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.