In Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds,” a pandemic virus has swept the globe, killing a huge amount of people and leaving survivors permanently brain-damaged. The language center is hit hardest — some people can no longer form speech, others are illiterate. Our protagonist Rye used to be a teacher but she can no longer read, and the sickness has wiped out her entire immediate family. She can speak, but it’s not safe to verbalize in this post-virus Los Angeles where appearing “superior” draws the violence of envious strangers.
It’s a rollicking story, entirely action-driven. And it’s an interesting take on the post-apocalypse — the collapse of civilization and the loss of all advanced technology determines the setting, but the focus of the story is the loss of less concrete things. We aren’t used to seeing money or language as technologies, but if these constructs go, we can see how everything else will go after it. How do you employ language to relate the events in such a world? Butler makes really cool decisions in narration and detail, and on the first reading i flew right past their cleverness.
i had to keep asking myself: what is it about the prose that makes it feel so taught and arid? It’s briskly paced, opens in medias res with a conflict on a bus. Without dialog there is plenty of body language, characters’ actions are precisely delineated, and indirect discourse on Rye’s thoughts are rare.
It had to be brought to my attention: there are no metaphors in the story. Every statement is literal; and while i was drawn by the plot, i felt starved of some missing something that would’ve added more vividness — it’s quite an experience. Take for instance when Rye gets in a car with a stranger in a cop uniform, a bearded man referred to as Obsidian. (Identities are exchanged through “name symbols” such as Obsidian’s black rock on a neck chain, and Rye’s golden pin representing a wheat stalk.)
he took a folded paper from the dashboard and unfolded it. Rye recognized it as a street map, though the writing on it meant nothing to her.
A narrator with different concerns might have described how the letters look in their meaninglessness, something like “but the lines and squiggles of the map’s text may as well have been so many strewn lengths of chicken intestines.” But the prose operates in terse declarations.
There is the threat of violence erupting from lizard-brained men at any moment. (And there is one recurring simile in the story, likening such men to “animals,” “hairless chimps.”)
The story marks another detriment to a wordless world: Obsidian is killed because his attention is distracted; after all Rye cannot say to him what she wants to communicate, and so he must look at her body language and leave himself open to a man on the ground who isn’t dead yet. This incapacity to multi-task mentally is reflected in the entire narration’s monomaniacal bent.
In a post-coital scene a dialog takes place solely through gestures:
Sometime later, they sat together, covered by his coat, unwilling to become clothed near strangers again just yet. He made rock-the-baby gestures and looked questioningly at her.
She swallowed, shook her head. She did not know how to tell him her children were dead.
He took her hand and drew a cross in it with his index finger, then made his baby-rocking gesture again.
She nodded, held up three fingers, then turned away, trying to shut out a sudden flood of memories. She had told herself that the children growing up now were to be pitied. They would run through the downtown canyons with no real memory of what the buildings had been or even how they had come to be. Today’s children gathered books as well as wood to be burned as fuel. They ran through the streets chasing one another and hooting like chimpanzees. They had no future. They were now all they would ever be.
i admire how streamlined the prose is: “rock-the-baby gestures” rather than describing the shape of his arms and the swaying motion, which would’ve been more cumbersome. Like Alice Munro, the story’s narrator is so straightforward it’s easy to forget how much careful revising is done to make it so.
i feel like Samuel R. Delany’s “High Weir” (janky site) is deceptively simple.
Sure, it’s five straightforward scenes of some academic experts studying the ruins of a martian civilization, aligned with a George Rimkin, the linguistics expert who has a mental breakdown. But there are a lot of strange little word choices, like in the opening (and Delany’s writing is really efficient in how it gives us the information):
“What do you know!” Smith, from the top of the latter.
“What is it?” Jones, at the bottom.
And Rimkin thought desperately: Boiled potatoes! My God, boiled potatoes! If I took a toothpick and stuck them in boiled potatoes, then stuck one on top of the other, made heads, arms, legs — like little snowmen — they would look just like these men in spacesuits on Mars.
i wonder what to make of the adverb desperately. Is Rimkin already starting to crack up? Throughout the story he struggles to differentiate among his colleagues. He cant seem to focus on the live present moment (i know the feeling).
Shortly later, Jimmi, a brown qualitative analyst and on whom Rimkin is slightly crushing, identifies the concave bowls set in the statuary that contain holograms:
“It’s an inset, Dr. Smith.” She made a blunted gesture, and Rimkin bent to see.
im intrigued by the word blunted. Is she describing how the hologram surface is? Blunted also means to lose sharpness/resolution which becomes a main image later in the story.
Rimkin reads a bit from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus on knowledge and silence. And later anthropologist Hodges is having a tete a tete with him out on the site by themselves. Hodges had been tough on Rimkin for acting spacey, but here she tries to soften up:
“You know,” she was going on (Hodges? Yes it was the Hodges woman), “I’m really the useless one on the expedition. You know what my talent is? I’m the one who can make friends with all sorts of Eskimos and jungle bunnies…”
Typical racist anthro scholar. Presumably both of these astronauts are white. Rimkin, Jones, and the psychologist Ling are PoC — there’s possibly a quiet comedy of manners running in some of these scenes. Maybe it reflects the front-and-center theme of language and knowledge and silence. The world and the people become totally incoherent to Rimkin. It’s possible the ancient Martians really did build their civilization without the need for a written language; they can’t seem to find any evidence of one at the site. Rimky’s crush/fetishization of Micronesian Jimmi and his brief snarling at Nigerian Dr. Jones might reflect his other problems with knowledges and truths that lie beyond the spoken. i saw a post online that describes this story as romantic and i think that’s right given these notions of a “sublime” beyond words. And with language bottoming out the way it does for Rimkin, maybe you may as well start thinking that you’re a Martian.
But it’s not like the story is a taut puzzle either. The narrator provides a lot of breathing space that fleshes out the characters and the setting, like its description of the “skimmer” vehicle the astronauts use:
The commons room of the skimmer was a traveling fragment of classical academia. The celitex walls looked depressingly like walnut paneling. Above the brass-fixtured folding desk surfaces, the microfilms were stacked behind naugahyde spines lettered in gold leaf. There was a mantelpiece above the heating nook. Glowing plates shot pale flickerings across the fur throws. The whole construct, with its balcony library cubicles (and a bust of Richard Nielson, president of Inter-Nal University, on his pedestal at the turn of the stairwell) was a half-serious joke of Dr. Edward Jones. But the university people, by and large, were terribly appreciative of the extravagant façade, after a couple of weeks in the unsympathetic straits of the military back at Bellona Base.
Mak sat on the hassock, rolling the sleeves of his wool shirt over his truckdriver forearms. He had headed the Yugoslavian expedition that had unearthed Gevgeli Man. Mak’s boulderlike build (and what forehead he had was hidden by a falling thatch of Sahara-colored hair) had brought the jokes in the anthropology department to new nadirs: “This is Dr. Mak Hargus, the Gevgeli Man … eh, man …”