Reviews of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973) and related work
- Spin-off: “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” (2018)
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973)
Ursula K. Le Guin (writer).
Read in 2018.
A city without guilt, kept happy by a miserable individual.
Philosophical fantasy fiction. This is a failure in two significant ways. First, as Le Guin writes, “The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid.” This is true, but even after declaring her knowledge of this bias, the author still walks right into it by undermining her potential utopia. Second, she proposes no causal relationship between the misery of the human scapegoat and the happiness of the rest of the city and country of Omelas. The story is just four pages of sensuous elaboration upon a line from William Blake. Le Guin tries to make the reader picture the city, but crucially, she does not try to make the reader understand why the city would depend on the scapegoat. Fantasy fiction is not a poor choice of medium for such an elaboration, but contrary to what I sense as the author’s own belief, causality would have strengthened the thought experiment. For a trivial yet stronger example in fantasy fiction, consider the revelation that Durkon’s mother donated her wealth, choosing to remain a disabled widow, to save five complete strangers, thereby producing “a family who woulnae ev’n exist without her pain”, as stated in issue 1130 of The Order of the Stick (2003): An analogue of Omelas on a smaller scale, where the supernatural aspect is just D&D bullshit but inconsequential to the structure of the result.
‣ “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” (2018)
N. K. Jemisin (writer).
Read in 2020.
Read in How Long ’til Black Future Month?. This particular story may have come out earlier.
In an otherwise happy city, “social workers” kill people who are cognizant of the possibility of valuing people. This idea arrives from the reader’s society via quantum woo, and you, the reader, are very upset about it all. So says the narrator.
More of an essay than a story, and even less concerned with causality. It’s an allegory about the work of social justice. It’s hard to see, from the text, if Jemisin meant any of it, but the most readily available interpretation is that she sees evil in prioritization and preference applied to one species. In the absence of this evil, the people of Um-Helat get to live in a uchronian festival of extroversion and whimsy, which seems pretty boring.