoa, but Gan knows this is the best he will get verbally. He knows he has caused T'Gatoi to feel some of the pain he must live with as a human under Tlic control. Before he agrees to the implantation, however, Gan demands one thing more: that T'Gatoi treat him with the respect he deserves by allowing his family to keep the (forbidden) rifle which T'Gatoi knows he has. "'If we're not your animals,'" he reasons, "'if these are adult things, accept the risk. There is risk, Gatoi, in dealing with a partner.'" This is the compromise Gan achieves before submitting to implantation. He will have some measure of power to defend himself. Ethnesis here addresses and challenges the misleading nature of categories such as "slave" and "master," thereby also complicating race relations and historical understanding in the world outside of the text.

These terms are also challenged at the level of species. When I first read "Bloodchild," I interpreted the story through human/non-human animal relations, as metaphoric commentary on wildlife preserves or zoos. To the extent that enslavement can be argued to reduce the status of human beings to that of animals or "brutes" (to borrow a word from Frederick Douglass and others), much of the complex system of oppression in "Bloodchild," if read through the processes of ethnesis and zoomorphesis, can help readers to reconsider traditional categories of race and human-animal relations. Tlic reliance on humans for breeding, paternalistic control and manipulation of human destiny, lack of freedom of movement for humans outside of the Preserve—all of these determinants of life for human and Tlic can be read as reencodings of elements of both master-slave and human-animal relations.

There are, of course, significant differences in behavior patterns and rationalizations in the enslavement of humans and that of animals. For example, in "Bloodchild," reference to the protected zone in which humans live as the "Preserve" calls to mind metaphors of human enslavement and colonization (as Southern whites rationalized as appropriate their brutal domination of the lives of enslaved Africans or as the white U.S. government forced Native Americans onto Reservations). But the term evokes animal enslavement even more so (it is closer to "domestication" in this context, despite the more obvious allusion to wildlife preserves), as the term can be interpreted on literal as well as metaphoric levels. However, when the Preserve is also referred to as a "cage," a clear movement into the terminology of species is evident.

One angle from which to clarify more fully the distinctions between race and species, and thus the processes of ethnesis and zoomorphesis in "Bloodchild," is through further examination of human-Tlic sexual relations. When examined together, two central images in the story complicate traditional categorizations of race and species: the depiction of early Tlic usage of humans for reproduction; and the Tlic's appearance and reproductive cycle. Life on the Preserve did not always allow family living, parent-child relations, or the relative freedom of selecting a human mate. Gan recalls:

Back when the Tlic saw us as not much more than convenient big warm-blooded animals, they would pen several of us together, male and female, and feed us only eggs. That way they could be sure of getting another generation of us no matter how we tried to hold out. We were lucky that didn't go on long. A few generations of it and we would have been little more than convenient big animals.

At first, the Tlic treated humans as though they were exchangeable for native animals such as the domesticated achti, furry though vicious creatures bred for implantation purposes (which, during the time the story takes place, are used dead as food into which hungry Tlic grubs are thrown after being removed from human bodies). Though the treatment is not incomparable to that of human enslavement, the reference to a "pen" which holds the humans indicates a metaphorization of domesticated animals such as cows and horses, which are often bred in a similar manner (though the taming effect of the eggs is in reality usually the physical binding of the female for the entrance of a male who has suffered prolonged forced abstinence).

Perhaps most intriguing in Gan's statement is his apparently unwitting acknowledgment of the species connectedness of humans and animals. If treated as animals (which we must read here as non-sentient or "unintelligent" beings), humans would in a few generations lose what they consider their unique gift (or legacy) from among the creatures of Earth. When confronted with the Tlic, who are unmistakably animal-like, humans realize the degree to which intelligence (and the value of that intelligence) is determined by those in power.

Gan is apparently unaware of the species implications of his fear that humanity might become "little more than convenient big animals," because knowledge of this earlier predicament does not stop his family from eating the meat of the Terran animals his mother raises (presumably the descendants of animals brought aboard the original spaceship with the escaping humans) or from slaughtering for their fur "several thousand local ones." Awareness of their people's status as (metaphoric) animals causes no change in Gan's and the other humans' problematic treatment of the animals under their control. Yet the tension in this textual reencoding of species enables the reader to problematize the process of zoomorphesis, to learn from the humans' unintentional hypocrisy and speciesism.

The "animalness" of the Tlic can clearly be seen in their appearance and reproductive cycle. As the story opens, we get a glimpse of T'Gatoi's species alienness through the sterile eggs her sisters have presented to Gan's family, her "long, velvet underside," reference to her numerous legs, and her coldness, combined with an intelligence that allows her to communicate with humans verbally. Images of amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and insects vie for accurate metaphoric labeling. Elements of all these, but most especially the insect realm, continue as we see T'Gatoi "cage" Gan's mother within her many limbs and sting her to sleep with her tail. Yet we learn even more when Gan describes her in vigorous action:

T'Gatoi whipped her three meters of body off her couch, toward the door, and out at full speed. She had bones—ribs, a long spine, a skull, four sets of limbbones per segment. But when she moved that way, twisting, hurling herself into controlled falls, landing, running, she seemed not only boneless, but aquatic—something swimming through the air as though it were water.

A fish- or sea mammal-like quality is added to the previous images here, as T'Gatoi flows, despite her boniness, through Gan's living room and out the door.

To this portrait is added an equally inhuman, insect-like reproductive cycle, including eggs which are fertilized by the male of the species, implanted by the female in a host body, and retrieved in order to save the life of the host. Ultimately, it is unimportant which specific (Terran) animals Butler has incorporated to challenge categories of species. The creature's primary significance is its ability to encourage in readers a discomfort in the labeling of any one group or another "animal." Through this destabilizing metaphorization, the complexity of human-alien relations allows us to see the degree to which species, like gender and race, is primarily a matter of who has the power to construct and label whom.

The emotional power of "Bloodchild" is barely suggested by such critical analysis. What we may learn from the story—that power relations ultimately determine the construction of identity, that how we see the world depends on how we are allowed or encouraged to see it—is related to but different from what we may feel. Butler manipulates her readers, emotionally even more than intellectually. As the story opens and we begin to read of sterile eggs and the velvet of alien skin, we are likely to be curious, though simultaneously disturbed by the alien's insistent attitude and watchful eye. We may experience further discomfort as we read of the alien female "caging" humans within her limbs to warm her body, and frustration as we watch a woman manipulated by an alien's power. Such reactions, which grow, as the story progresses, to invite feelings of fear, sorrow, and anger, encourage critical interpretation and explanation as we try to understand how and why we are pushed and pulled by Butler's subtle and evocative language.

Even as we reach the conclusion, after Gan has fought with T'Gatoi to reach what he considers a tolerable compromise, we may still feel ill at ease. T'Gatoi's final words, "'I'll take care of you,'" are an attempt to comfort Gan, yet they only inspire further anxiety and distrust. And this is where Butler leaves her reader—in "Bloodchild" as in all of her fiction—in an uncomfortable, compromised space which offers only a superficial and unsatisfying closure. However, this is where she must leave us if our emotions are to support critical interpretation. If we are to leave the story with the disturbing awareness that our understanding of what we label gender, race, and species is entirely relative to the position from which we are permitted to understand these categories, we must feel as well as know it intellectually.

(read more)

This section contains 6,990 words
(approx. 24 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Elyce Rae Helford
Follow Us on Facebook