Thursday, March 13, 2014

Guess who just fell in love with Octavia Butler

Wow. “Bloodchild” was terrific! What a short story. It was the perfect mix of horror, gore, and science. Besides the fact that it perfectly expressed my feelings about human pregnancy, it was fantastically crafted, combining futuristic politics, speculative alien anatomy, references to coevolution, and allusions to community ecology that we study on Earth. What imagination! For instance:
This image was shown in a Powerpoint presented in my Plant Biology lecture today—I kid you not! It shows the eggs of Cotesia congregatus (a type of parasitic wasp) larvae on a Manduca sexta (a caterpillar model organism). When the caterpillar feeds on plant tissue, the plant changes its chemical composition local to the wound, triggering a systemic response that releases volatile compounds into the air. The plant has coevolved with species of parasitic wasp (in this case Cotesia congregates) so that the wasp is attracted to the volatiles and can lay their eggs in the caterpillars feeding on the plant. The eggs then feed off of the caterpillar as they grow, exactly like the Tlic larvae in “Bloodchild” feed off of their human hosts!
            Of course, there are plenty of examples of this type of parasitism on Earth, but I absolutely love it when authors apply animal biology and ecology to humans. People have negative gut reactions to this trope, but I think it’s educational. The fact is that it’s normal for other organisms use each other in these ways, just as it is normal for other organisms to have indeterminate gender (again, I’m thinking of The Left Hand of Darkness). Uneducated social opinion has denormalized many biological concepts and made us a squeamish race.
            On Earth, humans place themselves above natural selection and survival of the fittest. This is good, of course, but it has also given us a hubris that is reflected in (the vast majority of) our speculative fiction. When most authors write about space travel, they feature humans as the educated and highly evolved species that has come to inspect a foreign civilization. What if when humans travel to an alien planet they are instead assimilated into a preexisting ecosystem as they have been in “Bloodchild?” This is a far more interesting narrative than the one found in Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, and probably more realistic. (The psychology of the characters in “Bloodchild” is complex as a result of this vestigial hubris combined with their new role as host for the Tlic, but I don’t have time to go into it here!)
            I hesitate to call the Tlic parasites. It is evident that they cannot reproduce without using a host (why they cannot engineer nonliving hosts and grow their children in vitro is a mystery), which makes them parasites, but at the same time the humans are totally dependent on the Tlic for survival on a planet to which they are not well adapted, which makes their relationship somewhat symbiotic. Then again, it was thought that the relationship between farmer ants and the aphids they farm was symbiotic until it was discovered that the aphids are not more reproductively successful when they are farmed (also, the ants cut off all their limbs so that they couldn’t escape, which couldn’t have been pleasant). Therefore, further research must be done on the effect of Tlic parasitism versus the lack of Tlic assistance on human fitness in order to truly understand whether the relationship is parasitic or symbiotic. If only I could perform my own experiments!
            It is also a possibility that the humans have spent several generations on the planet and have begun to evolve resistance to the traumatic births of the larvae. How else could Gan’s father have hatched three clutches of the things? A similar coevolution has occurred between humans and the human botfly, which lays its eggs in human skin. A human botfly host experiences minimal discomfort—mostly itching and some pain when the larva feeds—and when the larva hatches it leaves only a small lesion to signal its former presence. The entire process is entirely hygienic for the human—very little chance of infection. After all, why would it be advantageous to the botfly to kill off its host if it doesn’t have to? With another thousand years or so of evolution, the relationship between the Tlic and humans may become less invasive.

            In conclusion, “Bloodchild” was fantastic. Wow.

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