Edited by Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo
Illustration by Iara Silva https: https://www.instagram.com/iiaraz_/
I hadn’t felt my baby move yet and wasn’t sure I wanted to. I confessed this to a friend in a café, who, bringing his hands together in front of his chest and clawing his fingers, said, ‘Yeah, it might feel, you know, like Alien.’ And his hands exploded outward, raining imaginary blood across our lattes.
My friend touched on a fear of mine: that having a baby would be like hosting an alien creature in my body. A fear no doubt inspired by my consumption of science fiction. Immediately, the prospect of pregnancy makes me think of the 1979 movie Alien, which undeniably plays out humanity’s pregnancy fears in the form of chest-ripping, murderous alien children. There’s also the ‘mystical pregnancy trope’: women in science fiction media are regularly forcibly or accidentally impregnated by aliens (Sarkeesian). This trope appears in Stargate SG-1, the X-Files, and Torchwood among other television shows and films.
Science fiction often depicts childbirth as brutal, bloody, and terrifying and pregnancy as something violent that happens to someone, not, as it often is, a choice made in love. Aliens ripping through human bodies doesn’t leave much room for nuance.
While the mystical pregnancy trope is a more common feature of science fiction, the association of pregnancy with submission and violence is present in English literature curriculum at large. Texts such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and Henrik Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ depict the plight of women who become mothers not as an authentic choice but through forceful social expectations. The death of the mother in childbirth is so common in literature, it is almost taken for granted, often mentioned as nothing more than a side-note. Maternal deaths appear in text that span many genres, including War and Peace, Northanger Abbey, Wuthering Heights, A Farewell to Arms and One Hundred Years of Solitude. There is a lack of texts taught in English literature classrooms about pregnancy as a positive and empowering experience.
A rote summary of Octavia Butler’s short story ‘Bloodchild’ would seemingly place this text comfortably alongside these darker depictions of pregnancy and birth. A young man named Gan has been groomed since birth to be the bearer of the alien T’Gatoi’s eggs. T’Gatoi is a Tlic, a huge worm-like creature whose species have been using humans as hosts for their young. Male humans are implanted with Tlic eggs which hatch inside them, hooking to their veins and feeding on their blood before they’re cut away and transplanted into a dead animal. If the hungry larvae aren’t cut from a man’s gut in time, they’ll eat his flesh from the inside out. Relationships between the humans and the Tlic have recently improved. Tlic no longer recklessly use humans as hosts; the human hosts are chosen carefully, assigned to one Tlic by the government, and there’s an effort made to keep human families together. Gan was chosen by T’Gatoi, a family friend, since before he was born. In ‘Bloodchild’ he must make a choice: will he allow T’Gatoi to implant her eggs inside him or let her choose one of his siblings instead?
While ‘Bloodchild’ reads on the surface as a straightforward alien pregnancy story, Butler actually uses this familiar metaphor to challenge science fiction’s (and, inevitably, my own) expectations of pregnancy. Butler’s skill as a writer enables her to bring nuance and variety to a trope typically used as a schlocky plot device.
One way Butler gives her alien pregnancy story nuance is through worldbuilding: the domestic setting and the pacing of how she reveals the alien Tlic to the reader. Almost the entire story takes place within Gan’s family home. The story opens with T’Gatoi visiting Gan’s family, relaxing and conversing with his mother – T’Gatoi’s childhood friend –, Gan, and Gan’s brother and sisters. ‘My last night of childhood began with a visit home,’ are the first words of ‘Bloodchild.’ Butler establishes immediately that this is a coming-of-age story set in a domestic space. Because Gan is our narrator and this is his home – what could be more familiar than one’s home? – Butler is able to control the pacing of the worldbuilding. She doesn’t launch immediately into a description of the aliens. Rather, she lets the aliens reveal themselves to us slowly, having Gan describe them to us as naturally and simply as he describes his living room. Gan doesn’t view the aliens of ‘Bloodchild’ as monstrous or foreign. He uses loving and respectful language to describe T’Gatoi. ‘I lay against T’Gatoi’s long velvet underside,’ he says in the opening scene. Later, after describing T’Gatoi as ‘not only boneless, but aquatic – something swimming through air as though it were water’ he says, ‘I loved watching her move.’ Within the first scene of the story, Butler has set the expectation that the relationship between the aliens and humans is not one of predator and prey, parasite and host. In ‘Bloodchild’ aliens and humans can love one another.
