Below you can find some meaty portions of DavidK’s review of “The Ones Who Walk From Omelas.” May I strongly suggest that you take the time to read through the entire review in addition to these excerpts!
Now please chime in with your own thoughts on this text, too. I will be happy to print them as separate posts here if you’d like, or I can create a list of hyperlinks to the posts on your own blogs. Your call. :)
While not everybody I meet shares my affection and respect for LeGuin’s work, many of the readers I encounter who wouldn’t even normally mess with fantasy fiction know this story. And I think there’s a good reason for that. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” is a story that you read and it stays with you, cropping up every now and again as a theme of memory, a twinge of the conscience. It’s not a story you read and forget easily, or pass off as a bit of pleasant entertainment.
One might be tempted to think, at first, that “Omelas” dispenses with plot, but this isn’t the case. There’s the setup (the celebration, and the comparisons of Omelas to our own civilization), the climax (the child), and the resolution (the choice of the inhabitants of Omelas to either reconcile themselves to the child, or not). Beginning, middle, end. It’s just that the story is not the story of any one individual, but the story of the way in which the entire city deals with the consequences and costs of its happiness.
Enough on technique. As much as I admire LeGuin’s bravery in crafting her fictions, and her incredible command of language, the most resonant thing for me about her work is its moral import. I cannot think on this story but that I think of how, in the United States, we are not a particularly happy people. And yet we do have a considerable amount of material security that we take for granted. Even the most wretched homeless in the United States can usually find enough food to eat (albeit from dumpsters) and find some shelter at night. It terrifies me to think that, in other countries, that even these most fundamental necessities are not guaranteed. I watched a documentary some weeks ago about children in Uganda who walk for miles every night to get from their internment camps to public buildings in distant townships, in a feeble attempt to avoid rape or being pressed into service as child soldiers, and those images still plague me. And the damn thing of it is that what material security we enjoy in America–that even the poorest of us enjoys–really comes at somebody else’s expense, when you stop and think about it. The material abundance we have is the result of somebody’s pain, somewhere–somebody has to work to make the products we buy for such a small portion of our disposable income, somebody’s country is being diminished as its resources are being stripped away. We don’t see these people who work in factories sweatshops and mines and plantations. Part of this is as a result of their distance from us; we shut them away, out of sight and out of mind, in that cellar closet that we optimistically refer to as the developing world. But ignorance is no excuse in the information age, is it? No–more often, we are unconscious of this kind of thing because we choose not to be. Or else we are conscious of it, from time to time, but find some way to accept it, and find some way to absolve ourselves of the responsibility for the lives we lead.
Does happiness exist in infinite amounts? Or is happiness a finite thing–can I only be happy at somebody else’s expense? And even if it would only be the expense of one person, would that justify my own happiness?
I really don’t know. I think on these things, for hours at a time, and just find my mind spinning around, arriving at no conclusions, my conscience stinging the back of my skull.
Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one? Or do the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many? The *Star Trek* movies don’t really help in figuring that one out.
Reading “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” doesn’t make me feel good about the world. It doesn’t make me feel secure, or that everything will be okay in the end. It doesn’t reinforce my convictions. Which is exactly why I feel the need to pick it back up, every now and again, and wonder how many children there are out there, shut up in closets, suffering so I don’t have to.
Gentle reader, this story represents my very ideal of what fantasy fiction can and should do. Rather than offering up a mindless escapism, this fiction holds up the mirror of metaphor to our own reality, and offers up a distorted reflection that is somehow more true than a literal representation. LeGuin’s fantasy has all the power and truth of dream, and is profoundly human for all of its flight from our mundane reality. Stories like this are why I write, and stories like this are what I hope to someday write. Not to compete with Ursula K. LeGuin, because I don’t think I could improve upon her work in any way, and because I don’t think I need to re-say what she has already said. But in my own way, I hope to capture that dreaming truth, that myth that can say so much more than data and direct exposition ever could.
This is, I think, a perfect story.