Jacqueline Toland is a burgeoning writer who specializes in the confluence of women and gender studies, queer theory, and speculative fiction. Jacqueline’s education includes a Bachelor’s degree in Women’s and Gender Studies from the University of Miami and a Master’s in English Literature from Florida Atlantic University. Her thesis is entitled: “Gender-bending Genres: Queerness, Female Masculinity, and Warriorship in C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry.” She has previously presented papers at ICFA 40, SFRA 2019, and at Florida Atlantic University. Jacqueline enjoys martial arts and that is reflected in her work on female masculine warrior figures in contemporary media.
Gender, Mothering, and Violence in Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds” and Judith Merril’s “That Only a Mother”
Although Judith Merril and Octavia Butler are prolific figures in speculative literature, there seems to be a lack of scholarship that connects gender, mothering, and violence in their works with that of the Cold War. When someone takes on the mantle of mothering certain expectations seem to dictate the role of mother that often relate to and are affected by gender, but what is overlooked is the dark mortal edge that comes with that responsibility. Often mothering encompasses the choice of life or death, violence or non-violence, in pursuit of something greater. The preservation of the next generation seems to imbue a certain gravitas to the role of mother, and within that gravitas, certain gender expectations occur. Hegemonic thinking often police the role of mother especially in war times. Through an analysis of the stories of Judith Merril’s “That Only a Mother” and Octavia E. Butler’s “Speech Sounds,” I aim to examine violence in a new lens that specifically comments on gender roles and mothering as a concept. Both “Speech Sounds” and “That Only a Mother” queer expectations of motherhood in different ways and present a new layer to the role of motherhood not yet highlighted in current scholarship. Within post-apocalyptic, post-war speculative fiction, violence is an unavoidable truth, but what is also inherent is the connection to and commentary on mothering as grappling with mortal sacrifice (in specifically the Cold War times) and gender roles as social constructs.
The analysis of these two mothers is indicative of not only Cold War SF, but also the conventions of SF in general. The mothers in these stories queer (in the methodological sense) forms and expectations of motherhood. Rye does not take up the mantle of mother willingly until she discovers the children’s secret and Maggie (depending on your reading) deludes herself or ignores the truth in regards to her baby. Essentially both figures are the “other” mother, the one who stands out and as a result comments on SF’s purpose, which is arguably to question our reality. Through close textual analysis, the theoretical framework of queering as well as examining “the other” both figures have a specific commentary on mothering and by extension SF.
In Octavia E. Butler’s “Speech Sounds” violence has a poignant meaning that definitively connects to motherhood, gender, and by extension the Cold War. Violence is no longer just entertainment or just a physical phenomenon, but a linguistic tool, which governs social life and mores in this post-silence world. The fact that violence has a different iteration in this world is evident through multiple textual examples. For instance, we are first given the tools to understand this world in the bus scene where Butler describes an altercation that involved social mores, language, hierarchy and violence. In order for the Rye to stay alive, she adapts to this new system when Butler writes: “As a result, she never went unarmed. And in this world where the only likely common language was body language, being armed was often enough. She rarely needed to draw her gun or even display it” (Butler 570). The language of threats and the symbology involved in body language is a language within itself therefore language is not lost or “impaired,” but a new iteration of language with a sharper violent edge. This new language recalls wartime themes because the consequences of miscommunication are all the more lethal. Butler further enforces this ideal of thematic violence through diction and tone in the story. Her language is abrupt, non-effusive, and direct almost like violence itself within the story. The initial abruptness of the bus scene as the introduction mirrors violence in that it starts with a dizzying impact, but then later unravels and reveals more about the complicated nature of gender, violence, and motherhood.
