After reading Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild and the afterword, controversy was sparked in class over Butler’s dismissal of the reading of her sci-fi short story as alluding to slavery. As I recall, there were a few in class who had interpreted it as such. I’ve written prior blog posts about Bloodchild and really enjoyed the read and how it dealt with Gan’s blooming maturity and the alien (I mean alien in the sense of foreign to me, not extraterrestrial) love shared between him and T’Gatoi.
I don’t agree with Butler that her story can’t be read as alluding to slavery because I feel no right to decide how people interpret something, but at the same time I think there are some key aspects of the story missed by those who read it this way.
I think one of the most important aspects that influenced the way I read the story was the perspective. The story is from the point of view of Gan, and as he narrates we must consider that his views while shaping our own are also shaped by the society as well as the hormonal emotions of a child becoming an adult.
Starting with the society we are introduced to, a few sentences tell us quite a lot. We learn that Gan’s people, the Terrans, fled Earth from persecution to find a new planet, where they discovered T’Gatoi’s species the T’lic. They now live in a tense harmony in a place called The Preserve. However, the Terrans are not allowed guns nor vehicles due to incidents in past generations where people of both species died. We also know that initially, before the Terrans arrived, the T’lic were dying out because they needed animals (like Gan) to carry their eggs. Soon after the Terrans met the T’lic, they were locked into pens and forced to carry T’lic babies and then slaughtered in the process of harvesting them. Only after generations did the T’lic and the Terrans come to an arrangement to stop the death. However, we can infer that not all T’lic feel this way as Gan tells us T’Gatoi is part of a faction that supports the peace, alluding to other factions who do not.
Because the Terrans and the T’lic have entered into a mutually agreed upon relationship, this is the first way I think the story isn’t about slavery. The slaves who were bought, sold, and forced to work had no say in their lives, were not part of any agreement, instead being treated as if they were property.
Gan narrates the story from the perspective of a youth moving into adulthood, and as we all know this can be a tumultuous time where we question things. We see this when Gan says “No one ever asks us… you never asked me,” referring to his inability to consent to being a N’tlic because he was chosen as a baby. To me, it is natural that Gan is angry and starting to question the things he accepted as a youth, but that does not mean nor does he ever say he feels like a slave. He does express feeling trapped like an animal into a life he doesn’t want, which I can see alluding to slavery, but who doesn’t feel trapped at certain points. Even the choice of going to college to some can feel like a trap, something we’re expected and must do even if we don’t want to.
I also think that if Gan were a slave, then T’Gatoi would be a slave master which I believe is a clear misreading of her character. She may seem at times emotionless, but we have to remember that she is of an alien species who don’t convey or may not even have emotions equal to our own. T’Gatoi always treats Gan with respect, allowing him to make his own decisions, stating in the face of his gun “you know you aren’t animals to us” and “because your people arrived, we are relearning what it means to be a healthy thriving people.” These are not the words of a dispassionate, careless master, but a caring partner.
I do agree with Butler that her story is about coming-of-age and love between two partners. At least, that’s how I read it. In the end, Gan chooses his own destiny and continues his relationship with T’Gatoi, and I get the sense that both hold a mutual respect and care for each other.