- How to Love Your LivestockNegotiating Domestic Partnership in the Multispecies World of "Bloodchild"
Telepathic shape-shifters. Mind-controlling microorganisms. Tentacular extraterrestrials. Genetically engineered vampires. In the lively fictional worlds of Octavia Butler, humans are never alone; they share their lands, cultures, families, and bodies with members of very different species.1 Alongside and often linked to gender, race, class, and ability, species variation emerges as one of many kinds of ontological differences foregrounded in her work. The dividing lines between biological types—sometimes clear, sometimes confusingly blurry—function as significant sites of ambivalence, kindling attraction and repulsion, alliance and hostility. Modeling the difficult work of forming diverse communities, Butler's work often suggests that the only way for humanity to survive and thrive is in concert with other kinds of beings, even (and especially) those that appear threateningly, shockingly different.
Armed with the imaginative potential of science fiction and a keen awareness of sociopolitical dynamics of difference, Butler's multispecies narratives animate a concept crucial to modern biology: symbiosis, a pattern of long-term interaction between two or more different biological types. Long identified as a feature of microbial and plant life, symbiosis has more recently begun to be recognized by biologists as common to life at every level: as Scott Gilbert puts it, "symbiosis is the rule and not the exception in the animal kingdom."2 Supplanting the classical understanding of organisms as self-contained individuals, widespread symbiosis suggests instead that, as Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan write, "[W]e must begin to think of organisms as communities, [End Page 106] as collectives. And communities are ecological entities."3 The stakes of living-with go beyond mere proximity: symbiotic creatures—figs and wasps, clownfish and sea anemones, humans and gut bacteria, to name just a few—exemplify what Donna Haraway names "companion species," creatures whose very being depends on their co-constitutive relations with others. These intertwined species are "partners" who "do not precede their relating."4 Being oneself means being in connection with others, a fundamental condition, Haraway argues, of existing in a diverse multispecies world.
Yet the nature of connection is under constant dispute: Haraway's "companions" are not necessarily friendly. The biological definition of symbiosis includes mutualism, a relationship of reciprocal benefit; commensalism, a relationship that benefits one party and remains neutral to another; and parasitism, a relationship that benefits one and harms another. Many of Butler's works imagine highly contentious symbiotic relations that crisscross the boundaries between mutual, commensal, and parasitic. Butler's novel Fledgling (2005), for instance, depicts networks of mutual need between vampires and the humans upon whose blood they feed, while her Lilith's Brood trilogy (1987–1989) centers on family units of extraterrestrial Oankali and the humans they have genetically manipulated into interdependence to engineer a new hybrid race. In these texts, consent is forever entangled with coercion, use with abuse. Characters of different species, pressed into proximity under difficult circumstances, must negotiate their various needs and interests, forming uneven relationships in which compromise is necessary, but true equality impossible. This paper turns to another such scenario of ambivalent symbiosis: the short story "Bloodchild" (1984). Recounting a few hours in the life of a human boy on a planet far from Earth, "Bloodchild" describes the painful, uncomfortable yet necessary relationship between two very different kinds of beings struggling to survive. This brief tale explores both the danger and the promise of multispecies community, offering insight toward the pursuit of more responsible relationships between modern earthly species.
"Bloodchild" is narrated by Gan, a human adolescent who lives with his family in a small colony of humans. Several generations prior, Gan's ancestors fled persecution on their home world to settle elsewhere in the universe; on their new planet, humans are a minority species. Their indigenous hosts, the Tlic, are an insectoid people with many pairs of limbs, sharp claws, segmented bodies three meters long, and an exceedingly long lifespan. By the time Gan is born, years of bloody conflict between the human refugees and their Tlic hosts have simmered down to a fragile peace, founded upon an unusual relationship: humans are accepted on the planet...