The connection between motherhood, gender, and sacrifice is inextricably tied to one another through multiple reasonings and scenes, but the most pertinent is the textual example that involves both Obsidian and Rye. Butler writes, “She swallowed, shook her head. She did not know how to tell him her children were dead. He took her hand and drew a cross in it with his index finger, then made the baby-rocking gesture again” (574-5). Butler encourages this distinct connection when Rye reflects on the changed (post-silence) lives of current children. Rye’s musings enforces the idea that the role of mother (along with language) has been inexplicably changed due to a distinct tinge of violence, which is reflective of a society previously ravaged by war. In the article “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Slavery…” Kristen Lillvis reflects on Octavia E. Butler’s past and the role of the mother in “Bloodchild.” Although “Bloodchild” is a very different story, the role of a mother is discussed in general throughout it and can be used as a framework to denote the view of mothering as sacrifice. Lillvis conveys the ongoing influence of mothers and mother figures in the lives of their children through Butler’s past when she remarks that, “Butler’s message of empowering maternal love likely developed out of her relationship with her own mother, a domestic who experienced racial oppression and humiliation but modeled characteristics of strength and perseverance to her daughter” (Lillvis 17). Octavia Butler witnessed the sacrifice her mother had to make and it can be inferred that Octavia’s mother shaped the way in which she portrays her heroine. Rye is a heroine and mother who queers the expected interaction or accorded gendered roles in this post-apocalyptic society.
The last scene of “Speech Sounds” is indicative of this queering of the gendered role of mother. The first reaction Rye has to the children is that:
This was too much. Rye got up, feeling sick to her stomach with grief and anger. If the children began to cry, she thought she would vomit. They were on their own, those two kids. They were old enough to scavenge. She did not need anymore grief. She did not need a stranger’s children who would grow up to be hairless chimps (Butler 577).
The fact that Rye ruminates and almost allows the children die is a commentary on mothering. With the responsibility of the role of mother comes the necessity to make hard decisions and to stomach sacrifice and mortality. The fact that Rye takes the children in after discovering their gift of immunity indicates that Butler is conveying that Rye is saving the last vestiges of humanity, civilization, learning, and language, which differs from the gendered conceptual role of mother; the role of protector is not and should not inherently be gendered. On the other hand, Rye amorphously encompasses the role of mother as well because Rye is a teacher and guardian to humanity’s last hope— the “healthy” children. This contrasting tension displays the multifaceted role of mother in wartime. In one sense, a mother must sacrifice and give for the greater good and the other a mother must remain true to herself. This multilayered contrasting role that Rye encompasses should not be reduced to the accorded gendered stereotype, but broadened to a larger definition that includes preserving oneself foremost, whether that might or might not save the next generation. This broadening of a concept benefits the future of SF because SF is often on the cutting edge.
Furthermore, in Sandra Govan’s chapter, “Disparate Spirits yet Kindred Souls…”, a commentary on violence and the state is evident (due to Obsidian’s LAPD uniform in a post-apocalyptic society). For example, Govan states:
‘Speech Sounds’ highlights several brutal random acts of violence coupled to the erasure of self-control and the diminution of ethical behavior among ordinary American citizenry. And yet, in depicting some characters who still strive to exercise basic human decency, attempting to remain a force for positive moral action, Butler incorporates another of her trademark themes: the significance of a hierarchy (Govan 2102).
Within the creation of hierarchy in this world (of “Speech Sounds”), it creates a moral center despite the dystopian nature of the text. The use of the words “basic human decency” in the text can loosely translate to or relate to motherhood since Rye is confronted with the question of motherhood several times in the story. She feels this call towards the “decent” and the need to be human when confronted with mothering and children. This is especially evident in Rye’s interaction with Obsidian where he asks her about her fertility and her past pregnancies. This constant theme of mothering is evidenced in the question of fertility that Obsidian asks and through the actual sex as an act (although they use a condom). Both are actions and conversations or actions that could lead to motherhood. Moreover, in regards to Obsidian’s role, he represents the last vestiges of human law and order. He is the last of the “civil” (as a lone LAPD officer) and the fact that he is brutally murdered is indicative of the violence within the piece as a whole. Yet, it is important to note that the gender roles are queered within the story when Govan states:
She and Obsidian balance each other; through them Butler shows them both mutuality and gender equality subtly subverting the Golden Age SF traditional practice of absenting or negating any black presence in the future, relegating African Americans to alien or other, Butler not only shows African Americans surviving but being among the elect who will revive civil society (Govan 2343).
The acceptance of the other in relation to the vulnerable, the disenfranchised, the outlier can relate to mothering as a concept. Lillvis states about Butler’s work that: “then maternity must be read the same way in her science fiction: as difficult though necessary, as painful but also empowering” (17). In a sense, Octavia Butler is creating a commentary on embracing the other and this should not have just a gendered connotation, but a human one as well that is empowering for all women, parents, and mothers.
