When the death of Ursula Le Guin was announced in late January, social media recirculated a 1987 letter in which Le Guin declined to blurb a new anthology. “I cannot imagine myself,” she wrote, “blurbing a book, the first of the series, which not only contains no writing by women, but the tone of which is so self-contentedly, exclusively male, like a club, or a locker room. That would not be magnanimity, but foolishness. Gentlemen, I just don’t belong here.”
In that collection of science fiction, Le Guin saw no place for a voice like hers. But science fiction and fantasy as a whole were another story entirely. A multiple-time award winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, she was both named a Grandmaster of Science Fiction and awarded the National Book Foundation for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
That last award is perhaps a bit ironic, given the title for her 2017 essay, “Who Cares About the Great American Novel? Against a Uselessly Competitive, Hopelessly Gendered Concept”. A blunt title, for sure. Yet the essay is itself wonderfully nuanced, arguing why the “the” in “The Great American Novel” might appeal more to male writers, and, ultimately, to public relations professionals. That “the,” argues Le Guin, positions one novel as better than all the rest. That “the,” she writes, appeals to people “who’d like one text to read instead of the many, many great and greatly complex books that make up literature.” And that’s not how literature works.
Le Guin was insistent that fiction reflect humans’ messy, complicated nature. And, while what I’ve quoted from her writing so far might indicate she didn’t believe that could be reflected in writing by (or about) men, it’s more accurate to say Le Guin was pushing back against science fiction and fantasy’s tendency to focus its stories on only one type of identity. (To give you a sense, Le Guin was named a Grandmaster of Science Fiction in 2003 and was only the second woman to be given the honor. The first woman honored, Andre North in 1983, began her writing career under the penname Andrew North.)
For Le Guin, the human experience is varied enough that choosing one representative story is an exercise in futility. “The Great American Novel”—no matter who writes it—could not explore everything that it means to be American: “Human beings don’t necessarily exist inside of (or correspond to) the neat racial, gendered, or national boxes into which we often unthinkingly place them. It’s a mistake to ask literature to reinforce such structures. Literature tends to crack them. Literature is where we free.”
Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a wonderful and deeply unsettling example of cracking such structures. Indeed, she provides virtually no boxes for us to place her characters in. Opening with a description of the city of Omelas’s joyous “Festival of Summer,” the story’s narrator begins to worry that because Omelas’s citizens are so happy we readers will believe they are “less complex than us.” Readers, we are informed, have a “bad habit” “of considering happiness as something rather stupid.” And, at this point in the story, we only know these citizens are happy. That is their defining characteristic. Le Guin’s descriptions are broad enough that while we know there are young and old in Omelas, their (racial, national) appearance is a mystery.
But if all we know is that they are happy, and if we tend to believe happy people are simple and uncomplicated, how can the narrator convince us of these people’s full humanity? In part, by turning Omelas’s description over to us: “Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids.” Advanced technology? If we like. “If an orgy would help, don’t hesitate.”
Halfway through the story, Le Guin drops a bomb. A detail, the narrator informs us, that will help us to “accept the festival, the city, the joy.” Somewhere in Omelas, in a basement, lives a child in utter misery. Locked in a room, never spoken to, fed once a day, sitting “in its own excrement continually.” We are not informed if the child is a boy or a girl. It could be either. It doesn’t matter.
This is the price for Omelas’s happiness—one child’s suffering. This exchange is an open secret. The citizens know that the child is there; many go to see it when they first learn of its existence when they themselves are children. And, while they are troubled by the knowledge, most decide that they will not “throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one.”
There are a very few who cannot bear that bargain. Those leave the city, heading toward “a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness.” “I cannot describe it at all,” admits the narrator, “[b]ut they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”
In a 2012 printing, Le Guin noted her story’s “long and happy career of being used by teachers to upset students and make them argue fiercely about morality.” Which is, of course, the whole point. Do you sacrifice one person’s happiness for the greater good? Would you abandon everything you know and love not to be complicit in that suffering?
Le Guin’s story is so affecting because she has asked her readers to participate actively in imagining Omelas’s society, and because that society avoids describing many of the structures into which we often try to pin folks. In the process, Le Guin presents her readers with a stark moral dilemma.
Science fiction and fantasy can serve as escapes from our daily lives. But they also, as author Max Gladstone puts it, help us to “interpret the world around us and investigate aspects of our life that are too complex, too implicit, too subtle to tease out with the limited tool set of realistic fiction.” I’ve been thinking about Le Guin’s story all week. I’d like to believe I would be one of the few who would walk away from Omelas. But, sitting with the story and thinking about the stark example it depicts, I’ve realized that given how I currently live my life (sea-food eater, smart phone user, cheap clothes wearer), I would most likely remain an Omelas citizen.
I don’t know if I’m ok with that or not. But Le Guin’s story made what for me were implicit consequences of some of my choices explicit. Which is not a small thing.
I’ll carry Le Guin’s story, and Gladstone’s insistence on what such fiction can do, to the Casper Humanities Festival later this month. The Festival’s focus this year is “Fables, Folklore, and Fantasy” which will, I’m sure, provide more opportunities for interpreting the world. I’m especially looking forward to a session on “Fairy Tales, Fables, and Food” (“food as an allegory for human relationships, wishes, and needs” in stories) as well as the opportunity to check out a “book” (really, person) from the “Living Library” and hear their story. It’s time, I think, to pay more attention to how others live their lives and how those choices might hold different consequences than my own do.