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Whew! I’m a bit behind, aren’t I? Well, today we will be considering two stories about the underbelly of Utopia–“how the sausage is made” when it comes to “perfect” societies.
The first story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” was recommended to me more than 15 years ago by my friend Ben Doudt, and the second, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” was a surprising discovery of mine as I hunted for new short reads.
Obligatory spoiler warning: If you haven’t read either of these stories, skip over the “Takeaways” sections to avoid plot details.
Okay, no more chatter–let’s go!
#14: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula LeGuin
The writer presents an idyllic vision of a peaceful and advanced society, and then reveals why anyone would think of leaving.
This isn’t a story so much as a fable or vignette (much like Bradbury’s “August 2026”). There isn’t a plot in the story proper; it’s all description and one-sided dialogue, as the narrator escorts the reader through the scene, providing commentary and clarification. In the end, when the final twist is revealed, the reader is left to question whether they would want to live in Omelas themselves–and whether they currently do.
I first read this story about 15 years ago and then again this spring, and to be honest, then as now it didn’t leave much of an impression on me. The descriptions are beautiful, vivid and full of color. The reader can “see” the scene quite clearly. But it’s little more than a moving painting. The narrator is openly non-committal on details of their societal advancement, which is smart if you’re trying to make a story timeless; however, it also becomes more abstract, like a parable. It almost feels as if she’s making it all up on the fly, more than describing something with a history and weight to it.
LeGuin paints the picture of a humanist utopia, without king or creed, where the sun is always shining and everything is perfect–but that’s the problem. It’s too perfect. (My mind went immediately to the plot of “The Matrix”–we naturally reject a dream world that is too perfect.) So she introduces the child–a “feeble-minded” child, locked away–“born defective…or become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect.” A child whose pleas are ignored. “They all know it’s there, all the people of Omelas.” All the perfection of their utopia relies on keeping the broken child suffering. “Those are the terms.”
Here, LeGuin pulls her final trick. She presents “the terms” and leaves the reader to grapple with the question: can such a society be considered good, just, or perfect? Can the suffering of a single child be tolerated in exchange for a utopia in which everyone else thrives?
But here’s my problem with the climax of the story: these “terms” are utterly arbitrary. LeGuin never seems to clarify why these are the terms: is it that all children born with disabilities are “put away”? She only mentions the one child–she specifically describes him/her as “the” child, one single child. It’s the knowledge of this one child that drives some citizens to abandon this utopia in pursuit of something else, something that provides more peace of mind, perhaps.
I don’t know. This story is hailed as a classic, but it just doesn’t land for me. An interesting concept, but if it’s trying to be a morality tale, the premise is stretched to a breaking point.
#15: “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” by N.K. Jemison
The writer presents an idyllic vision of a peaceful and advanced society, along with the hard choices required to protect it.
I decided to read this story as soon as I found out it was written as a kind of response to LeGuin’s, but I have to admit I was not quite prepared for what awaited me. Jemison’s story is a counterpoint, a challenge, a provocation. While it could be read as a stand-alone story, I think it’s best taken in concert with LeGuin’s original. “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” is a well-written tale that leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. It was unclear as I read it if it was meant to be satire or straight-forward, cautionary or aspirational. And there’s the rub.
There is a LOT to unpack here.
“It’s the Day of the Good Birds in Um-helat!” NKJ opens with this line and unspools a beautiful description of this African jewel of a city. The name of the city is an obvious wink at Omelas, but NKJ exceeds LeGuin in terms of vivid descriptions. My imagination was transported. For a little while.
The author emulates the narrative voice of ULG’s story, but takes it to the next level. There is also a great deal of fourth-wall breaking, making the narrator another character in the story. However, rather than the narrator being a guide for the reader, the narrator quickly becomes an antagonist to the reader. There is frustration in the narration, anger, resentment. When describing the disparity of pale-skinned executives and dark-skinned workers and the policies implemented to address that, the narrator says this is not to promote diversity, “a grudging pittance of respect.” The narrator disdains such passive change. The narrator describes “the treason of free speech” by saying “We hesitate to admit some people are [expletive] evil and need to be stopped.” (Yet, the narrator never clarify who defines what is evil.) Later: “This is Um-helat after all, and not that barbaric America. This is not Omelas, a tick of a city, fat and happy with its head buried in a tortured child.” Yowsa.
At this point, the narrator turns her attention to the reader, declaring any feelings of recoil or provocation as evidence that the reader actually approves of the evil of Omelas, or even our own world. The narrator assumes the reader is responding, “How dare you…”
And this is where I actually got annoyed–not at the society being described (as the narrator suggests), not at all–rather, what irritated me was the unbearable condescension and accusations of the narrator.
According to the narrator, our world is a “benighted hellscape” compared with the bright and shining Um-helat. And just how is the utopia of Um-helat preserved? Essentially, there are “caretakers” who look for people consuming or spreading hateful or wrong ideas, and then the caretakers murder them. Yep, that’s it. “They will bury him in a beautiful garden…[that] holds all the Um-helatians who broke the law. Just because they died as a deterrence doesn’t mean they can’t be honored for the sacrifice.” So, a mass grave of social dissidents executed by the agents of the state? Cool.
The narrator justifies this behavior as being a necessary “blood sacrifice to keep true evil at bay.” The story ends with the narrator calling the reader to join the dream and build Um-Helat in our world, even if that means war and the “purging scourge.” And that’s it.
There’s part of me that really, really hopes this is just masterful satire of a totalitarian progressivism…but I doubt it is. While some reviewers and readers online rightly call this a cautionary tale, others defend it, saying that a just society must be fought for by any means necessary. Yeesh.
My 3 biggest takeaways from this story (and to a lesser degree from “Omelas”) are as follows:
- The problem with Utopian visions is that they are built on a faulty understanding of human nature. To the humanist/materialist mind, man is perfectable with the right social settings and the right information. This is a flawed premise. Mankind is by nature corrupt, selfish, sinful. We need new hearts, not new societies.
- Utopia requires conformity at all costs. No outside voices are tolerated, no dissenting views are allowed. Thought and speech must be policed and controlled in the name of freedom, tolerance, inclusiveness, and justice. Utopia is a prison without bars and locks, but a prison nevertheless.
- A very astute observation from my beloved, as I was discussing both stories with her: In order for man to create his perfect humanist society, someone always has to die for “sin.” This statement gobsmacked me. See the wicked parodies of the Passion in the death of the innocent in Omelas, the slaying of the subversive in Um-helat. See in our own “hellscape” as the Molech of Freedom and Autonomy fed day and night by the broken bodies of the unborn. Whenever mankind seeks to build a perfect world, they always lay their bricks upon the bones of those who stand against them or get in their way.
The evidence of good writing is sometimes that it evokes strong responses, either positive or negative. If that’s the measure, then N.K. Jemison is a talented writer.