Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Living with the Other in "Bloodchild" & "Amnesty"

tags: power, control, living with the Other, identity, change

In her both her short stories “Bloodchild” and “Amnesty”, Octavia E. Butler explores two different worlds in which human beings live side-by-side with an alien race of beings. In “Bloodchild”, this race is the insect-like Tlic, and the world is their own, a planet to which human beings fled to escape the persecution of other human beings. In “Amnesty”, the world is our own Earth, to which the alien Communities came on a one-way transport – the reason why they left their home is, of course, never given.

In both scenarios, human beings must learn how to live with this strange Other, and not just to live alongside them – indeed the phrase “side-by-side” is perhaps ill-chosen in this respect – but to truly live with them, in a symbiotic/parasitic relationship, as their employees and as the vessels through which their offspring can be born. In both stories, human beings become a necessity to both the alien races – as the means by which the Tlic race can continue, and as an “addictive drug” (179) to the Communities, who have never experienced addiction before. 

And yet, in neither case do the humans have an alternative to fulfilling the aliens’ needs (although Gan has a choice in the story, ultimately someone must become N’Gatoi if not him) – the humans on the Preserve have ‘no “away”’ to run to (19); the humans on Earth have no way to fight the Communities, having lost the “short, quiet war” (184).  The result of human beings’ interaction with a stronger, more powerful Other seems to be the loss of the full range of their freedom.*  It would appear then, that in both these two tales, it is only in the context of limited freedom that humans seem to be able to reconcile themselves to the concept of integrating their lives together with those of the alien. Why might this be?

Seth seems to hit on the point with his observation that, “Over the past few thousand years, humans have adapted to be the rulers of the planet with no serious rival”. By upsetting the status quo, Butler explores the fundamental human fear of “loss of control to a non-human or human-defined entity”.  In this same post, Seth suggests that this fear is a different and separate one from the other type of fear explored in “Bloodchild”, the other being “that of parasitic (non-human) life growing within us (a purely primal fear)”. But how separate from each other are these fears, ultimately? Isn’t the fear of the parasitic the same as the basic fear of loss of control over one’s own body? A loss of control that, ultimately, signals that a fundamental change must occur in the way that we live our lives – a change we must accept in order to survive.

Such changes throw human beings’ sense of identity into flux. In adapting, human beings need confirmation that they are, in fact, still human – confirmation which they can only find in the eyes of the Other. In response to Gan’s implication that the Tlic see humans as only animals, T’Gatoi replies, “You know you aren’t animals to us” (24). In reply to Michelle Ota’s question of whether the communities understand if they are intelligent or not, Noah replies that, “They wouldn’t waste time doing that [offering the human beings contracts] if they’d mistaken you for cattle” (156). In order to live with the other, human beings must adapt their norms and way of life, a process which throws their very identity into flux, which itself can only be overcome through the confirmation of the very Other that has thrown it into flux. Perhaps, then, it is unsurprising that the human beings in these stories seem unwilling to undergo such change unless faced with no other alternatives.

* Which is not to say that these are two tales about slavery – Butler herself clearly indicates that she did not mean for “Bloodchild” to be a story about slavery in her afterword (30). Of course, what an author ‘meant’ for her text to say, and what a reader understands it to say are completely separate things. Still, I would like to explore a different thread that these two tales here, since clearly the issue of slavery has already been explored in great detail, if Butler’s own comments are anything to go on.


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