Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 28: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Leguin

Leguin, Ursula K. "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." New Dimensions 3, Robert Silverberg, ed. New York: Doubleday, October 1973.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   8.93/10
My Rating:        9/10

"With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city
Omelas, bright-towered by the sea.

The land of Omelas is a beautiful utopia, where all the inhabitants are happy. All except for one child who is locked away and neglected. It is the abuse of this child that is the cost for all others to be happy.

An effective take on the moral conundrum of one person's eternal suffering resulting in the happiness of the multitude. The story presents a moral thought experiment: Can we allow a single individual to exist in perpetual squalor, to be tortured and shunned and isolated from all others, so that all others can live in peace and plenty? And yet the story moves beyond thought and debate, as Le Guin appears to be giving the reader an answer.

In Le Guin's version of the debate, the idyll is a seaside village celebrating its summer festival, while a child is locked away in the dark and damp of a broom closet. Le Guin's narrator reports on the village activities, and after painting the utopian picture, tells of the child. This is followed by the varying responses of the villagers to the child. The narrator's tone, though reporting, is not altogether removed. There is an underlying sense of judgement, and the voice indicates that the people of Omelas are, in effect, just like the reader, average people with a certain level of intelligence.

There is also a dark underlying element. These intelligent people, for the most part, do nothing for the child, and accept the word that the child's suffering is in effect their happiness, and yet there is no proof given, neither concrete nor heresy, that freeing the child would result in suffering for Omelas. The narrator tells it as fact, and we, like the citizens of Omelas, are expected to accept it as such, like the traditional stoning of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" and other truths or realities whose origins have been lost, and whose practices should be questioned.

Moreover, the narrator tells us early in the story that not only are these people intelligent, but "there is no guilt in Omelas." The idyll in Omelas includes not just material comforts, but the added benefit of being guilt-free. We are also informed that everyone in Omelas, as soon as they reach a certain age, are informed of the child and of the reason for its captivity, and moreover, are allowed to visit and witness the child's suffering in person. The citizens of Omelas are not morally upset by the captivity of the child, or if upset, they quickly accept the situation and move on: "Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it."

(While the ending is not transformative, it is impressionable, and I must here discuss that ending. So if you have not read the story, please do so now.)

The ones who walk away refers to those who witness the child and, as a result, leave Omelas, never to return. No one knows where these people go, only that they are never seen again. At least not in Omelas. The ones who walk away presumably feel guilt, and cannot dry their tears and move on, and therefore cannot stay. They are the morally enlightened members of the society, and abandon all the happiness and material plenty of that world to walk away on their own. This enlightenment results in their self-banishment, as they would rather be challenged by the hardships of the outside world, unable to accept the wealth provided through the suffering of one child.

A powerful story, exquisitely written.

The short story has been a favourite of critics and editors over the years. It received the 1974 Hugo for best short story, and has been included in an impressive number of major (and minor) anthologies. There are the "Best of..." and "Greatest..." collections, such as The Best Science Fiction of the Year #3 (Terry Carr, ed., Ballantine, July 1974), The Hugo Winners, Volume Three (Isaac Asimov, ed., Doubleday, August 1977), The Best of New Dimensions (Robert Silverberg, ed., Pocket Books, November 1979), The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of the Twentieth Century (Martin H. Greenberg, ed., NewStar, October 1998) and Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century (Orson Scott Card, ed., Ace,  November 2001). Then there are the noted fantasy anthologies such as Black Water: The Anthology of Fantastic Literature (Alberto Manguel, ed., Picador, 1983), The Fantasy Hall of Fame (Martin H. Greenberg & Robert Silverberg, eds., Arbor House, October 1983; later reprinted as The Mammoth Book of Fantasy All-Time Greats), and The Big Book of Modern Fantasy (Ann VanderMeer & Jeff VanderMeer, eds, Vintage, July 2020). There are even anthologies for horror (Wolf's Book of Terror), female horror authors (Mistresses of the Dark), dystopias (Brave New Worlds), general literature (Thirty American Stories from the Last Thirty Years) and academic literature (Backpack Literature). And several others... It was of course included in many of Le Guin's collections, initially in her first collection, The Wind's Twelve Quarters (Harper & Row, October 1975). The story is also a staple in readings for courses on literature, sociology, and philosophy. And likely others.

For more of this week's "Wednesday Short Stories," please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 27: Kaleidoscope by Ray Bradbury

Bradbury, Ray. "Kaleidoscope." Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1949. pp 129-134

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   9.00/10
My Rating:        7/10

"The first concussion cut the ship up the side like a giant can opener."

