A few days ago, I reread Octavia Butler's 1984 Hugo-winning short story "Speech Sounds". Her story is set in a near-future Los Angeles, in which a plague has wiped out the ability to process language, affecting both the ability to speak and the ability to read. The inability to communicate has essentially caused the fall of civiliation. It follows the harrowing journey of "Rye" as she attempts to travel to Pasadena to find her brother. (You can read the story in the anthology Hugo and Nebula Award Winners From Asimov's Science Fiction). The story got me thinking about how much of our society is dependent on language - both spoken and written. Would civilization be able to recover if all we had left was gestures and facial expressions? I'm not so sure.
Anyway, I enjoy intelligent, thought-provoking stories, particularly with female protagonists, and I was thinking that I should find more of Butler's fiction. It was therefore a sad surprise to read in John Scalzi's blog that she died yesterday at the age of 58. According to her wikipedia entry, Butler was a very rare breed: not only was she a female science fiction writer (a definite minority group), she was also an African-American lesbian who overcame dyslexia to have a successful writing career. Besides winning both Hugo and Nebula awards, she also received a MacArthur "genius grant". I'm sorry that it took her passing to learn who more about her.
Note: SciFi.com has a couple of her short stories online, including "The Book of Martha", and "Amnesty". I haven't read either yet, but I will be.
Tags: Octavia Butler, science fiction, short story