Octavia E. Butler

Speech Sounds

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Speech Sounds Summary

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“Speech Sounds” is a 1983 short story by legendary American science fiction writer Octavia Butler. First published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, the story concerns a dying civilization in which much of the human race has lost the ability to communicate.

When the story begins, a mysterious pandemic has crippled much of the human race’s ability to communicate. The nature of the communication disorder differs and comes in two main varieties: some people lose the ability to read and write while others can no longer speak. Because of the communication disorders, people need new ways to identify themselves other than names. Some people carry items that identify who they are while others wear special symbols on their clothes. In lieu of words, people communicate via a universal form of sign language. Life without traditional communication, however, has left society in a state of great unease and emotional instability. Arguments erupt over the pettiest of squabbles, causing people to express rage and jealousy at the drop of a hat.

Many people die from the disorder, making the silent survivors the lucky ones—though one would be hard-pressed to call Rye “lucky.” Living in Los Angeles, Rye has lost almost her entire family to the illness, including her mother, father, sister, and children. Her only family member she thinks might be left is a brother who, before the pandemic, lived with his family not far from Los Angeles in the city of Pasadena, California. Not certain if he is alive or dead, Rye boards a bus to Pasadena. Twenty miles from the destination, however, a number of people on the bus engage in a physical fight that escalates due to the heightened state of emotions experienced by modern humans. The fight is so intense, Rye considers leaving the bus and walking the rest of the way, even though it would be very dangerous to do so.

At that moment, Obsidian, a man dressed in an LAPD uniform, stops alongside the bus and throws a gas grenade through the bus window, causing the fight to end and everyone on board to get off the bus. The event strikes Rye as strange, especially because the LAPD, like most all government institutions, had been disbanded in the wake of the pandemic. Obsidian, meanwhile, is struck by Rye and physically attracted to her, and so, he offers to give her a ride to Pasadena. Rye is hesitant to take up the man’s offer, fearful of his gun and the fact that in this lawless post-apocalyptic society a woman could easily be raped and/or murdered without anyone missing her. However, he removes his gun-holster, he has a persistent and honest demeanor, and the re-acceleration of tensions around her following the end of the bus fight, leading Rye, reluctantly, to relent, agreeing to let Obsidian drive her to Pasadena.

During the trip, Rye realizes that Obsidian can still read a map, although he cannot talk. Due to the irrational emotional instability of her and everyone around her, Rye feels intense jealousy upon hearing this and even considers killing Obsidian. Instead, she decides to share something with Obsidian in return: that she is able to talk. After sharing this intimate moment, the two have sex. Obsidian asks Rye if he can return home to Los Angeles with her. Now that Rye has someone in her life, and considering that her brother may be dead anyway, she agrees and they turn around.

On the way back to Los Angeles, Rye and Obsidian see a man chase a woman with a knife. Obsidian tries to help, wounding the attacker with his gun, but he is too late. The man has already fatally stabbed the woman. Moreover, the attacker, despite being wounded, wrestles the gun away from Obsidian, killing him. Enraged that she has lost her lover and only friend, Rye murders the attacker before noticing that the couple left behind two small children.

Rye decides to adopt the children, but when she tries to gather them up into the car, the girl speaks, “No, go away.” She is overwhelmed with emotion overhearing another person talk, something she hasn’t experienced in many years. In response, Rye tells the children, “I’m Valerie Rye. It’s all right for you to talk to me.” The book ends as Rye drives off with the children, along with the bodies of Obsidian and the children’s mother, intending to give them a proper burial.

“Speech Sounds” is one of Butler’s most critically-acclaimed works, with critics commenting on the impressive world-building and the story’s emotional content. In 1984, the story was awarded the prestigious Hugo Award for Best Short Story.