Speculative Parenthood – Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” and Priya Sharma’s “Egg”


Unqualified Analysis / Saturday, October 20th, 2018

“I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.” 

—Octavia Butler

Been thinking a lot about motherhood lately. I don’t have kids, but you know – maybe. As though in answer to my fear and uncertainty, the universe (i.e. Google) has delivered two very interesting (i.e. disturbing) speculative short stories on parenthood this past week.

One is “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler (free online here) and the other is “Egg” by Priya Sharma (available here, free). Both explore deep questions of parenthood through speculative fiction. Why is speculative fiction perf for this topic? Well, because as much as people like me say things like It’s natural and It’s beautiful and all that…pregnancy and child-rearing are terrifying. The kind of terrifying that’s buried under layers of cliche and every-day expectation.

And speculative elements create a bridge to understanding common things through uncommon means.

As a woman of childbearing age (especially during a time when reproductive rights seem so tenuous) the idea that I could become pregnant is, frankly, terrifying. Exciting, yes. And yes, despite all the Motherhood is Natural people out there, it’s still an alien imposition. A being in your uterus that lives off your juices and leaches calcium from your bones if you don’t have enough in your diet (like, wtf?).

And then once you have the child, you’re setting yourself up in an till-death-do-we-part commitment with a total stranger. A. Total. Stranger. Who could grow up to be the kind of child who shoots squirrels for fun. Dear. God. It’s crazy. The leap of faith we take. As a mother or father, you enter into a mythical and fantastical contract with an unknown being — to nurture the little monster, then let it go. 

 

Pregnancy in “Bloodchild”

If you read “Bloodchild” and then feel viscerally upset for a little while, you’re probably not alone. (Btw, Butler’s science fiction short story won both the Hugo and the Nebula, nbd. The setting: an alien planet where humans (Terrans) live on a Preserve. Like cattle, they’re tended and protected by the dominant species on the planet, bug-like aliens called Tlic. Terrans and Tlic have a complicated relationships whereby Tlic females impregnate male humans, who then carry their “grubs” until they’re ready to…emerge.

Gan, an adolescent male, narrates the story. Throughout, he is aware that T-Gatoi, a Tlic, will eventually impregnate him with her alien eggs. Though the drama does eventually ramp up (specifically during the part with the grubs; please read it so that I don’t have to shudder all by myself), Gan retains a unique sort of clarity, a detachment from his family that allows him to see the situation with what he believes is an objective eye.

Many people (myself included) initially read “Bloodchild” as a narrative about slavery and oppression. Afterwords, Butler expressed her amazement that people saw the story through that lens. In her eyes, it was a…love story.

Well, huh.

Butler also describes it in her afterword as her “pregnant man” story:

“I’ve always wanted to explore what it might be like for a man to be put into that most unlikely of all positions. Could I write a story in which a man chose to become pregnant not through some sort of misplaced competitiveness to prove that a man could do anything a woman could do, not because he was forced to, not even out of curiosity? I wanted to see whether I could write a dramatic story of a man becoming pregnant as an act of love—choosing pregnancy in spite of as well as because of surrounding difficulties.”

I don’t usually take much stock in what authors say about their work, but this was an exception. With Butler’s words in mind, I re-read the story. It definitely deepened the experience. On first read-through, it seems insane that anyone would choose to be impregnated by potentially dangerous grubs. But is it really THAT crazy?

The idea of being consumed by alien grubs from the inside out may seem extreme, but consider that 50,000 women in the United States along suffer severe maternal morbidity (extremely negative health consequences from pregnancy/childbirth) every year.

Choosing to grow a human child in your uterus is a risky undertaking. “Bloodchild” pushes the concept just about as far as it can go. Like all good speculative fiction, this forces the reader to reconsider something common, normal, and status quo, pushing us a little further into understanding.

Butler’s “pregnant man” exploration is interesting, as well. Though our culture grows more and more inclusive, our narratives on parenthood still predominantly feature cis-hetero Mom and cis-hetero Dad. “Bloodchild” challenges those paradigms and forces us to consider parenthood from a more inclusive standpoint.

