Critical Introduction

Summary: Ali Murphy’s Breaking Barriers: Octavia E. Butler’s “Speech Sounds”

Ali Murphy uses a New Historical critical lens to provide insight into Butler’s inspiration behind the speculative, science fiction story “Speech Sounds”. Murphy argues that Butler crafted themes to create discourse about a society that felt unwelcoming to the author as an oppressed African American- female author. “Breaking Barriers” also reviews a literary analysis of a collection of Butler’s works, including interviews with the late author. Focusing on the presence of racism in the science fiction genre, Murphy argues the importance and relevancy of Butler’s visionary talent in a society that is still riddled with racism. Murphy analyzes the science fiction genre itself, as being a genre wrought with racist undertones in its content and authorship. This is privileged by Murphy’s review of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and evidence from Butler’s own mentor, author Samuel R. Delany and his 1998 article “Racism and Science Fiction”. Murphy argues that Butler’s isolation in life is reflected through Rye, and though the story does not mention race, privileges the fact this story is still about Butler’s identity and the feeling of otherness that Butler felt because of her identity. Editor’s Note: This essay was selected as a winner for the 2023 CWI President’s Writing Award for Critical Analysis.

Summary: Rachel Roberts’s “Speech Sounds” Analysis

Rachel Roberts’s analysis of “Speech Sounds” explores deeper meanings underneath the surface themes of Octavia Butler’s gripping dystopian novel. Roberts uses a Deconstructive critical lens to reveal a subaltern meaning of Butler’s story about a world without communication. Roberts argues the binary opposition within Butler’s text and the arbitrary nature of telling a story about communication through the written word. Roberts implores the reader to consider Butler’s own speculation about the real world devolving, becoming a society that uses violence before communication. This is done to create a level of relevancy that applies to modern society, further illuminating the speculative nature of Butler’s award-winning science fiction story. This is done by exhibiting evidence comparing the use of sign language and male-to-female communication in the story, to peer-reviewed scholarly articles.

Summary: Jessica Mejia’s “Fear Evokes Change”

“Fear Evokes Change” by Jessica Mejia is a New Criticism response to Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds”. Mejia dissects the emotion and journey of Butler’s protagonist Rye. Mejia articulates the importance of violence and fear that is present in the story, exhibiting evidence from scholarly articles that focus on elements of Butler’s well-crafted literary voice. Mejia illuminates that Rye felt very alone, and re-experienced emotions that she had not felt in a long time. This is done to privilege Mejia’s thesis that violence and fear are prominent themes in this story, that encourage Rye to make new choices when she begins to feel safe. Mejia creates the idea that these two emotions are somewhat of a vicious cycle for Rye and influence the movement of Butler’s plot.

Summary: J.A. Prowers’s “Apathy and Hope: A Duality”

“Apathy and Hope” by J.A. Powers utilizes a Reader Response critical lens to illuminate the tough subjects that shape Octavia Butler’s riveting “Speech Sounds”. Powers doesn’t theorize a response from a specific, broad audience; instead, creates an intimate and thoughtful response to his own personal interpretation of Butler’s 1983 science fiction story. This is done by relating to the ostracization of Butler’s protagonist, Rye, and the overall hopelessness of the environment that Rye is stuck in. Powers thus creates a feeling of empathy in his analysis, sequentially creating a sense of currency and relevancy regarding the overall impact of Butler’s speculative, fiction. Powers uses scholarly articles that highlight the effects of these emotions that Butler brought to the forefront of her work; and contrasts this science fiction story to the storyline of the popular Dark Souls game, which potentially creates a broader audience for this story that continued to cement Butler’s title as one of the first, Black women science fiction authors. By focusing on the otherness of the story, Powers creates an opportunity for larger audiences not to feel as isolated as Rye, or Butler did, throughout their own life stories.


Madyson Crea analyzes Octavia Butler’s short story “Speech Sounds” through a psychoanalytical lens. Initially published in 1983 in a science fiction magazine, the story is narrated by a woman seeking human connection in a dystopian world. “Speech Sounds” has historically been criticized through a feminist lens. However, there are intriguing implications when considering a psychological perspective. Madyson’s essay focuses on the decision-making process and psychological condition of Butler’s main character Rye. Rye is struggling to survive in a society where humanity is inevitably experiencing ego depletion: a lack of resources that are normally available. The depletion is elicited by an illness that has rendered humanity incapable of effective communication. The essay explores the severe ego depletion experienced by Rye and the impact on her decision-making capacity by utilizing the findings of several cognitive studies. Butler’s work exhibits the implications of decision fatigue on humans’ decision-making through Rye’s navigation of a hostile world.


Emily Rubio examines “Speech Sounds” by Octavia Butler and its numerous hidden feminist undertones. The story was written at a time when women were heavily discriminated against and only considered capable of being their husband’s maid and property. Butler’s choice of a black woman as the protagonist in an apocalyptic setting challenges the prejudices of writers who engage in sexist practices. For example, the illness featured in the story serves as a metaphor for how women’s voices are silenced in society. By giving power to a black woman, Butler proves that language is crucial, and women are equally deserving of having their voices heard. Her decision was revolutionary in the genre and challenged the sexist norms that relegated women to secondary roles. Women can take center stage, and it is imperative to represent them accurately, making “Speech Sounds” an unsung feminist icon.


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Critical Introduction Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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