One of the best things about reading online is how easy it is to get lost down one rabbit hole or another. This happened to me the other day when I happened to start browsing through The New Atlantis. After reading about how we need to view athletes in the steroid era, and about how property rights in space could be set up, I stumbled across a four-year-old article by Alan Jacobs on Ian M. Banks, a science fiction author who created an entire series of novels largely based on his world-building skills. But I am not all the way into that rabbit hole yet, because the story I want to write about isn’t one of Banks’ novels, but a short story by Ursula Le Guin which Jacobs references briefly in his article about Banks. (See what I mean; one thing leads to another, which leads to another, ad infinitum.)
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas was written by Ms. Le Guin in 1973 and she won a Hugo the following year for her efforts. There is almost no plot to speak of in this short, seven page long story; instead we are presented with a picture of complete and utter happiness, with a caveat. In the story, Omelas is a utopian city where everything is wonderful, except for the city’s one horrifying secret: the good fortune and pleasure of Omelas is possible because of a single unfortunate ten-year-old child who remains in constant misery, locked away in a cellar. He never sees anyone, speaks to anyone and has likely been driven mad because of his torment and isolation. Every citizen of Omelas is shown this child upon reaching maturity. The entire civilization willingly lets one child suffer so that millions can have the perfect life.
Most people from Omelas are brought to tears upon seeing this atrocity, but they eventually accept it and try to live lives worthy of the child’s suffering. Le Guin ends her tale stating that a few individual souls do leave Omelas after seeing the child, but to where, no one knows. The reader is left with the obvious question lingering in his mind: Is one person’s suffering justified if it brings an untold number of people absolute happiness?
At first blush most of us would of course answer in the negative, but upon deeper reflection is this scenario actually that foreign to we who live in the civilized western world? While our situation may not be so black and white as Le Guin’s imagined Omelas, we too are often complicit in prospering on the suffering of others. (Who makes the clothes on our backs, the rugs under our feet, and more and more often, who grows and harvests the food on our tables?)
On the other hand, does the world in some existential sense need suffering? If we were to be transported to some Utopian fantasy land would we really enjoy it? A life without suffering is a lot like a book without conflict- nonexistent. It is an interesting conundrum.
Of course this is what good fiction does. It forces you to analyze your own situation in light of a metaphorical world and take stock of exactly what you believe and how you act on those beliefs.