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


Ursula K. Le Guin (writer).


Read in 2018.


Philosophical fantasy fiction.


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


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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