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All right! So I've used the image above on this journal before. But why not? It represents one of the most mocked, parodied and beloved scenes in all of movie history. It's also important in what it stands for in Science Fiction in general. Because this is what writers of future dystopias most want to achieve with their own work: they want us, the readers, to fall down on our knees in shock as we realise, that the horrible world they have described, is our planet.

However, the first time I read "The Ones who walk away from Omelas" (TOWWAFO), I suffered no such reaction. Ursula Le Guin is far too subtle for that. Instead, she chose to inject me with a slow acting poison that I have never been able to remove from my system since. It informs everything I see. In the same way that Marxists perceive the world in terms of class struggle, and the devout attest to the omnipresence of God, I can't help looking at the world in terms of Omelas. Everywhere I see its citizens: those who still live there; and the few who walked away.


TOWWAFO is available to read for free all over the web. I would link to one of the sites if I knew for sure they were legal, but I don't. If you haven't read it yet, I'd advise you to look away now.

"The Ones who walk away from Omelas" isn't actually much of a story, in that it completely lacks characters and plot. All it has, is a setting. We are presented with a sweet, pastoral utopia filled with wholesome pleasures and friendship. At its heart, however, is a small but horrible secret: Omelas can only exist as long as some poor child is made to suffer the most inhuman and degrading conditions imaginable. When the citizens of this place are old enough, they are taken to see the child. At that point, most of them just get on with their lives. But a small minority, walk away from Omelas, never to return. The implication is that no amount of comforts for those who leave is worth such horror. Or maybe, they'd rather lose their homes than their souls. Or maybe, they could never be happy again knowing the cost. Whatever...


The important bit for me, is that the text of TOWWAFO does not mock the ones who stayed behind. But I did plenty of that in my own head when I first read the story. I was sure I'd have been one of those who walked away. You see, that was twenty years ago, and although the statue of Liberty was right in front of me, I never once looked up at it. I was living in Omelas the whole time -- the most prosperous, comfortable society that this planet has ever known. But unlike Le Guin's Utopia, which only cost the torture of a single child, my life is paid for in sweat-shops and famines and proxy wars all over the globe.

One of the questions that keeps being asked about WWII, is how ordinary Germans who lived near to extermination camps were able to claim afterwards that they didn't know what was happening. After all, the trains went through their towns, full of prisoners. They returned empty. Then, there was that horrible smell... They MUST have known. How did they tolerate it?

My guess, is that they used the same excuses I use today. You know, the ones that explain away the fact that I am not this minute giving all of my time to stopping ethnic cleansing in Sudan or starvation in Mali. And yes, I have an *inkling* that some of the stuff I buy must come from sweatshops, but as long as I don't investigate too closely, then I won't know for sure and, when the time comes for my Nuremberg trial, I'll be able to claim ignorance too.

In the end, what Omelas has taught me, is that I am not, in spite of what I've written above, a monster. The majority stayed behind, after all. And in those countries that pay the price of our prosperity -- e.g., those where food becomes more expensive in order to provide ethanol for our SUVs -- most of the people there too, would love to join us in our Utopia, even at the cost of their fellow countrymen and women.

But every now and again, my path brings me into contact with one of those extraordinarily brave people who walked away. I shake their hands and congratulate them. Maybe I give them a few Euro to hide my shame.

And then it's back to pretending I can't smell anything.



( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 11th, 2008 04:54 pm (UTC)
Well, wasn't that uplifting and cheery! Gah.... :-)
May. 11th, 2008 06:02 pm (UTC)
I always work for your happiness :-)
May. 11th, 2008 07:22 pm (UTC)
I will credit that to your giving nature.
May. 11th, 2008 07:45 pm (UTC)
Haven't read the book, but interesting observations.

Obviously, coming from Germany means you get the 'how could you, Grandparent generation?' question in all kinds of forms. It has been done to death by literature (and certainly by my history lessons) by now, but every approach is kind of interesting. Because it is a big question; because it is a substantially human question; because it is a current question.

I haven't read much books which seem to describe an utopia; I've mostly settled for the straightforward dystopian ones (Orwell's 1984, Samjatin's We). It's always interesting to read a story where things are slowly made to stand on their head and you realize that something is very wrong.
May. 11th, 2008 08:01 pm (UTC)
Yeah, but I think that Le Guin's short story was meant to look like a Utopia, but wasn't really one because of its rotten core. You should definitely read it if you get the chance.
Jun. 7th, 2010 01:27 pm (UTC)
well written
Your insight is very powerful. I look at the story from another aspect. Here is in the US we are all addicted to the "individual" to the point that most believe that as long as the individual has rights, society be damned. Is that one child in the basement the "sacrifice" so that society can maintain some sense of order? The story is very powerful and I, too, will feel a little guilt but go on living my life as I have.
Jun. 7th, 2010 02:04 pm (UTC)
Re: well written
Thank you for commenting!

