Bloodchild and other stories

Lists are fun. Hence me browsing the fantastic Classics of Science Fiction, an aggregated ranking site by James W. Harris – who blogs about sci fi and getting older over at Auxiliary Memory. I saw that Bloodchild by Octavia E. Butler was ranked as the most cited (i.e. best) science fiction short story. For what it’s worth, it also won a Hugo, Locus, Nebula & SF Chronicle award. As I hadn’t read anything yet by Octavia Butler, I thought Bloodchild would be a good place to start. I found a cheap second hand copy of Bloodchild and Other Stories easily, and here we are.

There’s a couple of editions of the collection. The copy I got was published in 1995, and that has 5 stories, plus 2 essays. From 2005 onward however, it has been printed with two more stories – Amnesty and The Book Of Martha, both written in 2003. I did some googling and I found those easily, here and here – I’ll review them too. The fact that I chose to look online for the additional material is telling: this is not a bad collection – and that from an author who opens the preface to her collection with this line: “The truth is, I hate short story writing.”

It’s somewhat of a behind the scenes publication: each story is followed by an afterword of about 2 pages, in which Butler talks a bit about what she wanted to do with the story or how it came about. They are generally interesting, nothing spectacular, but nice enough. There’s also 2 short essays on writing, and I’ll say a few words about those later.

I’ll just do a quick write up of each story and a wee bit of concluding thoughts. This’ll be a fairly short review for a short book: 145 pages in my edition. Here we go:

Bloodchild (1984, 26 pp.)
I get why this is a much lauded story. On the surface, it looks like it is about slavery. It seems to be about moral stuff. Butler being black must have added to that impression. It’s also excellent in evoking mood: it’s creepy, with a horror vibe at times. It’s also about family, love and compassion. As such, it pushed a lot of buttons the right way. Without wanting to spoil that much, it’s about alien overlords and their symbiotic relationship to humans. It’s interesting Butler notes in the afterword that it has nothing to do with slavery whatsoever: this is her version of a pregnant man story. All and all, sound writing, but the moral complexity is quite thin, and while the overall build up works, it becomes a tad too predictable too fast.

The Evening and the Morning and the Night (1987, 33 pp.)
The opening pages are outright fantastic. Again Butler succeeds in creating mood expertly. Again echoes of oppression: the story is about people with a particular disease that are forcefully sterilized and have to wear emblems. It’s a good story, plain and simple. I do think it’s a bit formulaic in the part that hinges on the fact that destructive energy is being transformed into creative energy.

In the afterword, she writes this story was born “wondering how much of what we do is encouraged, discouraged, or otherwise guided by what we are genetically.” She goes on and adds: “This is one of my favorite questions, parent to several of my novels.” In my analysis of Dune a few weeks ago, I wrote that “I have long held the suspicion that what underlies big parts of literature is the way we relate to us being determined.” Butler seems to confirm this, but as an analysis of the matter her short story fails a bit at depth, as if context always trumps the gene factor, and nurture is king.

At face value, this is a story about someone who’s emphatic enough to see the hidden powers of people that are feared, criminalized, misjudged & underestimated. Again, Butler being black cannot be separated from its interpretation & reception.

Near of Kin (1979, 11 pp.)
Not a speculative fiction story at all, but a vignette of social realism. It was born from Butler’s Baptist childhood, and her reading the Bible – as a result, she wanted to write a “sympathetic story of incest. My examples were Lot’s daughters, Abraham’s sister-wife, and the sons of Adam with the daughters of Eve.” The result is rather bland.

Speech Sounds (1983, 19 pp.)
This one won a Hugo as well, and it is outright fantastic. There’s a caveat though: it really should have been a novel. The basic idea is so good, that it deserves better than just 19 pages. The story is set 3 years after a pandemic swept through humanity. The disease does a few things, like impairing one’s speech, or one’s comprehension of speech, or one’s ability to read & write. The net result is that verbal communication isn’t possible anymore. What follows is a dystopian breakdown.

It’s a clever twist on a post-apocalyptic zombie story, and one that focuses on one character in one short instance of her life. In a way, it’s a cop out: the ramifications of such a disease are huge, and to write a realistic, well researched novel on the matter is a daunting task indeed. It would have been the social sciences version of Seveneves. Maybe Stephenson can pick up the baton?

Crossover (1971, 7 pp.)
Again a vignette of social realism. This time on alcohol as a coping mechanism, as the character faces a dull, grinding factory job. Butler did her fair share of such jobs as well, so this is partly autobiographic. Tragic as it is, ultimately, it’s generic.

