Sutty, the main character, is an observer from Earth (called Terra in the book) who is sent to study the culture of the planet Aka. When she gets there, she finds that the planet has been taken over by a corporation-state bent on eliminating the Aka’s native culture. However, outside of the cities, people still remember the old way of life, which focuses on “the telling,” a zen-like religion providing wisdom through an examination of the people’s history. Sutty manages to study in a village, where she discovers that the people have been maintaining an underground network to preserve their stories, and comes to the realization that she is the only one who is able to protect that knowledge.
Meanwhile, Sutty must come to terms with her own past on Earth. I found it interesting that Le Guin chose to make her a lesbian, largely because Sutty’s own story comes secondary to the descriptions of Akan society.
Le Guin’s writing is beautiful, although there isn’t much actual plot. The book reads more as an anthropological study of a fictional planet, allowing Le Guin to examine the relationship between religion, politics, philosophy, and culture. It’s certainly not for everyone, but I love anthropology and so found the book fascinating.