On a distant planet live a group of people called the Asonu. The people who have visited the Asonu always notice that the Asonu have a unique linguistic tradition - they do not speak once they reach adulthood. When they are children, they speak like everyone else, play loudly, and get into childish arguments. However, as they age, they grow quieter and all arguments and disagreements cease.
Unlike other wordless people, the Asonu do not utilize other non-verbal means of communication. Their silence is not forced or stemming from some degenerative physical condition, but rather occurs by choice. As people find the choice odd, tourists frequently visit. Even when tourists come, the Asonu remain silent.
That being said, they are a kind and pleasant people. Due to their amiable demeanor, tourists use them as a sounding board and they confide in the Asonu, who appear to be listening. Their silence also leads people to think that they are actually incredibly wise. Some linguists even devote time to studying the Asonu.
One such scientist spends four years recording the few words uttered by an Asonu elder and trying to ascertain some deeper meaning from them. After listening, he came up with what he believed to be an Asonu life philosophy.
His imagined Asonuan philosophy is as follows: “(1) What we seek is not there in any object or experience of our mortal life. We live among appearances, on the verge of the Spiritual Truth. (2) We must be ready for it as it is ready for us, for (3) it will come when we least expect it. Our perception of Truth is sudden as a lightning-flash, but (4) the Truth itself is eternal and unchanging. (5) Indeed we must positively and hopefully, in a spirit of affirmation, (6) continually ask when, when shall we find what we seek? (7) For the Truth is the medicine for our soul, the knowledge of absolute goodness. (8, 9) It may come very soon. Perhaps it is coming even now in this moment. (10) Its warmth and brightness are as those of the sun, but the sun will perish (11) and the Truth will not perish. Never will the warmth, the brightness, the goodness of the Truth cease or fail us” (256).
An alternative, more simplistic interpretation of the elder’s speech provides a more probable context-based explanation. Frustrated by the Asonu’s lack of speech, a man kidnaps a young Asonu child in an attempt to slow or even stop the child’s gradual muteness.
His plan fails and the child eventually stops talking, even in captivity. Angered by the child’s unwillingness to talk, the kidnapper beats and abuses the child for three years before she is rescued and returned to her people. Since then, the land of the Asonu has been closed off to outsiders.
“The Silence of the Asonu” brings up the problem of non-communication. The Asonu are “proverbial” (literally, figuratively) for their lack of spoken language, at least among adults. This makes them a fascinating oddity in the eyes of outsiders. Some seek to study them, and others just wish to visit them.
This story brings up the idea of language and of communication more generally. Le Guin presents the Asonu to the reader as a peaceful people whose harmony is reinforced through their lack of communication. The subtext here is that excess communication presents opportunities for miscommunications and disagreements. This is seen in the progression of the Asonu from loud and quarrelsome as children, to quiet and peaceful as adults.
The idea that silence fosters peace, while superfluous speech creates discord, is an ancient philosophical concept expressed in various world religions. This is observable in the decision made by many Buddhist monks, Hmong shamans, and Hindu holy men to take a vow of silence. This self-enforced silence is usually undertaken in the hope that the individual will develop spiritually.
To people who ascribe to this philosophy of the value of silence, the decision to be judicious about one's speech leads to greater wisdom. This is why the devotee spends years recording the elder’s rare utterances, hoping to divine some greater meaning. He or she spends four years attempting to understand the Asonu’s worldview, even though he or she will come up short.
In the case of the Asonu, they become victimized at the hands of people who want to analyze their behaviors and customs. In some ways, the Asonu represent any number of indigenous cultures that have been harmed as a result of outside interference, even well-intentioned interference.