Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler. A collection of seven short stories and two essays.
These stories are masterful examples of weaving world-building into a story so it’s part of the tapestry. Contrasted with a writer stepping out of the story and speaking directly to a reader: “Okay, since this story happens far into the future, on another planet, I need to bring you up to speed on the lay of the land.” Then giving an explanation of the world.
I realize in fantasy and science-fiction stories this needs to be done to some degree. Some explanation is helpful to understand the physical and societal landscape of the different world. We’re not on Earth anymore, Toto.
Nor are we on Earth in the “Bloodchild” story. Rather, we’re on the planet of aliens called Tlic, and humans are kept in a limited area called the Preserve. (Echoes of how Native Americans have been treated in the US.)
The relationship between humans and the Tlic is interesting, as each group helps the other. Part of that is history: well before the time of the story, humans left Earth in search of safety and found it on the Tlic planet. There, the humans aided the Tlic. And now, the Tlic who live on the Preserve give narcotic comfort to humans, and male humans serve as hosts for Tlic eggs.
Octavia Butler had an amazing imagination to craft this story. Same with the others in this collection.
In “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” a cure for cancer has been created. But it has side effects. If a cured person has a child, that child develops a disease that causes them to be violent and hurt themselves. The story explores treatment for the disease.
In “Speech Sounds,” a sickness has spread through the world. With some people, they can’t speak any longer. With other people, they can’t read or write. The story follows Rye as she leaves Los Angeles and travels to Pasadena to be with her family. She must navigate a harsh landscape. Government has fallen, so law enforcement is done by people organizing on their own. Survivors scavenge for resources and some people take them by force.
The stories in this book show how a world can be condensed into a short story. To me, each story was like taking the lid off a jar and tipping it, so the fantastical contents roll out — but more contents come out than should’ve been able to fit in the jar. Ideas that could’ve supported a novel are in each story. And the stories can ignite us to envision more of those novels beyond their paragraphs.
Mind of My Mind by Octavia E. Butler
This novel is the second in Ms. Butler’s Patternist series.
The back cover text of this book really grabbed me: “For four thousand years, an immortal has spread the seeds of an evolutionary master race, using the downtrodden of the underclass as his private breeding stock. But now a young ghetto telepath has found the way to awaken—and rule—her superhuman kind, igniting a psychic battle from L.A. mansions to South Central slums, as she challenges her creator for the right to free her people … And enslave the Earth.”
Doro is the immortal being, and he has the ability to slide his consciousness into another person’s body. When the “shell” he occupies is hurt, say stabbed, Doro leaves that shell then occupies the body of the person doing the stabbing. Doro’s breeding plan is to create a population of telepaths — which includes incest. That’s in the story, as Doro sleeping with his daughters, without graphic description.
Mary is one of Doro’s daughters, and she develops telepathic powers stronger than any of Doro’s other offspring. She uses this power to summon other telepaths to join her in L.A. She hopes using her stronger abilities — together with the community she’s nurturing — will be enough to defeat the controlling Doro.
I didn’t like this book as much as Bloodchild. While the ideas in the book are interesting, I found the characters to be pretty flat. I rooted for Mary to win, given that Doro is so selfish and uncaring about other people (maybe that happens after living for 4,000 years?). Yet I didn’t feel the depth of emotional tug as I did with characters in Bloodchild.
I enjoyed the expansiveness of Ms. Butler’s story — it goes beyond the typical white dude protagonist of other sci-fi books I’ve read. Mary is biracial, has a single mother who works as a prostitute, and grows up in a poor neighborhood in Los Angeles. I believe Harlan Ellison crafted characters from similar cloth, but I can’t think of others sci-fi authors who did.
If you’d like to hear more about Octavia Butler, the Imaginary Worlds podcast has an episode about her — “Episode 48: The Legacy of Octavia Butler.” The host of the show, Eric Molinsky, talks with a few guests. One is Nisi Shawl, who says that Ms. Butler advised a writing class to write about their fears. One of Ms. Butler’s fears was not having control of your body. That came out in the “Bloodchild” story, with male humans having Tlic eggs placed in their bodies. And in Mind of My Mind, the people with telepathic powers place thoughts in the minds of average people, who don’t realize those thoughts are coming from someone else.
Man, that’s scary stuff.