But not all humans in ‘Bloodchild’ willingly accept the Tlic into their homes and lives. Gan’s brother Qui is repulsed at the prospect of human bodies being used as incubators for alien larva. Through Qui, Butler offers a view on pregnancy that is more akin to the picture depicted in Aliens; yet she balances Qui’s perspective with that of Gan’s and in doing so implies that pregnancy is not one-size-fits-all.
In a pivotal scene, Gan witnesses a horrific birth gone wrong, a birth in which the man must be cut open without anaesthesia, the ‘red worms’ still clinging to his veins, ready to eat his flesh until they are pulled from his gut by T’Gatoi. After Gan must help T’Gatoi complete the birth and save the man, he meets Qui. ‘So now you know what you’re in for,’ Qui says. He goes on to describe his own experience witnessing a birth gone wrong. In Qui’s case, the birth was even more horrific. Unable to locate a large animal for the hungry larva to devour in lieu of their human host, a Tlic kills her human partner to allow her children to feed on him and survive. ‘He was in so much pain,’ Qui tells Gan, ‘he told her to kill him. He begged her to kill him. Finally, she did. She cut his throat… I saw the grubs eat their way out, then burrow in again, still eating.’ Scarred by this experience, Qui can only look at Tlic-human relationships as disgusting and deadly.
Despite witnessing violence Gan sees the love felt between a man and his alien partner. ‘I liked her for the concern in her voice,’ he says when the Tlic partner of the man whose birth Gan witnesses arrives and immediately shouts his name, disregarding even her own newborn children. Qui’s story seems to nearly sway Gan, but ultimately, he chooses to allow T’Gatoi to implant her eggs inside him. The act of implementation is sensual and intimate. ‘I undress and lay down beside her… she undulated slowly against me, her muscles forcing the egg from her body into mine.’ As Butler writes in the afterword to ‘Bloodchild’, ‘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.’ Through Qui, Butler shows us what we often see in science fiction narratives of pregnancy: fear, disgust, and horror. But through Gan, she also shows us the love, trust, and sacrifice involved in pregnancy and birth.
In the afterword of ‘Bloodchild,’ Butler writes, ‘“Bloodchild” was my effort to ease an old fear of mine’ and goes on to explain that she was inspired to write the story because of her fear of encountering the botfly on her trip to the Amazon. Botflies act very much like Butler’s Tlic; they lay eggs in human flesh, and the maggots must eat their way out. ‘When I have to deal with something that disturbs me as much as the botfly did, I write about it.’
I have incorporated ‘Bloodchild’ into creative writing workshops not only because Butler is a skillful writer whose worldbuilding and characterisation provide fertile inspiration for writers but also because Butler wrote this piece from a place of fear. It’s fascinating that Butler wrote a love story, rather than a horror story, to let her fears play out. She chose to write the Tlic through the eyes of a young man who loves their worm-like bodies and velvet skin. Butler sets a challenge for new writers: how can we take our fears and write them sympathetically? How can we turn a trope inside out to challenge our own expectations?
‘Bloodchild’ has shown me that pregnancy and birth can feel like many things at once. I can be both Qui and Gan. Some days, I may feel like my baby is an alien parasite; yet, later, when I see my baby swimming in the black waters of my womb, turning somersaults on the sonogram, the entire pregnancy feels inexplicably right.
Butler, Octavia E. Bloodchild and Other Stories. Seven Stories, 2005.
Sarkeesian, Anita. “#5 The Mystical Pregnancy (Tropes vs. Women)” You Tube, feministfrequency, July 28, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rhH_QGXtgQ.
About the author
Angie Spoto is an American fiction writer and poet. Her most recent endeavours include a lyrical essay about her Italian family, a collection of horror surrealist fairy tales, and a fantasy novel about grief. She is working toward a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow and volunteers with the Glasgow-based social enterprise Uncovered Artistry, which supports the creativity of domestic and sexual abuse survivors. She is artist in residence at HIV Scotland. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Crooked Holster, From Glasgow to Saturn, and Toad Suck Review.