Bloodchild cover art by Wayne D. Barlowe

Reproductive Rights and Alien Love in Octavia Butler's "Bloodchild"

Or how science fiction has plenty of philosophy and politics to discuss and speculate

Lidia Zuin
9 min readNov 17, 2023


Warning: This article contains spoilers.

It's been 17 years since the science fiction writer Octavia Butler left us with a legacy of stories addressing gender, race, and love. One of her most famous works, Kindred, is about a black woman who travels in time from the 1970s to the period of slavery and southern plantations in the United States. More recently, this title was also adapted to a TV series by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. But another very relevant and intriguing work of Butler is the novelette Bloodchild, which received more than four prizes such as the Nebula and Hugo — two of the more important ones in science fiction.

Originally published in the Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1984, the novelette describes the strange relationship between human beings and extraterrestrial individuals that look like insects. In this imagined future, humans found an inhabited planet, where the Tlic species live. After a period of settlement, both species decide to cease fire and establish an alliance in which the Tlics offer protection, provided that humans offer an some of their own to become hosts of their eggs — thus being named N'Tlic.

This universe is revealed to us through the experience of Gan, a human child who was destined to become a host even before he was born. The boy would be responsible for carrying the eggs of a female Tlic called T'Gatoi, who, by the way, became a friend of his family and close to the children that learn early in life that this duty is a privilege. However, everything changes when Gan is surprised by an emergency that T'Gatoi responds to. A N'Tlic (human host) was abandoned by his Tlic and Gan watches the emergencial C-section of a man that was being devored by the larvae from the hatched eggs laid in his own body.

In the face of such a horrific scene where a man is split in two and is being consumed by maggots, Gan feels threatened by his own destiny, thus seeing it less as a privilege than suicide. However, the bonds firmed between T'Gatoi and the boy puts him in conflict: his affection for the alien who needs to lay her eggs in his body is stronger than the fear he felt while watching the emergencial operation. Gan understands that that was an exception and, in fact, the whole process should have been more peaceful and even pleasurable for humans. Moreover, after impregnating him, T'Gatoi promises to forever protect and take care of Gan.

The novelette is specially disturbing for jumping from descriptions of a completely alien creature and, thus frightening, to a humanization that comes after the way this being communicates with humans. After all, after some adaptation period, it has become normal to have pregnant humans with Tlic larvae — even Gan's father experienced that more than once.

In our real, present world, things are a little bit different. In Portugal, for instance, it is not even advisable for men to be present during a C-section, though this was already topic of online petitions. However, in the horror genre, there is even a specific subgenre called pregnancy horror with movies such as Antibirth, starred by Natasha Lyonne.

But when critics thought that the relationship between Tlics and humans were something more related to slavery (also because Butler was always bringing this topic into her fiction), the writer explained in several interviews and even in follow-up notes that this wasn't her intention at all. In fact, she wanted to speculate in a more realistic way how could be a relationship between humans and aliens.

This is a well known trope in science fiction which became more evident in franchises such as the videogame series Mass Effect. However, even in this case, the alien creatures still hold a human-like anatomy — they are bipeds and have two arms. In literature though, Butler is able to write descriptions powerful enough to render mental images, but it is hard to bring them to the physical realm without being contaminated by other references — such as the iconic alien anatomy proposed by H.R. Giger for the Alien franchise.

If this is your illustration, please let me know so I can give proper credits

When Butler wrote Bloodchild, she was first and foremost addressing the fear she felt when researching about the parasitic insect botfly. She learned about them during a research about species found in the Peruvian Amazon, place to where she travelled to gather references to her trilogy Xenogenesis. And so she describes in the notes published after the first release of the novelette:

The botfly lays its eggs in wounds left by the bites of other insects. I found the idea of a maggot living and growing under my skin, eating my flesh as it grew, to be so intolerable, so terrifying that I didn’t know how I could stand it if it happened to me. To make matters worse, all that I heard and read advised botfly victims not to try to get rid of their maggot passengers until they got back home to the United States and were able to go to a doctor — or until the fly finished the larval part of its growth cycle, crawled out of its host, and flew away. The problem was to do what would seem to be the normal thing, to squeeze out the maggot and throw it away, was to invite infection. The maggot becomes literally attached to its host and leaves part of itself behind, broken off, if it’s squeezed or cut out. Of course, the part left behind dies and rots, causing infection. Lovely.

Curiously, Butler says that it is part of her personality to write about something that disturbs her. In this case, botflies were the trigger to write Bloodchild, as well as during her high school years, when President Kennedy was assassinated, the author recalls grabbing her notebook and writing her reactions to the news:

Whether I write journal pages, an essay, a short story, or weave my problems into a novel, I find the writing helps me get through the trouble and get on with my life. Writing “Bloodchild” didn’t make me like botflies, but for a while, it made them seem more interesting than horrifying.