Of course, this is all just my personal interpretation and it's true that your society will see it differently. Only Ms. Le Guin herself knows for sure what it's about :-)
Jul. 8th, 2010 03:48 am (UTC)
I don't believe The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas are any better or more concious than those who stay. in fact, they could be worse. Who is more human--the person who turns the channel when the Feed the Children commercial comes on or the person who watches because he feels obligated? If neither one of them gives any money, is one better than the other? If neither the ones who walk away nor the ones who stay actually rescue the child, who is better? Do they walk away because they cannot deal with the reality of what their happiness is costing another individual or perhaps because they are searching for something more just? If they are willing to do nothing more than walk away, are they deserving or even capable of something more just?
Jul. 8th, 2010 06:57 am (UTC)
You certainly have a point, but I don't believe that it is the same point being made in the tale as it is written. The story-logic seems to be that there is nothing that can be done about the child that will not cost Omelas its existence.

But, of course, I don't know that I'm right. Only Ursula Le Guin herself could tell us for certain what is happening :)
Dec. 4th, 2010 07:48 am (UTC)
I'm in the middle of The Telling, and just reached the point where Sutty sees the person in the exercise class do something she wouldn't have expected him to be able to do.


It hit me that this one capability - this calmly accepted apparent violation of physics - was enough to base an entire society on. Thinking about it further, I realized that the _contrast_ between everyday experience and air-walking would require a lot of subtle mental adjustment.

I wondered where I had gotten this insight. It was too clear to have been made up creatively in that moment. And then I remembered Omelas. (Which led me to this blog.)

I think Le Guin has made the argument that, in order to know / define itself, a people / society needs to confront some exceptional thing. Something alien to everyday experience, but nevertheless not quite ignorable.

I halfway buy the argument. In a way, a people without an exceptional thing to confront would not really have an identity.

So I started to wonder what kinds of exceptional things societies might organize around. Some Jews and Christians (maybe Muslims too, I know less about Islam) have God as an exceptional thing: an alien being that has to be fit into a mundane worldview somehow. It may be that some societies (Arab? Latino macho?) have managed to make the male/female dichotomy exceptional enough to structure their society around.

I'm currently reading Lies My Teacher Told Me. It goes into some detail about the purposefully-caused nadir of oppression of African-Americans between 1880 and 1930ish. And I'm thinking that, for white Americans, our privilege - which we generally and historically feel as normal and well-earned - is defined in part by the lack of privilege we inflict on a select subset of our fellow Americans.

Much of our foreign policy is mere selfishness. I could be wrong, but I don't think that's exceptional enough to contribute to our definition as a people. By contrast, our treatment of African-Americans certainly has been exceptional at times - both slavery and the more recent decades of terrorism.

Is it possible for a society to evolve its Other? Could white Americans shift their focus away from their privilege, and form some different relationship with some different Exception?
Dec. 4th, 2010 04:12 pm (UTC)
I like your theory about Le Guin -- and probably most of the good SF writers out there.

I don't know enough about the US to comment on whatever your Exception might be, but from blogs etc. I think it might have something to do with taxes.

But I look forward to thinking about it some more, so, nice to meet you :)
Oct. 5th, 2011 04:37 pm (UTC)
Not really sure what "recent terrorism" has to do with blacks in the USA (they are not any more "African-American" than I am "European-American). Also, our foreign policy isn't constitutional at all -- we're being run by world bankers. Don't you know this? When will people realize that presidents and politicians don't rule this world, bankers do? Go back and read what our founding fathers said about banks and those who control money. History never changes, and it does indeed repeat.

Additionally, "racism" as it exists in this country is caused, stirred up, and maintained by our media, and additionally, there exists an equal amount of racism towards whites in certain areas of the country as there is against blacks.

As far as Guin's story is concerned, I agree with the notion that "the ones who walked away" were no better than the ones who stayed. Why? Because they all knew it was wrong, and yet did nothing to stop it, change it, and save the child. Even Jesus said a shepherd would "leave 99 sheep to find the one." This is how our mindset should be.

( 12 comments — Leave a comment )