Reviews

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973)

Creators

Ursula K. Le Guin (writer).

Extent

Read in 2018.

Subject

A city without guilt, kept happy by a miserable individual.

Commentary

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 should be dependent upon 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.

References here: Always Coming Home (1985), Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin (2018).

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Spin-off:

“The Ones Who Stay and Fight” (2018)

Creators

N. K. Jemisin (writer).

Extent

Read in 2020.

Read in How Long ’til Black Future Month?. This particular story may have come out earlier.

Subject

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, says the narrator.

Commentary

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.

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