Several years ago I finally became aware of a piece of fiction written by the legendary Ursula K. Le Guin that greatly moved me. The story, entitled The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas can't really be classified easily. The best description for me is to call it philosophical/science fiction/fantasy in that it creates a situation that could never happen in reality but nevertheless opens up a huge can of ethical and moral worms that does bleed over to our world.
In short, Omelas is a utopian city of total happiness and plenty inhabited by a sophisticated citizenry who have no need of kings, soldiers, priests, or slaves. Omelas is such a cool place that Le Guin goes as far to strongly suggest that booze, drugs, and orgies are a standard practice for the citizens. The one huge wrinkle in this charmed existence is that to ensure the continuity of Omelas' success is that one unfortunate child must be kept in filth, darkness, and misery for its entire life. Making matters worse, this sacrificial lamb has no idea why it is being treated this way and pleads to be released.
How this arrangement came to be is never explained by the author, that's why I add the word “fantasy” in my personal description. In fact, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas is an incredibly short story given the complexity Le Guin is able to build.
For the lucky kids of Omelas, once the elders feel that they have reached a certain maturity, they are brought down to to the place the tortured child is kept and explained that its suffering is the reason for their peace and plenty. While initially disgusted with the conditions the tormented child must live, these new citizens eventually acquiesce to that single injustice. That is except for a tiny few of those young folks and those older who can no longer live with the knowledge that their happiness being conditioned on the suffering of a single human being. These dissidents leave Omelas never to be seen again.
Now you might be wondering how such a piece of fantasy could possibly disturb my philosophical foundations. Well because dear folks, much of the glorious American lifestyle is built upon the sufferings of millions of poor folks around the world and here at home.
American revel in plenty on display at your average grocery store. Shelves stocked with cheap food to the point we're dropping dead of obesity on a regular basis. This food is very often picked and prepared by migrant workers who labor in conditions most Americans would call cruel and unusual punishment. And yes, the pay and living conditions for these people are almost certainly crap. For the most part we're oblivious to what those folks have to do to just survive.
The technological gadgets we base our lives on now and the clothe we wear are also produced by people in factories dealing with conditions that would cause Americans to riot. The best example is the factories where our nifty smart phones are produced. While exception may exist, hundreds of stories over the years have leaked out of near slave conditions the workers are forced to endure. So you'll have to excuse me for my sentiment, I get uncomfortable when someone suffers at my expense.
The killer for me is that unlike those few exceptions who leave Omelas, I can't leave for various reasons. Yes, that makes me a hypocrite but I continue to cling to my weary conscious and not pretend the shit is wrong.
I didn't think another story could affect me as strongly but I found another just yesterday that again rocked my philosophical foundations. It is called The Ones Who Stay and Fight by the brilliant author N. K. Jemisin.
Jemisin's story takes place in another city that at first read seems a lot like Omelas given how plenty and happiness seem to abound. But her fictional city, named Um-Helat isn't really a utopia and there aren't any fantastical elements like the tortured child who keep everyone fat and happy with its suffering. Um-Helat uses what I would call realistic technology to make everyone's life better.
The author also gives us details about the nature of Um-Helat's citizens. There are many different ethnic groups who speak varying languages. We never learn anything about the nature of Omelas citizens other than their propensity for getting high and group sex. In Um-Helat everyone lives for as long as fate, choice, and medicine allow. The kids have opportunity to advance in life while parents don't have to give up theirs.
Breaking with Omelas, the city of Um-Helat is not a true utopia. The economy of the city appears to be built on a form of benevolent capitalism with slightly more white folks doing the executive stuff and with slightly more colored folks doing blue collar jobs. We are quickly informed though that active efforts are underway to remedy that small injustice.
The author also tells us that while everyone has access to an apartment, some are indeed homeless with the city offering up padded benches for sleeping and maintenance of the space under bridges to keep them clean for occupancy. For those suffering from mental illness, the city keeps them away from weapons or places they might harm themselves. If these homeless folks become ill or cannot take care of themselves the city comes in and takes them to a facility to be cared for. The philosophy of Um-Helat is to care for its inhabitants, not to generate money. The author makes the point to say that Um-Helat is not “barbaric America” nor Le Guin's Omelas which she described as “a tick of a city, fat and happy with its head buried in a tortured child.”
No, Um-Helat appears to be something as close to utopia as humans can achieve, but this is where things go slightly sideways. The technology of Um-Helat allows them to listen and view communications from parallel Earths in other universes where society hasn't advanced as much as them. Since the citizens of Um-Helat have no worries about safety, war, food, healthcare, and the other basics of life, they often seek knowledge of these other, less developed realms. But the knowledge of places where hate and fear rule is viewed as dangerous by the leaders of Um-Helat.
In the past the ancestors of the people of Um-Helat knew greed, hate, and war. The remnants of that age dot the land in the form of ruined cities and implements of war. Knowledge of these previous eras is passed to the young citizens carefully and is a shock given the world they were raised. These young people simply do not have any concept of a society where only certain humans were respected and cared for while others were excluded on the basis of physical characteristics or behavior.
This is why knowledge of other Earths and their bizarre societies is considered dangerous. Since Um-Helat is a polyglot city made up of many different ethnic groups with multiple languages spoken in the streets, the spread of ideology that sets some above others cannot be tolerated. While the vast majority of the people in Um-Helat who listen in on these alternate Earths react in total horror to the brutality they hear and see, the idea of those evils and the rationalization for their existence remains. Through word of mouth these deceitful ideas spread and because Um-Helat shares a similar past with these backward, barbaric places the Social Workers of the city must act to contain the contagion.
As the story concludes three Social Workers stand over a body of a man they have just killed. He had broken the law by listening in to the alternate Earths and his punishment was swift. Next to the dead man is his young daughter, distraught over what the Social Workers have done to her father. The daughter through tears warns them that she will get revenge over what she sees is the murder of her father.
The Social Workers look at each other in concern over the girls words. They now understand that the dead man had shared the poisoned knowledge of the other Earths with his daughter. To an uncontaminated citizen of Um-Helat it would be incomprehensible to spread such beliefs. But because the daughter has been contaminated she has already decided that the Social Workers are less important than her dead father.
The duty of the Social Workers is clear, the girl will be quarantine away from the public. Over the next several days they will attempt to reach the girl and explain why her father had to die. If the girl can be reached and made to understand, she will ultimately become one of the Social Workers. Because all the Social Workers have been exposed to the notion that some people matter above others they have dedicated their lives to defeat that idea.
I came away from the story shaken because of something said at the end, that everyone, the poor, lazy, even those considered undesirable can matter. That the idea of this provokes utter rage in those who have been taught to believe some people are more important than others. The narrator called this rage the infection defending itself.
I like to think of myself as “enlightened.” That I am above the petty prejudices that do define our society. But this story forced me to realize that I'm just as stuck in the mire of fear and hate like all the others I look down upon. It's incredibly hard to look past my own enmity but I think I understand at least one point of the story. That when you start making distinctions about the worthiness of people you devalue your own existence. I can't honestly say I will keep this understanding at the forefront of my thoughts. We're in the middle of a shit storm of hate and misunderstanding in this country and as the story suggests, the infection uses rage to defend itself.
The other point I think I now understand is that The Ones Who Stay and Fight is a response to Le Guin's story of people walking away from the tortured child kept in Omelas. That injustice and oppression has to be fought no matter the cost. My final takeaway from this story is that while I welcome this revelation, I'm just not that smart enough to know where to begin to fight.
The story: The Ones Who Stay and Fight can be found in the short story collection entitled How Long 'til Black Future Month on Amazon. I highly recommend it!