"The truth is, I hate short story writing," Octavia Butler admits at the outset of this book,
a collection of seven tales and two essays. "I am essentially a novelist," she adds.
"The ideas that most interest me tend to be big."

The science fiction community had a different assessment
of Butler’s short stories. "Bloodchild," the first tale in this
collection, won the Hugo and Nebula—the two most
prestigious honors in the filed—among various other
awards. "Speech Sounds," also included here, is a
Hugo winner, and "The Evening and the Morning and
the Night" was nominated for a Nebula, and won the
Science Fiction Chronicle Award. The book, as a whole,
consistently ranks among the best-selling collections of
sci-fi short stories, still read and assigned in classrooms
more than a decade after the author’s death. For a
novelist who didn't have much interest in short forms,
Butler hasn't done too poorly.

That said, I’m not entirely sure that this book ought to be
classified under science fiction. The essays included in
Bloodchild and Other Stories are a hybrid of memoir and
advice to aspiring authors, and make for useful reading
for anyone who hopes to make a career in genre writing.
But even the short stories here tend more toward horror than sci-fi. In fact, Butler’s
entire career as a novelist, from
Patternmaster in 1976 to Fledgling in 2005,
revealed a deep and recurring interest in the tropes of the horror genre: dystopias,
epidemics, vampires, spirit possession, murderous cults and the like. Even when
the story takes place on another planet or the distant future, the plot is as likely to
feature more terror than technology. That’s a Butler trademark.

But here’s the most interesting twist: Butler somehow manages to mix horror and
compassion in these tales. That’s not an easy recipe, and no one does it better than
her. Perhaps all genre fiction thrives on good-versus-evil plots, with clear signals to
readers so they can cheer and boo at the right moments; but horror fiction may be
the least nuanced of them all. Only a handful of scary books—Mary Shelley’s
Frankenstein or Stephen King’s Carrie—teach us compassion for the monster.
Most don’t even try.  We shed no tears over Freddy Krueger, put no flowers on
Dracula’s coffin. But when Butler wrote her vampire book,
Fledgling, she elicited
our empathy as well as our apprehensions.

Readers encounter similarly complicated ethical twists again and again in these tales.
The title story “Bloodchild” presents a disturbing futuristic account of human beings
bred and raised by a group of extraterrestrial parasites who use the bodies of their
captives as living nests for their maggot-like offspring. This is the stuff of nightmares.
But only Octavia Butler would incorporate elements of a romance story in this, and
describe the relationship between human host and alien parasite as a kind of
marriage.

"Some people have seen 'Bloodchild' as a story of slavery," Butler explains in a
provocative postscript included in this volume. “It isn’t.” She then shocks many
readers by describing the tale as, among other things, a "love story between two
very different beings" and a "coming-of-age story." I can imagine assigning this
work for classroom discussion, and then watching the arguments unfold, as students
try to reconcile the disparate and almost incompatible elements contained in this
short narrative. That kind of moral resonance and existential ambiguity isn't
generally the domain of genre fiction. Butler made it her specialty.

The same paradox emerges in the second story in the collection, "The Evening and
the Morning and the Night.”  Here a small number of people are afflicted with
"Duryea-Gode Disease," a disorder that turns them into demented, self-destructive
killers.  Almost every other writer would use this as a pretext for a tale of blood and
violence, pitting ‘normal’ humans against deranged murderers in a gruesome battle
royale. Butler, in contrast, pushes in the exact opposite direction. First, she tries
to defuse our terror; then she arouses our compassion; and then, finally, she pushes
further, challenging our preconceptions about abnormality and even finding a kind
of blessing in the plight of the diseased.

The degree of difficulty in pulling off this sort of turnabout is off the charts, especially
in a short story where every incident and interlude must push forward to a final
resolution. In fact, I believe Butler’s stated aversion to the short story format derives
from this self-imposed challenge, one that recurs in her writing, to transform horror
into illumination. The unconventional framing she n
eeds to impose on her material in
order to a
chieve this would normally require a hundred pages or so. Butler’s ability
to compress this
process into a much shorter work reflects a virtuosity, not so much of
writing style but in terms of psychological insight.

Butler does a similar job of overturning the standard
formula in “Amnesty,” which deals with the arrival of
technologically superior extraterrestrials on planet Earth.  
Here, too, the familiar framing would present this as a
conflict between ‘good’ humans and ‘evil’ aliens, but
Butler refuses to give readers that smug satisfaction.
By the end of the story, we aren’t quite sure which side
has the moral upper hand. Nor can we say with any
certainty whether collaborating with these invaders is a
treasonous act or heroic gesture

Butler was often asked, as she notes in one of the essays included in this collection,
why she didn't write about subjects more clearly related to her identity as an African-
American woman. “When I began to do a little public speaking, one of the questions
I heard most often was ‘What good is science fiction to black people?’” She admits
that she even came to resent the question. "Why should I have to justify my profession
to anyone?" she laments in these pages.

But it’s perhaps easier to see now, with the benefit of hindsight, how much we can
learn from her life project of eliciting compassion and empathy, her refusal to brand
those different from her as irredeemable villains, or assume that any one group has
a monopoly on good intentions. Above all, she might be most surprised at how many
now follow in her path. Octavia Butler started out as an outlier and iconoclast, but she
now has taken on a second posthumous vocation as role model and influence.

“I write science fiction and fantasy for a living,” she proclaims in the essay “Positive
Obsessions.” Then adds: “As far as I know, I am still the only black woman who
does this.” Not anymore. Today a whole movement called Afro-Futurism acknowledges
her as one of its founders. The blueprint she set for herself decades ago, mixing
technology, humanism, multicultural cooperation and a gaze to the future is one of
the most exhilarating recipes on the cultural scene. I’m not sure what Butler would make
of all this. But I’m certain of one thing: she would at least be happy she was no longer
forced to defend the scope of her stories or the shape of her life’s work.


Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten books. His
most recent book is
How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books).

Publication date: June 25, 2018
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Bloodchild and Other Stories

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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.
Fledgling

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Cline, Ernest
Ready Player One

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gardner, John
Grendel

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haig, Matt
The Humans

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady
Horrorstör

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel
Submission

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen
Carrie

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.
Tales

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Embassytown

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morris, Jan
Hav

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

North, Claire
The First 15 Lives of Harry August

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram
Dracula

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Weir, Andy
The Martian

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Yamada, Taichi
Strangers

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal


Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List



Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

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Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
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The Misread City
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SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog


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All rights reserved.
"The truth is, I hate short
story writing," Octavia Butler
admits. "I am essentially a
novelist. The ideas that most
interest me tend to be big."