Speech Sounds by Octavia Butler

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Feminism and Breakdown of World Order in “Speech Sounds”

As statistics show, science fiction has long been a genre produced and consumed by nerdy, middle aged, white men, with little to no social skills. The content of science fiction has typically revolved around intergalactic interaction and male dominated adventure and exploration, most certainly do not imagine that science fiction can be used to write about feminist thoughts or ideas. However, this is exactly what Octavia Butler does in her short story “Speech Sounds.” Many scholars believe that feminist science fiction writers write toward a utopian society. Butler, however, tends to write more towards a confrontation with dystopia. A dystopian society, or anti-utopia, is a society characterized by misery, violence, and disorder, which is exactly what is seen in “Speech Sounds.” In a society that has been torn apart by the breakdown of communication, Rye, a female with the ability to speak, asserts a dominant presence and embodies a theory that language is the ultimate tool constructing World Order and the realities within it. Science fiction is a genre of literature that utilizes fiction to engage the political realities of its time and as stated its visions where usually about war and conquest. However, science fiction started to change in the 1950s and 1960s with the rise of identity politics and feminism. Non-white female authors, like Butler, came into this genre and brought with them new topics and concerns with which to write about. The feminist lens would recognize these concerns having more to do with experiments in social justice than with planetary conquest directly. As more and more females started writing science fiction, a new subgenre of feminist science fiction emerged that dealt with issues that were of particular concern to equality. Feminist science fiction entails engaging questions about gender, family and the social structures, individual autonomy, and the individual’s ability to control her body and sexuality. Octavia Butler expertly encompasses each of these points in “Speech Sounds.” The loss of communication and human speech is the catalyst for the breakdown of the social structure and the resultant chaos in the world that Rye lives in. “The illness was stroke swift in the way it cut people down and stroke-like in some of its effects---language was always lost or severely impaired” (Butler,96) In order to understand how the loss of speech could ravage a society to such an extent, it is necessary to know the importance of language to a culture. At the most basic of levels it could be argued language allows culture to exist. Human speech has become so ingrained in our world and this story questions how humans would cope without it, particularly how a woman would cope . Communication gives us a sense of camaraderie, and simultaneously develops the systems and illusion of individualism that separates us. Language has some unique effects like providing a shared past, a shared future, allowing a shared perspective, and allowing shared, goal-directed behavior or establishment of gender roles. Destruction of language in the story shifts humans from logical speech based interaction to animalistic and instinctually guided. These atavistic laws of nature are what cause the complete and utter breakdown of her culture. Rye herself despises the state of her world. She does not want to bring a child into it and believes that the children that were growing up now should be pitied, saying “they [the children] ran through the streets . . . like chimpanzees. They had no future. They were now all they would ever be” (Butler 101), the people of this ravaged society have no past or future, there is only an eternal, visceral present. Giving Rye the ability to speak is another way that Butler inserts feminism into “Speech Sounds.” As seen in most societies, language holds power. Those who are heard most often traditionally have the power. The ruling class is...
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