With this in mind, the juxtaposition between different post-war or post-disaster mothers is evident when examining the story of “That Only a Mother” by Judith Merril. In my opinion there are two different readings one can take to this story, one that the mother herself is in denial and without culpability and the other is that she is willfully aware and sacrificing her genius, but mutated child. The first reading I mentioned is readily apparent, but the second reading I mentioned requires some investigation, digging, and argument. The second reading takes risk and tenacity, much like Merril herself in the SF community. In Diana Newell’s article, “Home Truths…” it is established that: “Merril was not unique in challenging the political and literary status quo, but she was perhaps the most daring, articulate, and above all, politically tenacious” (Newell 196). With her spirit in mind and for the sake of this paper, I will argue that the mother in this story is culpable and willing to sacrifice her child due to the violence in the Cold War times that bleed into the home.
The second reading begins in the very beginning of the story because the mother, Margaret, is immediately accountable and aware of her actions. This is evident when Merril states, “No accidents. No direct hits. At least none that had been officially released for publication. Now. Maggie, don’t get started on that. No accidents. No hits. Take the nice newspaper’s word for it” (Merril 212). The interplay between the italicized and normal text reveals that Margaret is politically conscious and reading the newspaper, but is actively convincing herself to join the party line. The propaganda of the newspaper is representative of her attitude towards mothering, which is there are no hits no deviations from the plan allowed in this society. This is further enforced when Merril writes, “Stop it, Maggie, stop it! The radiologist said Hank’s job couldn’t have exposed him. And the bombed area we drove past…No, no. Stop it, now! Read the social notes or the recipes. Maggie girl” (Merril 213). This portion of Maggie’s thought indicates that Maggie knows the risk and the very real possibilities to a child. Through this quote, it is evident that mutation is a sneaking suspicion and established worry that Margaret actively teaches herself to ignore, but despite her willful ignorance, on some level she recognizes the consequences of Hank’s job and nuclear exposure. Maggie recognizes what a mutation is based on the text of “That Only A Mother” when Merril writes,
I’m afraid I have been a rambunctious patient. I kept telling that hatchet-faced female with the mutation-mania that I wanted to see the baby. Finally the doctor came in to ‘explain’ everything to me, and talked a lot of nonsense, most of which I’m sure no one could have understood, any more than I did (Merril 215).
The fact that Merril describes the nurse as having “mutation-mania” denotes that Maggie knows there is something that warrants the nurse’s reaction. The use of the word mutation as part of Maggie’s vocabulary to describe another person’s heretic practices denotes that Margaret knows what the concept is and it is not “too hard for her to follow” (like she claims later in the story). Maggie mentions and states that she understands the situation to some extent, which denotes a partial cognizance about the status of her baby. Margaret may be in shock initially, but she knows her baby is not what the world considers as “normal.”
Another important element to this reading is the context provided by Merril that, “Only 2 or 3 percent of those guilty of infanticide are being caught and punished in Japan today…But MY BABY’S all right” (Merril 218). The conjunction of these two ideas together is foreshadowing the ending of the story. With this context in mind, it is entirely possible that Maggie knows what will happen if Frank returns and that it may not be prosecuted due to seeing the child’s death as mercy or a norm. If Japan can have sanctioned infanticide with minimal criminal proceedings why is the U.S. any different (in this post apocalyptic world)? Even if they were enemies, Japan and the U.S. were directly affected by mass world wars and therefore facing similar problems.
Another moment that signifies that Maggie knew about her baby is during a poignant scene between mother and daughter. The passage begins, “Margaret was used to her child’s volubility now, but every now and then it caught her unawares. She swooped the resistant mass of pink flesh into a towel, and began to rub” (Merril 217). The fact that the baby is a “mass of pink flesh” denotes a baby without limbs. This off-hand comment although small can create a recognition of her baby’s uniqueness. Furthermore, she is hands on with her baby, so she could feel her babies’ shape. Moreover, when Hank questions the baby’s odd movements Margaret states, “‘This baby’— Margaret would not notice the tension— “‘This baby does things when she wants to” (Merril 219). The emphasis on the word “This” as both said out-loud in the story and thought out (as it is italicized) denotes singularity and a possible disgust. With this reading in mind, the ending of the child’s death as a sacrifice is not implausible because the story ends with, “His fingers tightened on his child— Oh God, She didn’t know…” (Merril 220). The ambiguous ending leaves the baby’s fate up to interpretation, the child could be alive or dead, but when we put this reading within the context of the Cold War it presents the ending in a different light.