And that was Butler's intention when she wrote the novelette: in spite of describing the Tlic in an almost repulsive way, slowly, they become interesting and start to represent another perspective in which us, as colonizers, would be "paying the rent" to live in another planet.

Here Butler speaks about colonization from another perspective. While we may at times replicate the colonizer's perspective as the oppressor who enslaves the native species of a newly discovered place, in Bloodchild, we are confronted by the portrayal of a colonizer that must subject to the native people.

For Butler, a scenario such as this one wouldn't really look like a space version of the United Kingdom or even Star Trek, but rather one in which we would need to make deals in order to be accepted into this new world. In Bloodchild, the deal is to offer our bodies as a vessel.

In this sense, one of the subjects that are most visible in the novelette is what the critic Jane Donawerth describes as an imposition of the feminine experience into the male narrator: "in this novelette… the conventional teen narrator/hero is punished with rape, incest, reproductive exploitation by the dominant race, and the anticipation of a painful C-section birth — one that he should enjoy, as much as women in many cultures are expected to compactuate with their oppression."

For Donawerth, Gan becomes the representation of black women during the slavery period in the United States, when they were "forced to bare the children of an alien race". For the researcher Kristen Lillvis, there is even a historic reference to reproductive slavery, in which the male narrator needs to "access the power of maternal love" which comes from a "traditional maternal non-phallic authority that was developed from the experience of the black women during the slavery period". In other words, Lillvis is speaking about how these sexually exploited black women to be morally obligated to love their children and fulfill their maternal role, despite this motherhood coming from assault.

On the other hand, other analyses suggest that this is the secondary vision in Butler's fiction, being the primary one the relationship between Gan and T'Gatoi. First, T'Gatoi treats Gan as a son, but then he becomes the host and, thus, a sexual partner. Bollinger describes that as a "maternal symbiosis" that controverts our human morality as it suggests an incestuous relationship. However, at the same time, the sex scene features a female individual who lays her eggs in a male body, thus displacing our own, human, reproductive logic in which we expect the female to be pregnant instead. In this sense, Bloodchild not only addresses reproductive rights but, inevitably, turns it into a matter of gender.

This same discussion also appeared in the work of the Czech-Brazilian philosopher Vilém Flusser when he wrote the essay “A consumidora consumida” (the consummed consummer). In this paper he employs geometric figures to represent male and female individuals, as well as other symptoms of western culture: women are concave as they function as a vessel, whereas menm are convex. In his reflections, Flusser addresses the way women absorb and nurture men in their body, generating a new life and, precisely for this reason, they are also exploited — by consumerism and by sexism, for instance.

The female figure, therefore, with its biological and social characteristics assumes a more symbolic meaning in Flusser's essay, similarly to what happens in Butler's novelette. That wouldn't be the same in the case of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, for instance, because in this novel gender only matters during reproductive period and strictly for this end. Therefore, though Bloodchild attempts to break with gender roles, we are still working with the tradition as there is only an inversion, but not subversion.

Still, we can also bring Flusser back to this context when we consider another of his books that connects not only with Bloodchild, but with Butler's Xenogesis trilogy too. In Vampyrotheutis infernalis, Flusser writes in a genre that he himself coined as philosophical fiction as it blends scientific and descriptive information with a philosophical reflection on the oddities and connections between humans and the abyssal squid from the book's title. By establishing such comparisons and distinctions, the author makes sure that the mollusk is seen as completely alien (or even curious) to the human observer. Butler, by her token, breaks with this zoological gaze to find, despite all controversy, the syntax between the human and this other otherwordly creature that, in spite of all odds, is still able to be affectionate.

In Flusser, we see the Vampyrotheutis squid more as a metaphor of our relationship with ourselves as individuals, while in Butler we speculate how the contact with an alien species would unravel, as well as we discuss the reproductive rights of black women in the times of slavery.

Still, it is curious to see how Flusser criticizes in another essay our desire to reach for the stars while we barely understand our oceans (an unknown realm that was well addressed by Lovecraft in his cosmic horror), while science fiction and horror often chooses subacquatic and abyssal anatomies to represent the otherwordly, though they may already be among us, in the deep seas, rather than in outer space.

Like Butler, Flusser also wrote Vampyrotheutis infernalis after a nuisance (after all, isn't philosophy a consequence of nuisance?), but while the philosopher labels his work a philosophical fiction, we may find in science fiction many examples that are closer to philosophical treatises rather than pieces of entertainment. This is the case of Bloodchild by Octavia Butler as wlel as other works written by Ursula K. Le Guinn and authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick and many others.

In other words, what I want to propose after all is that there is plenty of philosophy, politics, and even economics (e.g. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein) hidden in the cryptographic metaphors of science fiction. It is not an easy read, for sure, but as much as you need to make an effort to read Kant, so you need to when reading Butler.

Disclaimer: This is the translation of an essay originally published in Portuguese at TAB UOL.



Lidia Zuin

Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD in Visual Arts. Researcher and essayist. Technical and science fiction writer.