Octavia E. Butler

Speech Sounds

  • 17-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features a 3-act summary and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a literary scholar with a Master's degree in English Literature
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Speech Sounds Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 17-page guide for “Speech Sounds” by Octavia E. Butler includes a detailed 3-act summary and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 5 important quotes, and key themes like Communication and Survival.


  • Author: Octavia E. Butler
  • Publication date: 1983
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Category: Science Fiction/Dystopian Fiction
  • Format: Short Story
  • Setting: Contemporary United States
  • Protagonist: Rye
  • Antagonist: N/A
  • POV: Third-person limited
  • Main themes: Human conceit, communication, identity, survival, hope

Against the bleak backdrop of a global pandemic, a woman named Rye attempts a bus journey through a dystopian California to check on her surviving family members. Those who survived the pandemic suffer from a variety of impairments. Most have lost their ability to speak, while others retain limited speech. There are also those, like Rye, who can no longer read or write. In this lawless chaos, violence runs rampant, especially anger from those who act out emotionally and illogically (people who are right-handed) toward those, like Rye, who are left-handed and therefore capable of keeping calm.

When a fight breaks out on Rye’s bus, she’s forced to disembark. A stranger named Obsidian—who protects those unable to protect themselves—then appears and, after breaking up the fight, offers Rye a ride. Though they don’t initially trust one another, Rye and Obsidian work through their distrust, make love, and decide to live together. When Obsidian dies in an altercation that also leaves a woman and her attacker dead, Rye channels her hopelessness into meaning: She becomes a protector like Obsidian, choosing to look after the dead woman’s two surviving children.

“Speech Sounds” first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine in 1983. The short story won the prestigious Hugo Award the following year (one of many Hugo Awards for Butler). It appears in several of Butler’s later anthologies, including Bloodchild and Other Stories.

Octavia E. Butler was a popular African American science fiction author. She received several Hugo Awards and Nebula Awards, and was the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. She died in 2006.

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Act I