Positive Obsession (1989, 11 pp.)
An autobiographical account on how Butler struggled to become a writer. The essay reminds us about the double social inequality Butler faced being a black woman. She was born in 1947 and grew up before the de jure end of segregation in 1964. A compelling piece of writing.

Apart from the race issue, Butler seems to be the stereotypical budding science fiction writer: shy & bullied, escaping in books, and wanting to help stimulate humanity’s imagination & creativity. Not very interesting in that respect.

Furor Scribendi (1993, 4 pp.)
4 pages full of advice of what one should do if one wants to become a writer. Open doors aplenty. Maybe of interest if you were a teenager in the days before the internet? That’s not meant as an insult: I’m not the target audience.

Amnesty (2003, 17 pp.)
The story is set against the backdrop of an alien invasion that’s more or less benign. Still, the appearance of the aliens caused a giant economic crisis, and humanity is still reeling from that. As I read somewhere on Goodreads, the bulk of the story is one big info dump: a character explaining stuff about the aliens to a few new recruits. “Info dump” shouldn’t be taken as a negative: also formally this is an interesting addition to the overall collection.

There’s a bit of easy handwavium though – I guess some parts of the plot would have suffered if it had been made into a full novel. But again: it seems Butler isn’t interested in the hard science part of her stories.

Amnesty focuses on the ethical difference between intention and result, and its effect on forgiveness. The questions the story raises are not that interesting – the answers are fairly obvious – but the story works nevertheless: there was enough sense of wonder & discovery.

The Book of Martha (2003)
A bit of a self-congratulatory story about the power of stories and creativity: dreams can save the world!! In the story, God gives a black woman the power to change one thing about humanity. The resulting conversation she has with God about what to do is dull and simplistic, cartoon social analysis. For about a page, it tries to say something deep about free will too – yet this time Butler strangely disregards genetics. There’s even an attempt at a few bits of theology, but God being bored is rather boring in itself – maybe not for someone raised as an American Baptist, again, I’m not the target audience for Deep Thought Light.

It’s interesting Butler didn’t escape Cold War brainwashing & the mantra of capitalism: the story claims competitiveness is essential for our survival.

All and all a varied collection of which the 4 longer stories are worth it, Speech Sounds being my favorite. Butler’s stories are not successful on all accounts, but they are solid for sure, except for the abysmal The Book of Martha.

A final, crucial remark… This collection didn’t convince me to start one of Butler’s long form novels, and I can’t really explain why. Maybe because I felt lectured at times – Butler being overall too transparent about her social & ethical intentions? With that in mind: feel free to recommend me an Octavia E. Butler novel in the comments!

Consult the author index for all my other reviews, and here is a link to my favorite lists.

19 responses to “BLOODCHILD AND OTHER STORIES – Octavia E. Butler (1995)

  1. Butler is one of those authors I keep telling myself to sample, and this short story collection could be a good place to start – although the “caveat” about her not liking the short story format very much might point toward it not being her preferred means of expression…
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes in retrospect maybe I should’ve started with a novel indeed. Don’t get me wrong, I did like this collection, but in the end, I’m just lukewarm about it.
      In the preface Butler says she didn’t write that many shorts because of the reason you infered. The ones that did happen simply turned out that way.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. If you felt lectured, makes me wonder what you’d feel like reading a full novel?
    I’ve never read her stuff, it never interested me and all of your descriptions here simply confirm that ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • Damn, I was kinda hoping that you as mega-reader could point me in the right direction here. (Well you kinda dus, but…)

      Liked by 1 person

      • sorry. I don’t read a lot of female authors because I end up ranting about something or other (usually sjw stuff) so I’ve just started avoiding them on general principle. Unless a reviewer I trust goes over a series of books or something. That is probably a more recent development on my part though (I say recent, but I mean a decade ๐Ÿ˜€ )

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s what I call going against the grain, in this age where people post yearly piecharts of the percentages of the interest groups the authors they’ve read belong to.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yeah, I’ve never understood that practice. What is the point of it? It’s an artificial data point to make yourself feel better about some nebulous idea?

            I certainly wouldn’t un-follow someone just for doing that, but the kind of people who do that usually end up having other habits and ideas that lead me to eventually giving up on them.