To discuss Merril’s piece is to essentially put this work further into context. Within the Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, it states that,
While the tale has since become a classic and is widely anthologized, it is disparaged at the time by some male authors as ‘a diaper story’-criticized, in other words, for its absorption in the mundane realities of domesticity, which true sf presumably scorned in favor of some more techno-specific exploration” (211).
This sexism further enforces the gendered narrative of motherhood, which is problematic on many levels due to the fact the home and by extension motherhood is paramount in cold war times. In Daniel Cordle’s Late Cold War Literature and Culture…, he establishes that:
The family became a fraught site in late Cold War nuclear literature because it was most frequently the home that was presented as the target of nuclear attack in both civil defence advice and in nuclear fictions. It is also because the family was central to the broader ethical and political debate, presented in extremis as itself under attack and the final bastion against anarchy, or, in a counter discourse, as the bedrock of intransigence and patriarchy (Cordle 77).
In the 1940’s a large percentage of American mothers were mourning the deaths of their sons in WWII and more were on the way with the Cold War. So, this story is in effect reminding mothers and all those who read it of that particular sacrifice needed to sustain the country. This story is telling mothers and others that the sacrifices of their children are part of the new definition of motherhood and family. Therefore, killing a mutated genius baby with no limbs is not out of the realm of possibility, but a possible commentary on Cold War motherhood.
If we posit the baby as a symbol of the negative effects of nuclear warfare, essentially if the baby is reminiscent or representative of the nuclear bomb or the bomb’s radiation, Hank, a soldier, could have easily killed the baby as a measure of regaining control in nuclear war times. This idea of a soldier attempting to control the mutation and effects of a bomb is representative of Cordle’s idea that essentially the warfront of the Cold War bled into the home. Merril’s ending of the story effectively controls the baby or “the other”and by extension the reader. We are left guessing the baby’s fate and this merciless controlling of the ending by Meril is representative of the control we lost as a reader, we essentially have no say in the baby’s life or death. We can only accept the ambiguity of the other.
This controlling of the “other” relates to the conception of speculative fiction. In the article, “Toward an ‘Other’ Dimension…” the authors state their purpose so we can reflect on ours:
Examination of future types present in current science fiction provides predictions about gender and sexuality in our future society. The purpose of this essay is to examine how science fiction texts serve as pertinent platforms to question cultural gender and sexuality norms that marginalize the Other (Pluretti, Lingel, and Sinnreich 393).
If this is true, then speculative fiction has a purpose as the “mother” of progressivity. Essentially speculative fiction paves the way for the acceptance of the marginal, so these stories (although considered as “others” from the mainstream) have merit in commenting on the ever evolving role of a mother. Mothering can have a gendered or an agendered connotation that is in line with queer theory. Furthermore, violence is a reality embedded within the conception of wartime motherhood and that should be further explored rather than consciously ignored.
Cordle, Daniel. Late Cold War Literature and Culture: the Nuclear 1980s. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
Evans, Arthur B., et al. The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press, 2010.
Govan, Sandra Y. “Disparate Spirits Yet Kindred Souls: Octavia E. Butler, ‘Speech Sounds,’ and Me.” Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler, edited by Rebecca J. Holden and Nisi Shawl, Aqueduct, 2013, pp. 109–127.
Lillvis, Kristen. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Slavery? The Problem and Promise of Mothering in Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Bloodchild.’” MELUS, vol. 39, no. 4, 2014, pp. 7-22.
Newell, Dianne. “Home Truths: Women Writing Science in the Nuclear Dawn.” European Journal of American Culture, vol. 22, no. 3, 2003, pp. 193–203.
Pluretti, Roseann, et al. “TOWARD AN ‘OTHER’ DIMENSION: AN ESSAY ON TRANSCENDENCE OF GENDER AND SEXUALITY.” ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Oct. 2015, pp. 392–399.
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