For my first story selection in the Deal Me In short story challenge, I drew the 4 of Hearts – Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds.”
Speech Sounds was first published in 1983 in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. It was awarded the 1984 Hugo award for Best Short Story, and it’s easy to see why.
This is a heavy story, full of tension. Prior to the start of the story, there has been some sort of wide-spread pandemic with unusual effects. Most everyone has fallen victim to the “plague,” although some are hit harder than others. The complications are similar to the variety of effects that may occur with a stroke, up to and including death – full or partial paralysis, inhibited mental function, and/or debilitation or loss of ability to speak. Many died outright, but almost everyone has lost the ability to speak, read and in many cases even understand spoken language.
A complex system of body language and gestural communication has developed. Society and law-keeping have broken down. People have, in their frustration and desperation, reverted to baser instincts, and violence is very common. A small minority of people have been affected less extremely and can still read but not speak or may still speak but not read. It depends on how the individual’s brain has suffered. Those who can still make “speech sounds” must hide this from others, as they are not trusted. Others are jealous and thus bitter and likely to attack the speaker, even kill them.
Our protagonist, Rye, has lost her entire family – parents, husband, all three children to the plague, yet she survives. “Speech Sounds” follows her as she attempts to journey to Pasadena where she thinks she may still have some living relatives. Her journey is not uneventful…
Octavia Butler’s writing here is powerful, subtle, shocking and pitch-perfect. I felt not only for Rye but even for the most violent among the survivors, as they acted out of fury and pain. The overwhelming horror of world-wide loss of communication and sudden plunge into a post-apocalyptic state is brilliantly painted. Much like Steven King, Butler has the ability to walk the reader through hell and, despite the panoply of horrors, cause him or her to admire the scenery.
Butler has created a believable and well-fleshed world in under 20 pages. I have loved her novels in the past, and even as I am horrified by the world she presents here, I almost wish she had written an entire novel in this setting. Almost.