I have to start my review of Octavia E. Butler’s collection Bloodchild and Other Stories (1995) with a quote from her preface, which immediately won me over:
“The truth is, I hate short story writing. Trying to do it has taught me much more about frustration and despair than I ever wanted to know.
“Yet there is something seductive about writing short stories. It looks so easy. You come up with an idea, then ten, twenty, perhaps thirty pages later, you’ve got a finished story.
In three short paragraphs, Butler sums up my feelings about short fiction writing in a nutshell. (Which I’m sure was her primary intention…!) She efficiently captures both its perverse charms and its bitter disappointments. It’s almost like she reached into my brain, pulled out my emotions on the subject, and distilled them perfectly.
The information conveyed is simple enough, but I also found a message in the passage’s style. Butler writes some seriously lean and mean prose. It’s so spare, and yet it’s so loaded. Look at what those sentences imply. She does make it look easy: smooth, simple, yet it packs a freaking wallop.
What’s true of her preface is also true of her fiction, if this small sample is any indication. Bloodchild contains just five stories, two of them quite short, but the book feels meatier. The shortest tales on offer here, “Near of Kin” and “Crossover,” are polished vignettes but didn’t make much of an impression on me. The longer ones, however, really impressed. “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” is a great example of Butler’s deceptively prosaic style, a dark but elegant depiction of a woman’s struggle to come to grips with a stigmatizing genetic disorder in a future wracked by new, troubling afflictions. I found the story a bit talky, but quite effective. A step up, “Bloodchild” is a shattering depiction of a fascinating symbiotic relationship between human colonists and aliens on a distant world. This story manages to be both beautiful and harrowing, and the way it gracefully reveals its SFnal world-building is brilliant. Finally, there’s “Speech Sounds,” another tale of a strange futuristic illness, and yet another clinic on powerful sentence-level writing. This may be the mother of all literalized metaphor stories, at once an indictment of thoughtless human conflict and a celebration of communication as our one great hope.
Oddly, despite all this I’m not sure Butler is a perfect fit for me. I must admit I have a weakness for sentences long enough strangle small humans, developed long ago; Butler’s style may be too incisive for my natural reading rhythm. And, if the stories here are any indication, her fiction seems more dialogue-driven than I generally prefer. Even so I was deeply impressed by the collection, and learned a lot from reading it. Powerful work.