Octavia Butler is one of the outstanding black feminist writers who write science fiction toward a utopian society. However, Butler’s short story “Speech Sounds” can be read as a depiction of a dystopian or anti-utopian society that represented by misery, violence, and disorder. Butler seems to be criticizing her own society through her depiction of the society in her story that Rye is a woman that has the ability to speak among other people who are not able to communicate with each other because of the illness that Butler describes as pandemic.
A pandemic, as represented in this story, is a disease or a condition that influences the population. Butler describes this disease as, “A new virus, a new pollutant, radiation, divine retribution….The illness was stroke-swift in the way it cut people down and strokelike in some of its effects” (96). This disease affects people’s communication and Butler represents Rye, the protagonist, as a woman who has the ability to speak. It seems that Butler wants to represent Rye’s ability to speak among the others who cannot as a way to emphasize on a dominant woman presence in the society. Without having Rye’s ability to speak, women’s voice may not be heard. Butler also wants to show the reader that language is important to a culture and without communication and human speech the breakdown of the social structure will affect people’s lives as seen in the story.
Butler’s “Speech Sounds” can be read as a feminist work in which only women are able to speak. As a matter of fact, usually people are heard in the society as long as they speak and language is the tool of those who hold the power. It could be argued that Butler is giving Rye a role to hold the power by her ability to speak. However, she was not able to speak in a society where isolation is prominent theme between people. Butler describes Rye by saying that “Illness had stripped her, killing her children one by one, killing her husband, her sister, her parents” (95). The isolation has accompanied the illness that had unpredictable feelings of frustration, jealousy, and caution of mistrust others. Therefore, Rye did not speak for several years because if her voice is heard she will be in a threat of being killed.
I believe that Butler as an African American women is criticizing her own society that time in which black women were not able to present their voice in a white male dominant society. It seems that Butler is portraying that African American women were not given the option to hold the power. Therefore, we can see in the story that when Rye identifies that the two children are able to speak she decides to abandon them to protect and teach them. She may not have the power to speak in public, but she has the power to protect the children from the jealousy and violation in that society.