Nerdclave’s Classic Spec is a regular look back at formative short science fiction and fantasy from the 19th and 20th centuries, in order to keep them alive for modern genre devotees.
Reprinted: The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, among several others.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin winning the Hugo Award for Best Short Story. Its message and impact remain as fresh today.
Le Guin (A Wizard of Earthsea) has writing skill, exemplified in my opinion by a mixture of florid and conversational, genius enough to merit a Hugo every year. Yet, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas stands out. Its theme is chilling, its meanings diverse, its allusions strong.
END-RUINING SPOILERS APPROACHING AT SIGNIFICANT SPEEDS
A Parable in Disguise
Once upon a time is so over. The style of a philosophical parable is dated to the point of becoming a joke. In short, if you were to write a parable and submit it, you’d be lucky to land it at non-paying markets.
Le Guin knew all of this back in 1974. She wrote The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas as a parable, but she covered her tracks. Because, I believe, she wanted to make an even larger statement about the pressures artists face (more on that later).
It reads like a friend’s idle musings. That is, a friend with a complete mastery of the English language. Le Guin uses this to cleverly hide her story’s parable nature.
She only says the words “once upon a time” after a whole lot of hemming and hawing, and then she quickly undercuts it with the unsure narrator. She even writes “fairy tale,” and “long ago,” and “far away.” One could see this as a wink to the form and a nod to the reader. “Yes, I’m doing this on purpose,” it says. “Be patient, trust me, and I’ll blow your expectations away.”
Take note, young writers. If you’re subverting cliches, it still pays to acknowledge those cliches.
Meta Fiction (A Shrugging Narrator)
Le Guin breaks a big rule in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. In her description, she leaves–not just room–a cathedral for doubt. One might think they know what Omelas looks like, but they’ve created that vision largely by themselves, albeit with copious prompting from Le Guin.
The open-ended musings, from a lesser writer, would be seen as distracting. However, in this snapshot of a city, it’s perfectly at home. And Le Guinn’s writing is so exquisite, no matter the perspective she employs, that I could read her depiction of a phone book.
However, on second inspection, one will find that she has used this open-ended space to tap dance a beautiful circle around a crucial foreshadow. She wants to set up the people of Omelas as happy, but “undestructive.” This will have great, ironic significance later on. Because she’s not dramatizing a plot in this parable, she has freedom to play with how she emphasizes things. Here, she can focus on setting you up, slighting the foreshadowing so as to more fully subvert your expectations later on.
All of the musings are also exceedingly wise, and pointed at that, with shades of meaning upon closer reads. It all leads to the moment, eventually, where these possible descriptions’ sum zigs while the story zags. There’s even some subtle setting up in the opening quarter of the horrific reveal.
In retroactive thanks to later events, that passage turns the story into a meta commentary of how a writer feels pressure to invent an evil in order to justify good. How there exists an opinion that a world with only good and only happiness is somehow implausible. You know, that cracked and worn expression: you can’t have the good without the bad.
Of course, in Omelas, this is absolutely true.
The Pharmakos (The Scapegoat)
Okay, so I’ve waited this long to spoil Omelas for you. I cannot wait a sentence longer.
Everyone in Omelas enjoys complete comfort, presumably through some kind of magic, so long as they keep one sickly boy in perpetual imprisonment and torture.
They do not live in ignorance, and many go visit the poor kid at least once.
As said before, the narrator cannot make up his or her mind as to what Omelas is like. The happy stuff, that is. It seems quite concrete on the matters of the child and the consequences for freeing it.
In a way, and I soften this statement only because there are varied themes and sub-themes in Omelas, this is an allusion to a scapegoat.
By extension, however, and perhaps a more specific analogy, the child represents the Grecian Pharmākos.
However, one can see Le Guin flipped something important, which makes The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas metaphorically rewarding. In Omelas, the scapegoat is not driven out of the city. He or she is locked up and contained within the city.
Modern iterations of both the Omelas child and the classical scapegoat can be seen both before and after The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.
Jerry/“Garry”/”Larry” Gergich from Parks and Recreation, Meg on Family Guy, Desmond Hume in the hatch on Lost, and even Batman at the end of The Dark Knight, albeit self-imposed.
The Needs of the Few
This is a nerd site, so you’ve got to be familiar with the term “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” so spaketh Spock. Now, Spock says this for the first time in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, specifically talking about a triage decision.
Of course, this same sentiment has been attributed, much earlier, to Aristotle (arguably the grandfather of logic), “The securing of one individual’s good is cause for rejoicing, but to secure the good of a nation or of a city-state is nobler and more divine.”
These are not blank checks, and taking them to imply a political structure is over simplification, but let’s take the sentiment and compare it to that in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.
Because, interestingly, the story does not try to counter the idea’s validity or ignore its existence. In fact, there is explicit recognition on the part of the Omelas.
There is no talk of staging a prison break. No hope to somehow aid this poor child. One might assume the power in place is too great, but there is also the impression that the individual Omelas does not wish to preclude their countrymen from enjoying paradise. There are even those who rationalize their way into tacit agreement.
You may be able to surmise the ending, and the way that some Omelas reconcile this moral divide, but I won’t spoil it. Anything with the emotional power of Le Guin’s closing deserves to be preserved.
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is timeless. It draws from inspiration thousands of years prior, from religious texts to Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, and it will inspire generations of writers to come.
Check out Le Guin’s website for more information about the author, as well as collected essays and excerpts.