Speech Sounds by Octavia E. Butler

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“Speech Sounds” is a 1983 science fiction short story by Octavia E. Butler, and was the winner of a 1984 Hugo Award. It is about a plague that wipes out humankind’s ability to speak, and one woman’s adventure as she tries to get from Los Angeles to Pasadena without being killed.

Non-Spoiler Summary

Communication: Sign Language by Luis Miguel Justino, CC 2.0 License

Rye is riding a bus when a fight breaks out between two men who misunderstand each other. The passengers are relieved when a lone do-gooder, wearing a police uniform, breaks up the mayhem. While Rye is wary when the policeman invites her to join him in his car, she soon learns that even though he can’t speak or understand language, he isn’t as impaired as most people are. As the two of them make their way through a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, she begins to relax – that is until they come across something both deadly and surprising!

My Two Cents

  • Story: 4 stars – This is a very cool story, but it is probably less unique now than it was when it came out back in 1983. We seem to have a plethora of post-apocalyptic stories these days, but this one has a fun twist with the language-killing plague!
  • Writing: 5 stars – Octavia Butler is a good writer, and it shows in this story. The imagery is great – especially since no one can talk to anyone else in the story! The pacing, tone and descriptions of communication efforts were all well done.
  • Fun Factor: 4 stars – This was a nice, fun read which kept me interested the whole time. Watching people trying to communicate without words was fascinating!

Where To Find Speech Sounds

  • This short story first appeared in the mid-December 1983 edition of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.
  • You can download or read “Speech Sounds” for free at Bob Lyman’s web site.
  • It is also included in the anthology Bloodchild and Other Stories.

Craving More SF Stories Like This One?

If you liked “Speech Sounds” then you might enjoy “Blood Child” – which is also by Octavia E. Butler. It is about an alien world run by a race of insect-like creatures, called the Tlic, who use humans as hosts to lay eggs inside them to reproduce.

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