Speech Sounds: Children, Time, Hope- From Octavia's Attic
By Kat Solomon
This essay was composed as part of the art exhibit, Octavia’s Attic: Artifacts From Our Possible Futures, on display in San Francisco from February 24-March 2, 2016 in honor of the ten-year anniversary of Octavia Butler’s death. Our essays this month respond to the exhibit prompt, which asks, “If you could build a time machine, what would it look like, and how would you use it to save humanity from itself?”
After a difficult couple of weeks I pick up Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds” and read: “There was trouble aboard the Washington Boulevard Bus.” With this sentence, we could be almost anywhere, in any American city within the last century, reading any realistic work of fiction. But because this is an Octavia Butler story, the world quickly reveals itself to be not quite so familiar.
The story’s narrator is on a bus traveling from Los Angeles to Pasadena, we are told, because “she might have one group of relatives left alive.” As a fight breaks out between the fellow passengers, the men limit themselves to gestures and people communicate through screams ad squawks. Soon, we learn that we are in a not-too-distant future where a mysterious disease has destroyed people’s ability to use human speech. Once a professor of history at UCLA, the protagonist, Rye, retains her ability to both speak and comprehend, but has lost the ability to read or write. Others have been differently affected by the disease, losing speech, memory, and reason. Those who do retain the power of language are afraid to use it, as those around them are likely to fly into a jealous rage that could prove deadly.
This scenario is familiar to us now, perhaps even more so than when “Speech Sounds” was first published in 1983. Recent American fiction is rife with apocalypse. Novels such as Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Laura Van den Berg’s Find Me, and Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet all involve mysterious diseases that threaten humanity. Mandel’s Russian flu is the least metaphorically potent, behaving the way an actual flu pandemic behaves—it kills a lot of people, quickly. Van den Berg’s disease is a little more poetic; acting like a fast-moving prion disease, it robs people of their memories before they succumb completely, like an infectious fast-acting form of Alzheimer’s. In Marcus’s novel the problem is speech itself; the narrator and his wife are forced to desert their teenage daughter because the sounds of her speech are literally making them ill.
At the center of each of these novels is fear of loss, not just of life or a way of life, but of meaning. In Mandel’s novel, the globalized, interconnected world allows the flu to spread across the world in a matter of hours; years after the collapse, a character curates a museum whose exhibits include cell phones and laptops that will never turn on again, an elegiac reminder of better times. Meanwhile, the diseases in the van den Berg and Marcus novels are inherently metaphorical, perhaps to a fault. A disease that robs a person of memory, adolescent speech turned poisonous to the adult ear: these suggest a society not just worried about material collapse, but one in the grip of a larger crisis of meaning. We have become technologically advanced beings, capable of altering our environment in ways our ancestors could not have dreamed up. Fittingly, that alteration—in the form of climate change or a disease spread precisely through our very interconnectedness—threatens to wipe us out. How do we make sense of such an existence?
These three novels are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of fictional pre-occupation with this topic, which extends also to television and film. Lately, I’ve watched a lot of zombie shows, read enough books about catastrophe. On a recent trip to the bookstore I picked up a new novel from an author I’ve been meaning to read and after glancing at the flap, put it back on the shelf, telling my friend, “I just don’t think I can take any more dystopian futures right now.”
In a darkened room, the ultrasound tech runs the gooey plastic nub over my left ovary, and I wince. The chief resident has come into the room along with the attending, which I guess means I am an interesting case: mild ovarian hyper-stimulation syndrome on my first round of Clomid. It’s supposed to be rare, like winning a bad lottery. My husband and I have been trying to have a child for almost a year—in a few weeks, when we hit the twelve-month mark, we will be officially infertile. This round of medication was supposed to assess how my ovaries are working—now, it seems, they are working too well, producing monster cysts. “See, those strands there,” the doctor says, pointing to the screen, “like spider webs? That’s a hemorrhage.” On the ultrasound, my right ovary is a large black void with tendrils of gray sweeping across it. I notice the doctor’s recourse to poetic language (“like spider webs”) and my brain catalogues this, stores it somewhere for further consideration, though it will be a few weeks before I can make this joke: instead of a baby in my womb, I have cobwebs in my ovaries!