Or it’s just a gross story about alien eggs. Idk.

Parenthood in “Egg”

I honestly have no idea how I found this story. Sometimes I feel like I’m panning for gold in the rivers of the internet and every once in a while I catch a nugget. If you want more from Priya Sharma, she has a bunch of free stories available on her website.

This short story on what it means to have and raise a child drew me within the first few sentences and kept me enthralled the entire time. “Egg” is rife with fantasy and fairytale elements, and also seems to take place in some sort of dystopian earth landscape:

“There’s a sparrow on the balustrade. A blighted bird, one of many breeds decimated by predators, harsh winters and pestilence. The public were outraged by the loss of blue tits and robins but sparrows are too nondescript to feature on calendars and cards.”

In this future-world or alternate-world where robins have surrendered to pestilence and harsh winters, the first-person narrator is unable to remain pregnant and desperately wants a child. One day, she makes a bargain with a strange bird-like hag-woman who’s roosting in her barn (I love speculative fic) with the promise that she’ll have a baby.

Here, I felt the full force of fairy tales, their precedent lending weight and foreshadowing and drama to the story. My first thought was of Rapunzel, in which the pregnant woman promises her child to the witch out of desperation for arugula. Desperation and desire make us do crazy things.

As is often the case when one makes supernatural deals with strange hags in one’s barn, the product of their bargain is surprising and alarming. The narrator’s child, Chick, is not as expected.

That’s all I’ll say, plot-wise. “Egg” highlights how incredible is the decision to have a child. In many ways, it means resigning your freedom and aspects of your selfhood and entering into a bargain, not with a supernatural hag, but with an actual human being – your child – that you’ve never met.

Despite their peculiarities, their differences from you, their unique challenges, as a good parent you make the decision (before they’re even born) to carry out your end of the bargain. No matter what.

 

And this is why I love speculative fiction

Do you know people who hate speculative fiction? Are you, in fact, one of those people?

Because storytelling is so personal, I certainly don’t judge readers on their preferences. But I do wonder if people who deride fantasy and sci-fi know they what they’re missing? Because fantasy, sci-fi, and horror elements don’t just exist to be weird or spo0o0ky for no reason. In the hands of talented writers like Octavia Butler and Priya Sharma, speculative fiction (even when it’s short, as I’ve discussed) is incredibly powerful.

Because we’re surrounded by narrative and storytelling all day long, even profound stories can become a little stale. Reality wears a little thin. Loses its punch. When I read stories like “Bloodchild,” the visceral and horror elements don’t just thrill me for the sake of thrills. These stories awaken me to powerful truths that somehow pass me by on other days. Choosing to carry a child in your uterus is a big fucking deal, okay?

And in the case of “Egg,” the narrator’s strange child reminds us: you don’t get to choose what your children are like. And if you’re not okay with that reality….eesh.

By stretching boundaries and pushing ordinary situations to their most extreme, speculative fiction helps break down barriers in thought. Helps us push past cliches and the mundane and into the heart of some of the most pressing concerns of a human lifetime. Forces us to reconsider common situations from uncommon perspectives—to get to the heart of the truth.

P.S. Octavia Butler also wrote “Bloodchild” to explore her profound fear of botfly infestation. Fun!

 

17 Replies to “Speculative Parenthood – Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” and Priya Sharma’s “Egg””

  1. I’ll give ’em a read. Thanks.
    I’m not hot on the actual use of the word ‘speculative’ in speculative fiction. In the finance world, to speculate is to imagine what could happen — within the realm of reason and reality.

    So, to me spec fiction represents stories that project the future in a reasonable and non-fantastical fashion. Monsters, gods, angels, aliens and magic is not speculating about the future. “‘Dat shit ain’t real and never will be.”

    So, what you describe is, again, to me, fantastical sci-fi. Yeah, I know THOSE IN POWER OF OUR GENRES have deigned that spec fiction is practically any “out of bounds” fiction, bah! Speculative fiction should be a speculation about how our world and culture will turn out tomorrow or in a million tomorrows.

    (A million tomorrows? you ask… How can we possibly know? Physics and 2^70th coin flips that says the Fermi Paradox is not a paradox at all.)

