Saturday, December 31, 2016

Insectoid memories

I first read the short story "Bloodchild" in my Science Fiction class in 2007. It was my introduction to Octavia Butler and it haunted me. In her afterword to the story she explains that it wasn't meant to be a horror story, that it's supposed to be a fairly peaceful story about male pregnancy and respectful settlers. I think that part was lost on me because human pregnancy is real-world body-horror and adding aliens to that concept makes it that much more squicky.

Which doesn't mean the story isn't beautiful - it is. For such a short story it does a great deal of scene setting and relationship building that gives you just enough to let your imagination run wild. But then your imagination will run wild and it will haunt you.

Anyway, after first reading that story seven years ago I read Kindred earlier this year and purchased Bloodchild and Other Stories as a way of wading into Butler's canon without getting in over my head. I know I want to read everything she's ever written but I also know that she is a powerful author, whose words carve out pieces of the reader and leave questions and burning in their stead.

Some of the stories from this collection have featured heavily in my worst dreams since reading them - there's "Speech Sounds," a story that reminds me of the Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough at Last" in the worst way possible. "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" is full of slow, creeping ideas that let the horror seep into you as you read. "The Book of Martha" is existentially nightmarish. And Butler's own personal essays in this edition are a song of sorrow and struggle - little bites out of her life that explain how hard she had to work to do the one thing she knew she would be really brilliant at and how much the world fought her on it.

From all that I've read of Butler (two books - hardly a complete survey) her stories tell a lot about a lot of things on the surface but on a deeper level there are constant questions of control and autonomy. She's a black woman writer in a field that until recently has been almost completely made up of white men and I think that comes through in her work. Not in an overt way, though she doesn't shy away from discussing race and sex in her stories, but in the way that the writing challenges the reader to be good enough to deserve it, good enough to ask questions, good enough to see the oppression that is non-obvious.

Butler is a great writer and, again, I want to read everything that she's written. But she hurts to read, and her words wound because for something so fantastical they're staggeringly full of truth.

     - Alli

Butler, Octavia. Bloodchild and Other Stories. Seven Stories Press. New York:
     New York. 2005. (1996).

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