Ursula K. Le Guin’s most famous short story is probably “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” It’s a modified version of a thought experiment from Fyodor Dovstoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and in turn it’s helped inspire a raft of similar stories. But “Omelas” isn’t just an interesting idea—it’s a provocation.
In Karamazov, Dovstoevsky poses the problem of the Tortured Child:
“Tell me yourself — I challenge you: let’s assume that you were called upon to build the edifice of human destiny so that men would finally be happy and would find peace and tranquility. If you knew that, in order to attain this, you would have to torture just one single creature, let’s say the little girl who beat her chest so desperately in the outhouse, and that on her unavenged tears you could build that edifice, would you agree to do it? Tell me and don’t lie!”
“No I would not,” Alyosha said softly.
It seems like a not totally unreasonable trade—total happiness for all humans, in exchange for one single child being tortured. But Dovstoevsky clearly sees it as unreasonable, and anybody who would agree to that condition as a monster.
Le Guin builds that notion out into an entire story, in “Omelas.” There’s a city of perfect happness and beauty, which Le Guin describes in a somewhat whimsical fashion—it doesn’t really matter whether people drink or do drugs, or whether there are orgies or churches in Omelas, she keeps saying. Whatever you consider “good” is the way things are there, since this is a thought experiment rather than a real place she’s describing. (And yet she sneakily leaves open the question of, what if two different people in Omelas both have wildly different ideas about what’s “good”? How can the city be perfect for both of them?)
And then she reveals that all of this beauty and happiness is built on the suffering of one small child, who’s kept locked up in a cellar and never allowed to go out in the sun. The child is kept starved and miserable, and nobody can ever speak a kind word to this sad creature. Almost everybody in Omelas accepts that this child’s suffering is necessary for everybody else to have a good life, because “those are the terms.” But a few dissenters actually walk away from the city—interestingly, nobody ever tries to free this child, instead of just running away.
And that’s the whole story—it’s a pure thought experiment, rather than a narrative with characters or whatnot. Le Guin poses an ideal society, which you can imagine according to your own prejudices, and then describes this one terrible cost.
To me, the money graf comes much earlier in the story, where Le Guin’s narrator is nattering on about how lovely everything is in Omelas, and then suddenly begins to rant:
The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy.
Are we to take this at face value, as a plea for writers and artists to stop being so negative and dystopian all the time? Almost certainly not. And yet, it’s not so simple as an ironic device, that encourages us to take the opposite view, either. Le Guin sort of tips her hand with the use of the phrase “the banality of evil,” which comes from Hannah Arendt and was a relatively new thing at the time—writing about the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Nazi Final Solution, Arendt claimed that Eichmann was an officious bureaucrat rather than a vicious psychopath. Evil can become institutionalized and systematized, until all of its participants no longer see themselves as doing anything wrong.
But Le Guin’s narrator, who at this point is still in the middle of praising Omelas to the skies, says that artists refuse to “admit the banality of evil,” i.e., that evil is bland and not really worth talking about. The use of this loaded phrase enables Le Guin to have it both ways—on one level, she’s genuinely criticizing artists for not tackling the problem of how ordinary people do evil things without any grand drama or conscious malice. On another, she’s also satirizing the idea that artists should focus on the positive.
In fact, Le Guin seems interested in both things, and she seems to be saying that both things are worth writing about—we should celebrate happiness and joy, we should also investigate what they cost, however revolting the discovery may turn out to be. Part of what makes “Omelas” work as more than just a morality tale is the fact that Le Guin puts so much effort into making the town seem genuinely lovely, even as she teases you by saying it can be whatever you want it to be. Everybody who reads “Omelas” wants to imagine themselves as among the few brave souls who walk away, and Le Guin knows that — so she puts a lot of effort into cultivating at least a little doubt in the back of your mind.
People often use the term “thought experiment” to mean something like “a funny hypothetical, that is neat to consider but has no application to the real world because of its fanciful suppositions.” But that’s bullshit.
A thought experiment should have a result. A thought experiment shouldn’t just end with you wiping your hands and saying, “that certainly gave us something to think about.” Ideally, a thought experiment should make you angry or upset, or force you to see the things you’ve been willfully unseeing, all this time. A thought experiment that leaves you unchanged is a failure.
“Omelas” and stories like it have had a big impact on science fiction—there are plenty of other stories out there that deal with situations where one individual has to suffer so everybody else can be happy. Doctor Who keeps coming back to “Omelas,” one way or another—the Doctor brings up the idea of sacrificing one child for the good of everyone in “Genesis of the Daleks,” and humanity’s survival appears to depend on torturing a space whale in “The Beast Below,” and everybody gets a vote. Star Trek has done its fair share of “utopian society rests on the suffering of the few” stories. It’s easy to be like Alyosha and answer with certainty that we wouldn’t acquiesce to such monstrosity.
But when you read about the completely avoidable death of Sandra Bland, or the countless other atrocities committed by people who believe themselves to be safeguarding your happiness, and then you shrug and carry on with your day, it’s hard not to locate yourself in the dead center of Omelas.
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