  2. Octavia’ botfly fear is well founded: https://youtu.be/Aydm7dgBN0g?t=275

    On a similar note: I recall a book I read many decades ago about an alien “mother” who marries a Terran. They live a happy life for awhile until she ask him if he would like to have children. He emphatically says yes, but this depresses her. The perform the act and as she becomes gravid and all her friends start to shun him. He has no idea why. Eventually he learns the truth — on the day she goes into labor — all mother’s of this alien race must die as they give birth.

      1. (Wise choice, though curiosity may get the better of you (the mouse lives).)
        This was in the 80’s; no, I’m afraid not. I was a voracious reader in the 80’s. I’d checkout sci-fi library books by the foot, take whole chunks from the shelves.

  3. I don’t know, if I was female I’d be very reluctant to have a child – especially now. Not only do you have to forfeit all freedom, money, and most happiness for 20+ years; and not only is childbirth risky and all, but most men are also pieces of crap. There’s absolutely no guarantee that the father will contribute a dime to raising a child, or that having him around will even be a good thing. ESPECIALLY now. I’m not trying to tell you what to do, and obviously we might have different perspectives on motherhood (given certain biological differences), but it just seems like a bad deal.

    1. Well, I’m lucky enough to have a very reliable partner so I don’t have to worry about some of those things. And from my perspective, in-the-moment happiness and freedom are things I’ve thought very carefully about surrendering for some time. The trade-off seems worth it, to me.

      I’m more worried about things like climate change impacting my children and grandchildren. And, like I said, having the type of kid who shoots squirrels for fun.

      1. Thank goodness you have a reliable partner, that will make the whole child thing considerably easier. Climate change and other causes of impending doom are something to think about, given that future generations might have a harder time simply surviving. But I don’t know, it sounds like you’ve been considering this for a while.

        1. I have been thinking about it for some time! And I’ve thought a lot about how many of the previous generations have had fears for the future, for their own children and grandchildren. Think about what it was like to have children during the Great Depression or during the tense years of the Cold War. I don’t know. Fears about climate change are very reasonable, but it’s dangerous to live a life based on fear. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. It’s definitely a decision everyone should spend time with and sort through individually.

  4. Yeah there is a terrifying element to becoming a parent. I will admit that the first story does sound like there were some horrifying elements- and I’d have been surprised to hear the author say it was about love (I’d say “shows what I know” and then I read that comment at the end and that makes more sense to me as a motivation for writing a story like that 😉 ). I really like the sound of the second story and the themes it deals with. I really think that people that deride speculative fiction don’t know what they’re missing too. I absolutely love what you said here: “Forces us to reconsider common situations from uncommon perspectives—to get to the heart of the truth.”- cos damn, if that isn’t true

    1. Thank you for commenting! Yes, I truly recommend both short stories (though would not recommend reading “Bloodchild” before, during, or directly after a meal). I’m glad you agree with the points about speculative fiction. I’ve always been just a wee bit more inclined towards fantasy and sci-fi so I know I’m biased, but I do think these genres can really open us up to experiences. Lately, I’ve been really wanting to read more speculative fiction that deals with eco-issues or climate-change, but I’m having a hard time finding specific short stories. Any suggestions?

  5. Your terrifying description of parenthood made me laugh, Mary,… because it’s so true! Lol. It’s just like that!

    What interesting stories, particularly Bloodchild and its dramatic shifting of paradigms. I love speculative fiction too, and I’m glad I landed in the genre as a writer. The best of it, for me, are the stories and books that make me take a fresh look at the “givens” of my culture and the human culture in general. Speculate fiction offers a lot of opportunity for creative liberty where more reality-based fiction has to confirm. Books are powerful. 🙂

    1. So completely true: books are powerful and can shift our long-held perspectives. I, too, am glad I landed myself in the speculative fiction category as a writer. It’s very helpful for when reality becomes a bit too much.

      As for parenthood…I’m not sure all the speculative fiction in the world can truly prepare me for that next part of my life (should it arise), but I’m definitely using fiction to help me wrap my head around the concept!

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