“Bloodchild”, by Octavia E. Butler; “Press Enter ◼️”, by John Varley; Neuromancer, by William Gibson

These three all won Hugo and Nebula Awards presented in 1985 for work published in 1984. (So the 1985 Hugo, but the 1984 Nebula.)

“Bloodchild” has no chapters or sub-sections. The third paragraph is:

But my mother seemed content to age before she had to. I saw her turn away as several of T'Gatoi's limbs secured me closer. T'Gatoi liked our body heat and took advantage of it whenever she could. When I was little and at home more, my mother used to try to tell me how to behave with T'Gatoi—how to be respectful and always obedient because T'Gatoi was the Tlic government official in charge of the Preserve, and thus the most important of her kind to deal directly with Terrans. It was an honor, my mother said, that such a person had chosen to come into the family. My mother was at her most formal and severe when she was lying.

When I last read it in May 2001, I wrote:

The story is set on a world dominated by the insect-like Tlic, whose reproduction system includes laying eggs inside a living host; the larvae then hatch and eat their way out. However the mammal-like animals native to the Tlic world have evolved a natural defence which poisons the eggs before they hatch. Fortunately for the Tlic, humans also live on the planet and are ideal hosts for their eggs. The Tlic have moved from a period of time when humans were basically kept as brood animals for the eggs, to a social system of adopting humans into their family; with any luck, the newly hatched larvae can be removed from their human host before too much damage is caused. The narrator of the story is Gan, a young human whose family has been "adopted" by T'Gatoi, a leading Tlic. He witnesses a hatching event which almost goes horribly wrong, but none the less agrees in the end to bear T'Gatoi's children.

Gan's position as the future partner and indeed half-brother of T'Gatoi ("She had been taken from my father's flesh when he was my age") is very important. Shocked by the process of the larval hatching (though in fact it's described in terms which are, excruciatingly, almost familiar to anyone who has witnessed a human birth), he takes the responsibility of suggesting that in future humans be made more aware of the process, pointing out that "no Terran ever sees a birth that goes right". T'Gatoi balks at the suggestion that a private act become public, but Gan seems confident that he will bring her around in the end, and indeed there is enough of a sense that the relationship between humans and Tlic as a species is still developing that we believe him.

There are already a lot of on-line reviews of "Bloodchild", either on its own or considering it as a part of Butler's oeuvre (which includes little short fiction but numerous novels). Many of them see it as a story about slavery or about slavery combined with gender exploitation. Elyce Rae Helford has written the best developed analysis I have yet found of this interpretation of the story in "Would you really rather die than bear my young?": The Construction of Gender, Race and Species in Octavia E. Butler's "Bloodchild", originally published in African American Review vol 28 (1994) pp. 259-271.

Helford describes the Tlic power structure as "a metaphor for human gender relations under patriarchy", as illustrated by "men suffering the pains of childbearing (and when 'birth' means removing grubs from around your internal organs, the pain can be intense)" and the sexual, almost erotic description of T'Gatoi implanting her eggs in Gan at the end of the story. T'Gatoi combines roles which are (in our own society) masculine (leading politician) and feminine (protecting the humans from over-exploitation by her own kind). She sees pointers to the slave-owning society of the Old South in the implantation scene, the widespread use of narcotics to control the humans, and the unspoken despair of Gan's mother at "the oppressive system under which she must live". And she also hints that the treatment of humans as animals by the Tlic goes beyond the usual categories of class and race.

Helford's analysis is impressive and thought-provoking. However, I find myself agreeing with Octavia Butler herself, who writes in an afterword, "It amazes me that some people have seen "Bloodchild" as a story of slavery. It isn't. It's a number of other things, though. On one level, it's a love story between two very different beings. On another, it's a coming-of-age story in which a boy must absorb disturbing information and use it to make a decision that will affect the rest of his life. On a third level, "Bloodchild" is my pregnant man story."

True, Gan has been brought up as the young human who is destined to bear T'Gatoi's young. But it is quite explicit that Gan has a real choice, because his sister Hoa is available and willing to perform the task in his place. His decision is made not merely to protect his sister from the pain of bearing the larval Tlic, but also because he is jealous of the relationship she would thus develop with T'Gatoi. One can see this relationship as exploitative (indeed Butler writes of "paying the rent") but one can also see it as a possible outworking of a fair and stable decision between two very different organisms to share a family and social life. (A sf precursor is Brian Aldiss' early short story "The Game of God" aka "Segregation" – much inferior in every way except the descriptions of the weather.)

The fact that Butler is a Black woman writing in the mainly [I think I would now say "traditionally" rather than "mainly"] white male genre of science fiction makes her perspective particularly challenging for the average [white male] sf reader. Gender and race are more consciously present in her writing than in most literature, but rape and slavery are not the automatic results of her exploration of these issues. "Bloodchild" is no clichéd parable of exploitation. Butler's agenda is more subtle.

