This week at the Science Fiction Book Club on Facebook, we’re discussing two stories: “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (1973) by Ursula K. Le Guin and “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” (2018) by N. K. Jemisin. Le Guin’s Hugo award-winning short story is often taught in schools because it presents a brilliant philosophical Zen kōan. Jemisin’s story rejects Le Guin’s implied conclusion and offers an alternative answer by resetting the kōan. Both stories paint a tiny utopia with quick colorful strokes, each with a moral conundrum, and each with a solution to upset their readers.
Every so often in our genre, a science fiction writer will present a story that other writers want to reply to by writing another story. For example, it appears the novels The Forever War by Joe Haldeman and Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card are part of a conversation with Robert A. Heinlein that he started with Starship Troopers. Sarah Pinsker’s story, “The Ones Who Know Where They Are Going” is also part of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” conversation too, but I haven’t read it, and there are no links for it on the web.
If you haven’t read Le Guin’s and Jemison’s stories, I hope you go off and read them now because this essay gives spoilers. Both are very short. The links to each story are above. I recommend listen to each story as you read along with the text. Both text and audio Jemisin’s story are at that link. Here is an audio version of Le Guin’s story.
“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin offers an allegorical lesson about the nature of utopias. She intentionally speaks to you the reader, inviting participation in the creation of her utopian city, Omelas, because she wants you to believe it is indeed a perfect society. That’s the first part of the story, and quite lovely. The second part of her parable is when she describes the price of this utopia, which Le Guin later claims she got from William James. Omelas is a beautiful place to live because of the suffering of one child. All citizens know that suffering is part of their social contract. Le Guin describes the suffering child vividly so we feel the horrendous price the citizens of Omelas must accept. The third, and final part of this allegorical tale, is about the people who reject that contract and walk away from Omelas. It’s a powerful story, especially when you actively consider whether or not you the reader would stay or go.
Le Guin sets up her moral problem by presenting an artificial situation, much like the famous trolley problem in psychology. Most readers only consider it a story and a theoretical issue. I don’t. I see the story as a metaphor for our own existence. All the societies on Earth provide happiness to some based on the suffering of others. “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas” is a perfect analogy for our own social contracts. Le Guin is telling us any happiness we gain comes at a terrible cost, and we’re complicit with the bargain.
Le Guin was theorizing about the nature of utopias. Even though humans have sought perfect societies since the dawn of time, we’ve come to believe that utopias are impossible. Le Guin knew her fictional problem was limited to her story, but I assume she also knew the guilt we’d feel reading it because it matches real life much too closely.
In the story, Le Guin, and I suppose readers are expected to admire the people who walk away from Omelas. But where do they go? There has been much speculation about that. Le Guin wrote a novel after this, The Dispossessed that explores a place, Anarres, that tries to imagine a place that those leaving places like Omelas might want to go.
Now we come to N. K. Jemisin. She didn’t admire the people who walked away and instead imagine people who stay and fight. Jemisin’s story also paints a picture of a tiny jewel-like utopia, Um-Helat. It’s a whole beautiful world but much like the city of Omelas. The differences are interesting too. We all imagine what we think utopia would be like, and both writers know this, offering their readers a chance to participate — an impressive writing technique.
Um-Helat, unlike Omelas, would be near perfect and without evil if it wasn’t for our world. Um-Helat exists in another dimension, and is our world perfected after much struggle. Unfortunately, some of the citizens of Um-Helat have discovered a way to observe our world, and our hate and beliefs in inequality are corrupting theirs. I wondered if this wasn’t partly a specific metaphor for the internet and wondered if Jemisin isn’t asking what we should do about people who pollute the online world with their evil perspectives.
Some of the citizens of Um-Helat have come up with a solution to this problem. They don’t walk away. They seek out and kill those citizens that are spreading corruption from our world. I doubt Jemisin sees this as a literal solution. Isn’t this the flaw of her stories to inspire readers to think and discuss?
I buy neither solution. We can’t walk away. There’s no place we can go that doesn’t have the same social contract of trading suffering for happiness. Nor can we fight inequality and hatred by killing its perpetrators. And it is impractical to create a whole new society. Neither solution works in the real world, but the real world still demands a solution.
If we only consider these two stories to be about the theoretical problem of creating a fictional utopia then we can talk all we want and then walk away just like the characters who walked away from Omelas. If this is only fiction, we can say, “Kill the bad guys.”
If we consider these stories metaphors for our society, we can’t walk away, and we can’t kill. Yet, we can’t forget these stories because we can’t forget all the real downtrodden or all the real people infecting everyone with hate.
Reading these stories create existential angst. We might have given up on utopias in fiction, but we can’t give up on improving this world. Maybe we can’t reach 100% utopian perfection, but we can achieve a lot more happiness and equality. Studying the past shows us how much worse societies were, so we know we can improve. But what is the maximum utopian efficiency we can achieve? 75%? 90%? 99%
We also have a social contract. Success and happiness in this world come from the failure and suffering of other people. Hatred and misery in this world come from inequality. We’re all like those citizens of Omelas who willingly accept the torture of a child, and we’re like the citizens of Um-Helat who spread inequality. Why? Because we all want to climb the ladder of prosperity and social position. We just tune out all those tortured people and hatred to get what we want.
Yes, these are only stories, but they are revealing stories. If we don’t realize that we’re part of an evil social contract we’re not walking away, but running away.
[The photo of N. K. Jemison above is by photographer Laura Hanifin, copyright 2015.]
James Wallace Harris, 4/10/20