            Nor do I go around saying people shouldn’t do those piecharts. I like charts. But I like data that I can use ๐Ÿ˜€ Of course, I’ve thought about doing a post mocking the idea by using the color of the bookcover as my metric for which books to read ๐Ÿ˜€ ๐Ÿ˜€ ๐Ÿ˜€ But then I realize my attitude is wrong so I don’t.

            Thanks for letting me vent here!

            Liked by 1 person

            • Vent all you want! It’s an interesting subject. I do think there are serious problems because of racism, sexism, underrepresentation of certain groups, etc. But I do think the practice of publishing such charts is little more than virtue signaling, achieving very little real world result.

              While I understand some people’s reasoning, I would never try to balance my reading stats to achieve some symbolic political goal for myself. I choose what I want to read solely on what interests me, not on what group an author belongs to. I do think readers that do that ultimately care less about what’s in the book, and more about politics. On the other hand, if you have a broad taste pallet and if you’re not picky, why not try to challenge yourself and base your decisions on what to read next not primarily on what’s in the book but on whose picture is on the back cover? Also, if you’re as interested in the content of book A as in book B, but only have money for one, maybe it’s a not a bad thing to buy the book of the author that belongs to an underrepresented or oppressed category. But still: also in that case I would read the first couple of pages of each, and pick the one that clicks best.

              Liked by 1 person

  3. oberon the fool

    I suggest you read Xenogenesis (also republished as Lillith’s Brood). It’s sort of a magnum opus, combining a lot of the stuff she touches on in these short stories into one grand story of three people who determine the future of three species- humanity, the aliens who save us from our postnuclear wasteland, and the species newly formed from the fusion of the two. It is possibly the best novel (well, trilogy, technically) I’ve ever read, and I feel like I get more out of it every time I read it.

    As for Bookstooge swearing off female authors, wow. Takes huevos to admit you’re a sexist pig right out loud like that. Kudos.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the rec! I’ve read up a bit on it, and it seems quite a few people think the characters are rather thin (at least in the first book) – something I can get over if the rest of the novel holds up.
      Something else that concerns me is that Butler seems to reduce humanity’s problems to a genetic predisposition to hierarchies, resulting in self-destructing violence, etc., paired with a struggle to be free. I’m not sure I like such an approach to society’s problems, pointing to one main cause, even though these aliens might be wrong in their perception when all is said and done in the trilogy, it seems as they are at least partly mouthpieces for Butler?

      Terence Blake also wrote this on the aliens in his review: “They have no art, and no literature, and seem to think only literally. (…) They do not use writing, as they have more direct means of communication: nervous system to nervous system, chemical and genic interfacing. They are capable of understanding writing and of using it, but they would only be able to write documentary histories, no theory, no science, and no fiction.” When I read all that, I’m a bit suspicious of the possibility of a giant philosophical mess, e.g. I don’t see the difference between documentary history or theory/science, or the difference between brains/genes whatever to store information and writing on paper, etc. I’m also afraid Butler is again writing about the importance of creativity and so ultimatly, her own work (fiction), something that doesn’t really interest me if it’s dealt with in a superficial binary way. Part of this might be Blake’s summary itself – the novel is richer than a review, I get that, but as I’ve become a bit weary of authors trying to teach their audience via shaky allegory.

      I wonder if you could comment on my concerns a bit? I’m seriously thinking of giving the first book a try, it’s just 260 pages, but it would be nice to have more perspective beforehand.


      • oberon the fool

        Well, what I can say is this; the arc of the three novels covers three distinct perspectives, who each relate to the Oankali and to humanity in their own way. I didn’t personally find any of them thin, but ymmv. My own sympathies have shifted over the years as I’ve reread the series many times and I’ve related to them differently as a teen, 20something, 30something, and now 40something. I can totally understand how some folks feel Butler is preachy, but what I think is easy to miss is that she’s less interested in telling you how you should feel or think about something than she is in throwing wild ideas at you and just asking to think and feel whatever you will, so long as you think and feel *something*. I just read her last novel, Fledgling, recently, and like many of her novels it’s about genetically different people interacting with humans, but the “messages” one could take from it seem, to me, markedly different from the ones in Xenogenesis, or Parable of the Sower. She was clearly really intrigued by these ideas, but I don’t think she had necessarily even made up her own mind about how to feel about them before she passed. I think she just kept throwing similar ideas out there as she wrestled with the themes, and it’s on us to decide for ourselves what to take from them. I know what I get out of them now is not what I did in my youth.

        I would say that assuming any character is necessarily a mouthpiece for Butler or is treated as “right” by the story would be a mistake. All the characters have their flaws and foibles, and being powerful does not make one right or wrong by default.

