Speech Sounds by Octavia Butler

I was hoping to put up my review of Our Mutual Friend’s book three today, but I’ m not quite done with it.  I hate to let a Monday go by without a post since it’s such a heavy traffic day, so I’ve decided to bring up one from the archive at my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B.  I’ve been migrating all my old posts to this new site since I began.

I was sure that I had a post about an Octavio Paz short story to run today since today is the author’s birthday. But it turns out that the story I thought was by Octavio Paz was really by Jorge Luis Borges.  I do have Octavio Paz on my TBR shelf, but I didn’t get to him this year, again.  

So, since I had no old posts about Octavio Paz I decided to go with one by Octavia Butler.  This post first ran in 2008.  Be kind.

Sometime in the future, three years after an epidemic has killed much of the human race and left the survivors, like stroke victims, unable to either speak or read, a woman named Rye boards a bus to make the difficult twenty mile journey from her home to Pasadena to see if her brother and his three children are still alive. When a fight breaks out on the bus, she meets a bearded man in an LAPD t-shirt who has a car and the rare ability to read. Rye takes up with the man, eventually revealing that, while she cannot read, she can speak. The two of them intend to move in together if just for company until things inevitably go wrong.

This is familiar, post apocalyptic territory for readers of Octavia Butler. But this story, while full of action, is one of ideas. Just how would the loss of language affect the human race? Without the ability to speak or to read signs, people become no better than animals. Once they realize someone can either read or speak, they become enraged with jealousy. What hope for a future do they have if they cannot overcome this tendency towards violence? It’s certainly a heavy question for a writer to ask what would become of us if we could no longer read, but Ms. Butler has always been interested in possible futures and in finding just exactly what it is that makes humans human.

You can find this story in the collection Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams. I’m giving Speech Sounds by Octavia Butler five out of five stars. I wish she had been able to develop it further; it would have made a terrific novel.

2 thoughts on “Speech Sounds by Octavia Butler

  1. I agree with you: what a wonderful novel this would have made! (or perhaps a collection of related stories of different people’s experiences in this particular fictional world)

    I thought this was a near-perfect short story – so much information packed into a small package, thought-provoking and empathy-inducing, and a wonderful example of short-form world-building.

    Butler was a master. I miss her.

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