Vow of Silence: synopsis

by Robert Laughlin

Karal Evender, a boy about fifteen, arrives alone in Dreiden, the largest and oldest city in his world. Men and women wearing colored chest insignias provide directions, announce news of the hour and perform all other functions of printed matter. Civilization in this world depends entirely on oral transmission and the people just described are members of the Datistry, an all-pervasive institution that trains young people to develop total recall of past experience. Karal is being trained for the highest rank in the Datistry, that of Cartist, a person able to memorize everything relevant to a particular field of knowledge. Karal moves into a student hostel and meets the hosteler, Mrs. Thule, and her daughter, Alenna.

Karal spends three years studying in Dreiden. In his first year, he trains his memory under the supervision of Cartist Baris Barsel. Karal learns from Baris that he has been assigned the field of toxicology. In his second year, Karal spends several months on an accelerated general education course taught by many Datists of lower rank, rounding out the year with study in his field. Cartist Lorin Tine forces Karal to memorize everything about his repellent specialty that can be taught in a classroom environment. By this time, Karal and Alenna are in love and plan to marry after the end of Karal's training.

In his third year, Karal is given real-world assignments by Cartist Pereta Lenair. Almost every day, he reports to Dreiden's infirmary to observe people suffering different kinds of poisoning. Many of them literally die as he watches and Karal cannot forget any of it. Only Alenna's support prevents Karal from going insane with grief for the victims. Karal gets through his probation year and becomes a Cartist, but he is a changed person. His inability to forget accumulated experience, painful and pleasant, distances him from other people. He breaks his engagement with Alenna and uses his knowledge of poisons to murder his three Cartist tutors. Karal is arrested and will not say a word to anyone. Because there are no other Cartists in toxicology, Karal has committed the unprecedented crime of wiping out part of the world's body of knowledge.

Karal is freed on a technicality after three years' confinement in an isolation chamber. He travels far from Dreiden and builds a cabin in a forest filled with poisonous plant life — only he knows how to detoxify it for human consumption. The place is shunned by the locals and the only one of them Karal gets close to is Rafe Bolin, a professional interpreter for the deaf and mute. Rafe teaches Karal mime language and helps him buy store goods before and after each winter. When two Datists charged with remembering legal and financial records for the region die suddenly, Rafe improvises a language of written symbols; Karal learns about it only after it starts achieving wide usage.

Karal returns to Dreiden. A few weeks later, a Datist crier announces that classes in the written language are being planned in Dreiden. Karal speaks for the first time in years, shouting out his rage at the now-obsolete Datistry. The novel's last scene is set decades later, after written language has changed the world beyond recognition; Karal and many other former Cartists hold a dance in a Dreiden park, on the site once occupied by the Datistry headquarters.

Copyright © 2008 by Robert Laughlin

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