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.


TracyK said...

Frank, I read this story online recently and I found it impressive and disturbing. Thanks for providing your thoughts on the story.

Todd Mason said...

An old work-friend of mine insisted she hated Le Guin's work, and I suspect this story might've played a part...as a sort of utilitarian, albeit one who wouldn't ever go along with the parable's Collaborators, it does pose a challenge to all of us who let all the cruelties and insanity of our own societies continue, or at least do All we could do to stop them. A nice point, to draw a parallel with the Jackson.

Casual Debris said...

Thank you for your comments. Days later & I am still mulling this one over. It has quite the impact.

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