The probe moves, and the image on the screen changes. I am looking for it to tell me my future, but the instrument can tell me only about my present: pain, bloating, uncertainty.
I did not know how much I wanted children until my ability to have them came into question. I tended to wax philosophical about it; what if I have children only to have them witness the end of the world? Our best scientists tell us that climate change is upon us, they warn us about rapidly melting glaciers and sea-level rise, but we do nothing. And then there’s terrorism. Ebola. Measles.
“When I had you,” my mother reminded me, “it was the Cold War and we were all supposed to be killed by nuclear bombs.”
When she began writing in the late seventies, Butler was herself an anomaly, a black woman wading into a white male genre that was still struggling to earn respect for itself. If the dystopian future in “Speech Sounds” seems familiar to us today, it is probably a testament to the influence of her kind of smart, perceptive, and metaphorically resonant science fiction. In an afterword to “Speech sounds,” Butler describes how the inspiration for the story came to her during a difficult time in her life when, on her way to visit a dying friend, she witnessed an altercation on a bus: “I sat where I was, more depressed than ever, hating the whole hopeless, stupid business and wondering whether the human species would ever grow up enough to learn to communicate without using fists of one kind or another.”
Violence and the threat of violence is everywhere in “Speech Sounds.” In relatively few pages, Rye worries that she is about to be raped by the fighting men on the bus, then takes up with another man who still carries around a LAPD badge and seems to have appointed himself as some kind of protector of humanity. Rye plans to take the man with her back to her home, imagining a shared, less-lonely future, but before they get there the man stops to rescue a woman being attacked by a man in the street. Within seconds, the couple and Rye’s newfound companion are dead, and Rye is standing over three corpses. Seeing two young children emerge from a house and running to the dead woman, Rye decides to take the truck and leave. But she doesn’t. Instead, she hears the young girl talking to the boy in unaffected speech. This is apparently so unheard of in the world of the story that it causes Rye to consider hope for the first time, that perhaps the disease has run its course. In the end, Rye decides to take the two children with her and for the first time in the story we hear dialogue, actual language spoken between characters.
This is a very old and very familiar trope—that children are the future, that children equal hope—and Butler’s story risks becoming a little pat with this ending. For this reason, “Speech Sounds” is not quite as radical of a story as “Bloodchild,” another one of Butler’s award-winning tales, which applies a wonderfully bizarre lens to childbearing. But for me, right now, “Speech Sounds” offers something I need: hope.
I had plenty of doubts and worries about being a mother, but only one of these was the relatively smaller fear that I would have trouble conceiving. Perhaps because of this, I didn’t worry much through the first six months—relax, and it will happen, was the standard advice. It takes some couples up to a year. But when we had been trying for nine months, my doctor did not reassure me in the way I had perhaps expected to be reassured, did not tell me, no need to worry, you’re young. Because for a first-time mother, I am no longer young: 33 and counting. They say fertility drops dramatically after 35. The doctor recommended tests. “There are some yellow flags,” she said afterward. “No big red flags, but some yellow flags. You may want to see a specialist.”
A few weeks later, sitting in the specialist’s office, once again I expect to be reassured—to be told that I am young (33!) and that we have time and there are several non-invasive options to try. Certainly it is too soon for anything as radical as IVF. Instead, the doctor, who has a Long Island accent and a no-nonsense attitude, after reviewing our questionable numbers, says, “I think your best bet is IVF.”
My body’s reaction to this news takes me by surprise: I actually feel dizzy. This is not my life, I think. I’ve wandered out of my life and onto the set of a movie—sci-fi, clearly.
If I want a child that is biologically related to me, I will have to go undergo an outrageously costly and invasive series of procedures so that my eggs can be harvested, put in a petri dish, fertilized and placed back inside me. I have an image of a dish of cells, and with this image comes a sense of fundamental failure: before my child is born, before it is even conceived, I will have failed it in the most fundamental way—instead of safe and warm inside of me, my future child is a little pile in a dish, handled by some latex-gloved technician, a stranger I will never know.
