Author: Octavia E. Butler
Type: Fiction, short stories
Full title: Bloodchild and Other Stories
I read it: May 2013
Someone from our friends’ book club picked this one, and I had never heard of Octavia Butler. I figured the collection was going to be good when the staff person and I had trouble locating it at Magers & Quinn. At least one Butler volume was housed in science fiction, but we ended up back at regular fiction to find the stocked copy of Bloodchild. The blurrier those lines, the better.
The title story is that quintessential “literary science fiction” that is above genre description. In under 30 pages it reveals a bloody story of an intense, complex relationship between two very different beings. As Butler sums in her afterword for that story, it is a love story, a coming-of-age story, a “pregnant man story,” and a story spawned from her disgust at botflies. It is definitely a strong enough tale to carry this volume.
The second entry is “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” about two college-age youths who have a rare, dangerous disease. The female protagonist comes across light at the end of a suspicious tunnel, and Butler uncovers some very interesting questions about biology and humanity. In her afterword (there’s one of these after each story) she basically says that mulling over those questions was enough to spur the story, and it is clear she wants to take the reader along in her inquiries.
“Near of Kin” is a rather short piece that seems more of an intellectual exercise in exploring incestual relationships. Not much happens outside of dialogue, but again Butler succeeds in probing interesting questions. “Speech Sounds” is another classic “literary sci-fi” (ugh–genres) tale about a disease that has worn down most humans’ ability to read or speak. It moves at a perfect pace and ends simultaneously positive and negative. Butler claims her pessimism ignited the story, although she was able to put in a somewhat overt message of hope at the end. It’s a strong piece. “Crossover” is the strangest and thinnest of the stories, about a woman who works a soul-crushing job and then interacts with a soul-crushing male who may or may not be a ghost. It’s dark with little redemption, and not quite interesting enough to spend too much time on.
Smack in the middle of the book are two essays, “Positive Obsession” and “Furor Scribendi.” The first is a full, straight-to-the-point autobiography, with commentary on being a female, black science fiction writer. She says she thinks her interesting work is in her fiction and you can tell she does not really care to write about herself. The essay is the perfect length for such a mindset. “Furor Scribendi” is a shorter, related piece about writing itself. Her point is that a writer should “forget inspiration” and “forget talent” and focus on one word: “persist.”
Two more stories of decent length sum up the book. “Amnesty” shares common ground with “Bloodchild” in that humans exist in a fragile relationship with other, more powerful beings. “Amnesty” is a bit more cerebral, another intellectual exercise that would probably be more suited to a full novel, but it is still a quality piece. One strength of both these stories is that they feature fictional species that are not humanoid, and it is a joy to see Butler’s skill in relaying what it might be like to interact (quite intimately) with these wildly unfamiliar beings.
Finally, “The Book of Martha” is a mystical tale of a woman who is called upon by God to come up with one concept that she thinks would better humanity, and that God agrees to carry out. They have a quite natural dialogue about the limits of this bargain, and the woman converges on an idea about how to implant specific dream properties in humans so as to mitigate want and need. It’s a nice little sketch to round out the book.
Apparently this is Butler’s only complete short story collection, as she was foremost a novelist. I would not hesitate to pick up her longer works and see what other difficult, fascinating realities she created for her characters.