The first book I finished in 2018 was Octavia E. Butler’s Bloodchild and other stories, the 2005 second edition. It contains five previously published stories, two essays, then two unpublished stories, as well as short afterwords for each piece, written by Butler.
I bought this book at my local independent bookseller, Better Read Than Dead, after I turned up ten minutes early to meet someone who was fifteen minutes late, so I needed something to do. I’ve wanted to read something by Octavia Butler for a while, and for the last month have been checking speculative fiction sections in bookstores, with not a lot of success. That day I hit the jackpot.
Bloodchild and other stories has been for me the perfect introduction to Butler’s work. All the pieces are eminently readable, highly imaginative, thought provoking and sometimes challenging. Before I’d got to the end I had already ordered another book of hers online.
The common thread emerging from the afterwords are that Butler used short fiction (and maybe fiction in general) to examine things she was curious about, like the concept of utopia in The Book of Martha (first published 2005), or working class people with serious mental health challenges in Crossover (1971).
My two favourite stories, Bloodchild (1984) and Amnesty (2003) both come with a similar premise – that humans are no longer the dominant species on the planet they live on, and in order to survive they need to find ways to cohabitate with the alien species. It sounds like a big concept, but Butler examines it through the eyes of a single person in a very real and personal manner, leaving me thinking about the nature of love, dependence, trauma and compromise.
The other standout was The Evening and the Morning and the Night (1987), (which someone really should make a film of). It’s set in a near future where an attempt to cure cancer has gone wrong and left a number of people with Duryea-Gode Disease, with all those infected becoming social outcasts.
One of the great things about the whole collection is how the lead characters are positioned from a position of disadvantage, discrimination, or lack of privilege and agency – children drugged by alien eggs, women in a silent and violent world, a Black woman meeting God.
There’s something vital and alive about these stories, especially in a world where popular culture, politics, etc. remain overly dominated by men fighting other men for power. An even where there’s better representation – for example of women, people of colour, or people with disabilities or sexual or gender diversity – our stories too often focus simply on replacing the bastards (leading to becoming the bastards) rather than challenging the structures creating the inequity in the first place.
Butler’s work challenges us to find new ways to exist, to change the way we view power and what we can do about it.
In Amnesty the main character, Noah, says:
‘The only difference between the way they treated me and the way the aliens treated me during the early years of my captivity was that the so-called human beings knew when they were hurting me.’
Butler died in 2006 at age 58, a year after this collection was released. An American science fiction writer who won multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards, in the essay Positive Obsession (1989) she writes ‘there was exactly one other Black science fiction writer working successfully when I sold my first novel (in 1976): Samuel R. Delaney Jr. Now there are four of us.’
She goes on, answering the question what good is science fiction, or any kind of fiction, to Black people, with words relevant to everyone:
‘What good is science fiction’s thinking about the present, the future, and the past? What good is its tendency to warn or to consider alternate ways of thinking and doing? What good is its examination of the possible effects of science and technology, or social organisation and political direction? At it’s best, science fiction stimulates imagination and creativity. It gets reader and writer off the beaten track, off the narrow, narrow footpath of what “everyone” is saying, doing, thinking – whoever “everyone” happens to be this year.’