        To my mind, Butler isn’t a preacher- she’s a storyteller. What you do with the stories once they are within you is up to you. Personally, I’ve found them enriching and mind expanding, and then later through provoking and complex. And who knows next time what I’ll find?

        Happy reading!

        Liked by 1 person

        • You’ve sold me. Those are some good perspectives to keep in mind when I’ll start this. (I’ll try to do that in 2020, but I can’t promise I will read the entire trilogy, the first book will need to do the rest of the convincing.) I’m still curious whether I’ll find the questions she puts forward still relevant or well-formulated, but I’ve read some glowing reviews of people I trust, so I’m hopeful. Thanks for the elaborate answer, it really helped.

          Liked by 1 person

    • As for Bookstooge, we clearly have our differences, but I appreciate his straightforward honesty, something that is often lacking in these culture war debates. His comment was indeed sexist strictu sensu, but I’m not sure about your “pig” qualification, that seems to be a moral one. There’s tons of evidence that – on average, when counting frequencies – there are differences in biology, behavior and development between males and females, and even though the differences among individual males and females can be just as big or even bigger as between the two sexes on average, it’s not unthinkable that some males don’t click as well with female authors as they do with male ones.

      I’ve read glowing reviews of female authors by Bookstooge, so I read his comment not as a condemnation of all female authors, but as a personal strategy that takes certain personal averages into account, a strategy that developed over the years to avoid disappointment. I’m not sure getting to know your preferences and communicating about them qualifies as being a pig.


  4. oberon the fool

    An eloquent and well reasoned defense! But I don’t buy it. I’ve waded through scads of similar comments from folks when fiction podcasts do a month of non-male authors, crying reverse-sexism or whatever. It’s nonsense. “Female authors” don’t have anything in common just based on their gender, that’s a silly assertion on the face of it. And a good chunk of great books by “male authors” are and always have been by female authors working pseudonymously for the very reason that sexism has been and is still rampant in the literary world. Also, Bookstooge straight up cites “sjw stuff”, which is just a straight up red flag. If you don’t like social justice, you are by definition, a pig.

    Now sure, the practice of wearing one’s “wokeness” on one’s sleeve to score social capital is pretty crappy, but I’ll take a million wannabe-woke people who can probably be brought around to just being cool without being a douche about it over a single bigot any day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The way I’ve come to know Bookstooge, he’s not really a bigot in the sense that he doesn’t tolerate other opinions, it’s just that he’s clear about his own. But yes, he’s a religious conservative guy, so I maybe shouldn’t start a semantic discussion about bigotry. I know what you mean. I’m also not contesting the existence of sexism.

      The thing is, over the years I have come to see that people with a different ideological framework are not pigs. Truly bad people are rare. Sure, I think people that cling too literally to the Bible or economic conservative politics or ethnic sterotypes or generalizations about women are a bit or wholly misguided, but guess what, they think the same about me. I’ve argued for hours and weeks and months with some very intelligent people, and while I – obviously – won the debate, they don’t seem to think so. I’m not advocating moral relativism here – I do think there are scientific, factual cases to be made for progressive, inclusive, redistributive policies, but good luck convincing the electorate about that, the Torries just won, did they not? Nobody cares about facts.

      In the last 15 years, the context I work in resulted in me developing deep personal relationships with conservative and/or deeply religious people, and while we often disagree, I’ve noticed that a dialogue is possible, and that dialogue results in a better mutual understanding, respect, at times even shifts in position – because as I said, most people strive for good, it’s just that our frameworks differ. Slapping out words like ‘pig’ simply is totally unproductive, and results in trench warfare quickly, and we don’t want that: we are outnumbered, Oberon The Fool.


  5. oberon the fool

    Well, here in the States, we’re also taking a lot of bad hits in the culture war, and it tends to make us a bit spikey. Or me, at least.

    I’m willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt if I think they can be reached, but once someone proves they aren’t interested in listening, I’m not going to continue wasting my breath.

    Anyway, it’s your forum here, so you can police it or not as you like. Apologies if I overstepped.

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Butler’s work when you get to it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Times are becoming bleaker every day it seems. At times it wears me down too. In Europe, things aren’t that much better – but at least we still have social security & cheap education.

      No apologies needed whatsoever: a big part of why I keep doing this blog is that it is a way to force myself to crystallize my thoughts, and dialogue is helpful with that.

      Liked by 1 person

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