A dozen astronauts are launched into space when their rocket ship breaks open. They are each hurtling toward a different direction and a separate destination, away from one another, with about an hour remaining before they can no longer hear one another. In a brief space of time they contemplate mortality and whether a life fully lived meant anything more than one that was not, now that they will soon all be corpses.

Bradbury is in existential mode. While this is not among his best thinking stories, it is nonetheless quite good. I did find myself more affected with the thought of spinning dizzyingly across space with not a shred of control--an absolutely horrific thought--than the idea of reminiscing and regretting minutes before death. Published in 1949, the story is as dated as one would expect, with a primitive take on space travel, and an all-male cast whose envy is aimed at the one man who had experienced many women and much comfort in his lifetime. With humans colonizing Jupiter, you would think their ships and their suits would be more advanced and better equipped, but in all fairness that was not Bradbury's aim. And humanity does not evolve as quickly as technology, and the main idea is still relevant and will continue to remain relevant as our rocket ships continue to improve.

The title is well thought out. It refers to the image of one of the astronauts carried off by a small meteor shower and the metal and rock that surround him. Yet it refers simultaneously to the kaleidoscopic view of one's life, that it can be viewed at different angles and can contain beauty regardless of its experience.

Bradbury's prose is distracting, His overuse of similes (the opening brief three-sentence paragraph contains three similes, with another close behind, and then another, like a barrage of meteorites, or like thoughts flashing quickly through one's mind, or like...). 

Not my favourite Bradbury (though it's his highest ranked on the ISFdb), but nonetheless a solid story, well worth reading..

"Kaleidoscope" was among the stories selected for inclusion in Bradbury's famed The Illustrated Man. It has been reprinted excessively over the years.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 26: Enemy Mine by Barry B. Longyear

Longyear, Barry B. "Enemy Mine." Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, September 1979.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   9.00/10
My Rating:        9/10

"The Dracon's three-fingered hand flexed."

On an unexplored planetoid, a human and a Dracon (or "Drac") have crash landed during a battle between the two species. They must survive both the inhospitable landscape and their hatred for each other.

Reads like the premise of many a Hollywood script, and as expected, the two learn to work together and eventually develop a strong bond during their long months of confinement. However, unlike many stories that follow this plot-line, interracial or not, "Enemy Mine" has an engaging plot and is ultimately a genuinely touching story. The interracial aspects are strong, though they are to be expected (the racist human later experiences racism directed toward him when visiting Dracon society, etc.), but the friendship and commitment to another's cultural responsibilities is what I find mostly intriguing.

Along with hefty thematic elements, Longyear builds an excellent environment on Fyrine IV, the planet on which the two are stranded. The pair of enemies begin by struggling against the extreme elements, and then must build a life for themselves by seeking proper shelter, food and making clothes and other necessities with the little they have at hand. The details in which they learn to build and stitch are reminiscent of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, who also eventually discovers a companion. The story can be expanded by discovering more of Fyrine IV, and Longyear did expand the novella into a full-fledged novel in 1998 as "Enemy Mine: The Author's Cut," published alongside new stories set in the same universe, as The Enemy Papers (Borealis, 1998). I have not read the works but will likely do so at some time.

Another aspect of the novella that I quite like, though it is not discussed too much, is the notion that the war between humans and Dracs is for naught, as our human mentions at the story's opening that the battle was essentially pointless, in a part of space no one really wanted. This is elaborated later on, but only slightly, and we are to understand that the hatred between the two species developed from a chance encounter as they were each attempting to expand their species. Yet there is no value in that part of space, so the war is driven partly by pride, the desire to conquer and perhaps the need each species has to burrow unhindered into deeper space. One thing we discover later in the story is that Dracons and humans are, despite their obvious differences, essentially the same species. Like humans they tend to other those who are unlike them, placing themselves on a higher rung. They have religion, a kind of caste system, and a knack for bureaucracy. Not entirely original, but it serves to drive home much of the story's thematic concerns.

"Enemy Mine" swept the novella awards for stories published in 1979, being awarded the Hugo, the Nebula and the Locus in the novella category. Six years following its publication it was released as a major motion picture, Enemy Mine (1985), directed by Wolfgang Petersen, and starring Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr. I first watched the movie, in French, around 1987 or '88 with my brother, and read the novella not too long afterwards in the anthology Nebula Winners Fifteen (ed. Frank Herbert, Harper & Row, 1981). My brother and I both enjoyed the movie, and I loved the novella, so much so that I gave it to my mother to read, who, an avid reader, disliked science fiction. She too loved the novella, and may have shed a tear if memory serves. I re-read the novella a couple years ago and enjoyed it once again then, and re-read it yet again a few days ago, and it holds up nicely.

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