Reader Response

Apathy and Hope: A Duality

Apathy and Hope: A Duality

by J. a. powers

Apathy is the most dangerous weapon against humankind because we cannot make accurate, impactful decisions if we do not care about the outcome. Speech Sounds by Octavia E. Butler describes a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a plague that took full cognitive capability from most of the human race. Most of humanity forgot how to speak or write, instead communicating with pictures and hand gestures. This mass dulling of human function led to the collapse of civilization as people across the globe could not remember how to maintain society – even simple things like maintaining vehicles grew beyond human understanding. The living must rely on the goodwill of each other, and fear of others is commonplace; fear of others and what they might do. Rye, the story’s main character, has already given up on hope for the future by the time the story begins. She wanders without a true goal in mind until she meets a man named Obsidian, who has taken it upon himself to keep the ideal of an acting police force alive all by himself. He gives Rye the hope that she so desperately needed, and she can see a small glimpse of a future. That future would not come to pass as Obsidian dies attempting to save another woman from a violent man but ends up dying himself. But after his death, Rye meets two young children who are able to speak full sentences and do not seem to be feeling the effects of the plague.

“Speech Sounds” grapples with many tough subjects; othering, fear of the unknown, depression, and communication. However, the theme I resonated most with was not the ostracization of Rye that she so fears or the threat to survival, but rather the absolute hopelessness of the setting. The unnamed plague destroyed humanity’s cognitive function and left them in a daze, removing the ability to rationalize and communicate properly, leading to widespread despair – just as it would have in the real world. Many people died, and those who lived were trapped in a mental fog, too dazed to help themselves or each other properly. People often forget that the world is not a place that cares about humans in general or as individuals. As a writer, I can see Rye and Obsidian representing a duality of ideas – that being apathy and hope, respectively.

The actual definition of apathy and its commonly thought definition differ in small ways. “Apathy is a syndrome characterized by diminished motivation and purposeful behaviors.” (Green et al. 1). The generally agreed upon definition – in my experience – is that apathy is the feeling of not caring and letting the things happen around you without trying to stop them. These are symptoms of depression that can often be mistaken for apathetic behavior. An apathetic person will likely have enough self-preservation instinct to continue living, while someone depressed might not. A person with an apathetic mindset could still laugh and enjoy their time, but hopelessness will always be hanging over them. “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.” (Butler 8). Rye wishes not to bring children into this world because she has already accepted that there is no point to it, that they would be born into senseless suffering and violence. Rye also barely reacts after Obsidian is murdered; she knew it would happen and that it would have been foolish to hope for anything more. Rye faced the horrid world she found herself in with a calm acceptance, knowing that the world she lived in was destined to fade away into nothingness.

Apathy itself is the illness. The illness is described as taking away something each person held dear – their writing, speech, other faculty, or some combination. This mirrors how apathy takes root in a person’s mind; it hangs over their thoughts like a shroud. The infected lost their ability to reason effectively, “Behavioural symptoms include deficits in goal-directed behaviours, reduced productivity and social effort. Finally, affective symptoms include emotional indifference or flat affect.” (Green et al. 2). This is shown clearly in the bus driver. He does not react at all when the fight breaks out or when people scream at him for aid, simply sitting in his seat. He only reacts when outside stimulus forces him to move – that being a gas grenade set off inside his vehicle – and he finally reacts angrily toward the man who set off the grenade.

The bleakness of this setting reminds me of another, one that carries similar themes, Dark Souls. Dark Souls takes place in a world that is slowly dying after a golden age, the Age of Fire. The human inhabitants of the world no longer know how to recreate the enormous structures and monoliths seen from the Age of Fire. Butler refers to buildings as canyons in Speech Sounds, implying that future children would not know the difference between something man-made and something natural – there would no longer be such a thing as man-made anything. All humans are cursed with the Darksign, a mark on their skin that keeps them trapped between life and death. They suffer in a perpetual existence without actually living. These Hollowed souls can sometimes speak and communicate but do not. Some will attack the player on sight, while others simply lean and lounge around with their heads bowed. Being Hollow means giving into despair and giving up on any hope; they gave up on attempting to save their world and accepted their cursed existence until the Age of Darkness. This is relevant because this way of thinking describes Rye perfectly. She is shown to still remember how to speak and can take care of herself just fine, but she had given up on taking care of others. She does not interfere on the bus when people started hurting each other and only looked after her own skin. She believes that humanity is doomed and it is worthless to try and put society back together, even finding the idea of someone standing up for the ideals of law laughable.

If Rye is the embodiment of apathy in this setting, then Obsidian is the embodiment of hope. Unlike Rye, who does her best to keep her head down and stay out of sight, Obsidian drives into a dangerous situation and directly puts himself into conflict for the greater good. Obsidian does not use lethal force when confronting brawlers on the bus but instead breaks up the fight with non-lethal gas and only leaves once all of the anger and animosity of the group turns to him. This duality even extends into Rye and Obsidian’s intimate moment. Rye shakes her head at the request for sex and notes to herself that she cannot have any more children and that it would be too risky to be intimate. Obsidian throws a metaphorical wrench into her way of thinking and offers up a condom, something that makes Rye burst out laughing. He not only provided a solution to the problem instead of outright dismissing it but managed to lift Rye’s spirits as well. Just spending a small amount of time with Obsidian makes Rye remember some of her humanity and leaps with him to the aid of a woman in peril. While the woman sadly dies and Obsidian is with her, the story is left on a hopeful note as Rye finds two children with whom she can speak to. Rye is given back her hope.

As a writer, I can see Rye and Obsidian representing a duality of ideas – that being apathy and hope, respectively. The obvious themes of this story are depression, hopelessness, and othering, but I decided that it would be better to look at a theme the story shows that is often overlooked. Hope and hopelessness might be direct opposites of each other, but the relationship between apathy and hope is an interesting one as well. I decided to look at what apathy can do to a person – namely Rye. The way she thinks throughout the story is, “I guess I will do this.” Not really having a specific reason in mind for anything she does other than not to be lonely. She constantly reaffirms to herself that there is no reason to really care about anything because they will all be taken from her eventually, as everything had been in the past. It is only a small glimmer of hope through the children and the actions of Obsidian that gives Rye the lesson she desperately needed, that it is okay to try and help the world grow once more. It is okay to care about the outcome.


Work Cited

Butler, Octavia. “Speech Sounds.” Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. 1983

Ceïde, Mirnova E., et al. “Mediation Analyses of the Role of Apathy on Motoric Cognitive Outcomes.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 19, no. 12, 2022, p. 7376.,

Green, Sarah L., et al. “Apathy and Depression as Predictors of Activities of Daily Living Following Stroke and Traumatic Brain Injuries in Adults: A Meta-Analysis.” Neuropsychology Review, vol. 32, no. 1, 2021, pp. 51–69.,

Miyaaki, Hidetaki. “Dark Souls.” FromSoftware Inc., 2011.


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