It's worth noting that even among her human characters, Butler specialises in unusual relationships: witness the fact that there was the same large age gap between Gan's parents as between the central character and her husband in Parable of the Talents, and the sympathetic treatment of brother/sister incest in one of the other short stories in the Bloodchild collection. "Bloodchild" almost feels like a riposte to feminist suspicions of marriage. Butler's answer seems to be, look, here when the power relationships are so uneven – and inevitably uneven, given the massive physical size of the Tlic compared with humans – a real, valid, loving relationship across species is still possible.

Twenty years on, I'm not very comfortable with my 2001 conclusion. The massive power imbalance between humans and Tlic makes any concept of consent very dubious indeed. Against that, one has to set Butler's clearly expressed authorial intent; but do authors always achieve what they think they were trying to achieve?

It's still a great story, though, which you can get in the Butler collection of the same name.

Both Hugo and Nebula shortlists for Best Novelette also included “The Lucky Strike”, by Kim Stanley Robinson, and “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule”, by Lucius Shepard. The other Hugo finalists were “Blued Moon”, by Connie Willis; “Return to the Fold”, by Timothy Zahn; “Silicon Muse”, by Hilbert Schenck; and “The Weigher”, by Eric Vinicoff & Marcia Martin. The other Nebula finalists were “Bad Medicine”, by Jack Dann; “Saint Theresa of the Aliens”, by James Patrick Kelly; and “Trojan Horse”, by Michael Swanwick. I've read a couple of these, but “Bloodchild” really stands out.

The second paragraph of the third section of “Press Enter ◼️” is:

I thought about ignoring it. I was still thinking about that when the phone rang again. I glanced at my watch. Ten minutes. I lifted the receiver and put it right back down.

This is a much more straightforward story, set in the present day (the 1980s). A murderous AI, developed within the existing computer network, kills the narrator's neighbour and then the woman he loves when they get wind of its existence, and the narrator ends the story holed up in his own home, hoping that he has successfully cut off all points of connection with the outside world; but we sense that he may be doomed anyway.

There's obvious wish fulfillment in the middle aged narrator scoring with a beautiful hacker babe half his age, but apart from that it's well enough executed, especially if you haven't been spoilered for it by reading this review; the previous year's “Blood Music” maybe did something similar a little better, and it also shares a theme with Neuromancer.

It has been most recently published in the Future on Ice anthology edited by Orson Scott Card, which you can get here, and the John Varley Reader, which you can get here.

Apart from “Press Enter ◼️”, there was no overlap between the Hugo and Nebula ballots for Best Novella that year. The other Hugo finalists were “Cyclops”, by David Brin; “Elemental”, by Geoffrey A. Landis; “Summer Solstice”, by Charles L. Harness; and “Valentina”, by Joseph H. Delaney & Marc Stiegler. The other Nebula finalists were “The Greening of Bed-Stuy”, by Frederik Pohl; “Marrow Death”, by Michael Swanwick; “A Traveler's Tale”, by Lucius Shepard; “Trinity”, Nancy Kress; and “Young Doctor Eszterhazy”, by Avram Davidson. I don't recall having read any of them.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of Neuromancer is:

Home was BAMA, the Sprawl, the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis.

I have a confession to make. I just don't get on with William Gibson's writing. I find Neuromancer not quite unreadable, but pretty unmemorable. The characters are flat, the settings not very well realised, and the plot really not very original. I am well aware that this is a minority view, and I dutifully reread the book last month to see if my mind has changed over the twenty years since I last gave it a try. But it left me as cold this time as previously. Most people like it more than me. You can get it here.

Two other books that I have read were both on the Hugo and Nebula ballots that year, The Integral Trees by Larry Niven and Job: A Comedy of Justice by Robert A. Heinlein. I don't think either is a high point of either author's career, to put it politely, and Neuromancer despite its flaws is better than either. I have not read any of the other finalists, Emergence by David R. Palmer and The Peace War by Vernor Vinge for the Hugo, Frontera by Lewis Shiner, The Man Who Melted by Jack Dann and The Wild Shore by Kim Stanley Robinson for the Nebula.

There were two stories on both best Short Story ballots, “The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything”, by George Alec Effinger and “Salvador”, by Lucius Shepard. Neither won. The Hugo went to “The Crystal Spheres”, by David Brin, and the Nebula to “Morning Child”, by Gardner Dozois. The other Hugo finalists were “Ridge Running”, by Kim Stanley Robinson; “Rory”, by Steven Gould; and “Symphony for a Lost Traveler”, by Lee Killough. The other Nebula finalists were “A Cabin on the Coast”, by Gene Wolfe; “The Eichmann Variations”, by George Zebrowski; and “Sunken Gardens”, by Bruce Sterling. I have probably read several of these, but none of those titles evokes any particular memory, positive or negative.

The Nebulas did not have a dramatic category that year. The Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation went to 2010The Terminator did not make the final ballot.

Next up: Ender's Game, by Orscon Scott Card.

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