“There’s no way around it,” I tell my husband as we wait to check out. “The way they’re going to do it. It’s not chance, or nature, or God—it’s just science.” My husband, a physician-scientist whose favorite fictional genre is science fiction, looks at me and gives a weak smile. “I suppose you find that reassuring,” I say.
“We could have a baby by Christmas,” he says.
And that, in the end, trumps everything.
“It’s an assault on your femininity,” my therapist says. More broadly, I would say that I have experienced infertility as an assault on my humanity, in that most people, even if they don’t want to have children, assume that they have the ability to do so. I didn’t realize how much my sense of a life well lived depended on the simple act of procreation until that possibility was threatened. I try to imagine a future in which my husband and I don’t have the children we have always talked about having. We agree that such a life would have some positives: we can travel abroad, go out to dinner, not worry so much about money. But even as we say these things, they sound hollow; who would really trade a human life for any of these superficial pleasures? Some people do and would; I know a lot of people, have plenty of friends, who have no interest in having children, never have, and I both envy and resent them now, wishing to trade places with these people who have the means but not the desire, while here I am, desiring and unable.
The thing I am struggling with now is to reconcile how much my sense of self, my sense of being a person in the world living a meaningful life, was always predicated on one day becoming a parent. I’ve always considered myself a feminist, so I’m uncomfortable, to say the least, to admit that I’ve always thought of motherhood as being intrinsic to my experience as a human, to the temporal existence I’m leading here, the one where I am born, grow up, reproduce and raise my children and someday die, preferably of old age, loved and mourned by my grandkids—much as my own grandparents lived and died. How would I mark time without that? How would I fashion a meaningful life?
We rely on a basic rhythm to render our lives understandable and knowable: we are born, we grow up, we have children, we die. Just as infertility or the loss of a child marks a basic point of rupture in an individual life, so does the threat of the end of civilization mark a basic rupture in our understanding of human life on a broader scale. Our lives are temporal and therefore temporary, but the standard cliché is that we all “want to leave something behind”—for some people it’s children, for others a contribution through a career, a life based in art or medicine or letters or law or what have you. But if the world around us collapses, if we lose everything we have built, this immense civilization with all of its technological prowess—then what are we? What will be left when there is nothing to pass on?
So maybe when I pick up “Speech Sounds,” I am more willing than usual to be moved by a theme that involves children and hope—adopted children, no less. Rye, we learn, once had children of her own, but they seem to have been dead for some time before the story begins. Her first, perhaps understandable, impulse is to not involve herself with the children she encounters at the end of the story, to assume that they, and the rest of world, are too far gone to care about.
Butler later wrote that this story “was conceived in weariness, depression, and sorrow. I began the story feeling little hope or liking for the human species, but by the time I reached the end of it, my hope had come back. It always seems to do that.” It is not coincidental of course that the most important connection in the story is forged between the only characters still capable of using language, who happen to be a woman and two young children. This scene forms an effective counterweight to the violence of the story’s beginning in a scene of masculine violence, devoid of language. At the story’s end, it is a woman’s act of courage—to take the children with her, children who are not of her body but who are nevertheless hers to care for and keep safe in a savage world—that suggests the world may be redeemable after all.
I have a seventeen-month old nephew. For the last few months we have been waiting for the first syllables of speech, not the repetitive but meaningless babbling that he has been doing for months now, but the unmistakable connection of specific sounds to a known object, to a shared frame of reference in the world outside himself. “Ka,” he says finally one morning, and reaches for his toy car. The family smiles, gives a collective sigh of relief. Here are the speech sounds with which he can name the world of his present—and later, his past and future.
Language is the means through which we make sense of our experience and communicate that experience to others. A story. An essay. A novel. What are these, if not time machines, casting us back into the remembered past or the imagined future? It’s easy at this point in time to understand our shared pessimism, the reflective belief that whatever the future holds must be bleak. Butler seems to have been able to write herself out of despair; perhaps with some luck I can do the same. Maybe it’s time we all start trying to imagine a more hopeful future.