What Makes a Creature?

I would like to start this post by asking a question:

“What makes a creature?”

The word “creature” was thrown around a lot during in last week’s discussion of “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler, particularly regarding the character T’Gatoi. T’Gatoi is what Butler calls a Tlic, a race of large, centipede-like creatures who control groups of humans that settled on their planet. The Tlic use human beings as hosts for their eggs and keep members of their species in human households, where they serve as an authority figure.

It initially seems easy to characterize T’Gatoi as a “creature”, or an “alien”. Butler describes her as having, “bones-ribs, a long spine, a skull, four sets of limb bones per segment…. She seemed not only boneless but aquatic-something swimming through the air as though it were water.” I know when I first read this, T’Gatoi reminded me of an alien out of a b-movie from the fifties or sixties. My mind had been coded to recognize this as a foreign other, and before we discussed “Bloodchild” in class, I thought of her as such.

That brings me to what Dr. McCoy said when “creature” was used in that class. McCoy challenged the use of such a word, pointing out the complexity of the Tlic and their society. Upon re-reading the story, I could not help but notice this. Not only is T’Gatoi is capable of speech and reasoning like any other human character in this short story, but her species have their own civilization and culture. They have existed much longer than any of the humans on their planet. With this in mind, I agreed that T’Gatoi is indeed a person.

But the question I want to get at is why many of us see T’Gatoi and think “creature” or “alien”. I think this is because tribalism and otherization is part of our nature as human beings. Oftentimes this otherization is based on appearance or the small things that make us different. I believe that Butler is using T’Gatoi as a way to challenge our notions of personhood, by presenting us, with a being that is so outwardly inhuman, but every bit as complex as a human being. As I mentioned earlier, other works of science fiction and media prepared me to otherize T’Gatoi and look at her as a malicious, alien entity. This reading showed me how deeply these base-level assumptions are ingrained into my minds and how myself and others need to be more aware of our personal biases. While I’m sure our prejudices are a bit subtler than calling an insectioid extraterrestrial a “creature”, they are nonetheless something we all need to be more aware of as writers, readers, and learners. I am glad I read “Bloodchild”, because made me wonder less about what makes T’Gatoi a creature, and more about what makes her a person.

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