The story describes an alien people who, as adults, are almost entirely silent. While younger Asonu talk quite a lot, older members of the species can go years without uttering a single word. This silence is fascinating to many people and the Asonu soon become the objects of intense study.
There is a lot of humour in the story, especially at the expense of people reading all sorts of things into the Asonu silence. Some see them as good listeners for instance.
Others follow their Asonu guides or hosts about, talking to them continually, confiding their whole life stories to them, in rapture at having at last found a listener who won’t interrupt or comment or mention that his cousin had an even larger tumor than that. As such people usually know little Asonu and speak mostly or entirely in their own language, they evidently aren’t worried by the question that vexes some visitors: Since the Asonu don’t talk, do they, in fact, listen?Their silence makes them appear wise to some. People approach them with a religious reverence and their every word is considered a pearl of wisdom. Some go to extremes not to miss the few words that are being spoken. Under all that mocking are a couple of very serious messages though.
The human tendency to fill in the blanks if someone does not speak for themselves is one of them. Le Guin takes it one step further by mentioning an incident in which the silence of the Asonu is considered a justification for a horrible crime. Le Guin in effect points out that not having a voice, leads those that do to not take your needs, desires or feelings into account. Replace Asonu with the name of any random marginalized group and you'll see her point. Another point the story makes is just as sad really. Apparently it is very hard to accept that not everybody has the same desires. To not speak is seen as concealment, a snub, an insult, something to be cured. If we cannot accept difference within our own species this really does not bode well for any alien that might cross our path.
The Silence of the Asonu is a little gem. Both a humorous tale and a call for more empathy, it packs a lot into a short text. It must have flown under the radar the years it was first published. This is easily as good as some of Le Guin's award nominated short fiction. As far as I am concerned, this is recommended reading.
Title: The Silence of the Asonu
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Originally published: Orion (1998)
Read in: Lightspeed Year One, edited by John Joseph Adams (2011)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 2,500 words
Available online: Lightspeed