I think I first heard about Ursula Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas on an episode of Chapo Traphouse, which is probably an odd place for a sci-fi writer to discover a seminal short story in the genre, but here we are. If you’ve not read the story you should, it’s short and important, and available to read here.
It’s less a short story and more a thought experiment in fiction form. You may have noticed that the above link comes from a website on utilitarianism, which is a philosophy wherein the most morally good choice is the one that causes the most good for the highest number of people. Omelas, then, is a utilitarian paradise – a perfect society paid for by the suffering of just one citizen. I can imagine a slightly different take on the city, where to be chosen is a blessing, rather than a curse, where people want to sacrifice themselves for the city. Maybe that’s my Christian upbringing speaking – the idea that sacrifice is always good and noble. But perhaps that wouldn’t be enough. Perhaps the city of Omelas can only feed on unwilling victims. For a Christian, if you take yourself to a place where you can fully imagine the pain and suffering that Jesus must have experienced when he was being crucified, then you have to convince yourself that his sacrifice meant something. You have to convince yourself that heaven is real, and your entry was paid for his blood. Otherwise the suffering was all for naught. The same is true for the citizens of Omelas. They know the child is there, and they know that it is suffering just so that they might live in such a perfect society. They probably tell themselves, “I have to live my best life, because otherwise that child suffered for nothing.” It’s utterly selfish logic, but it might free most people of their guilt.
Most, but not all. The story is, after all, called The Ones Who Walk Away…
Perhaps because of the way I was introduced to the story (and also because of Ursula K. Le Guin’s views on the subject), I assume that Omelas is a metaphor for our society under capitalism. If Omelas is the West, then perhaps the child in the cellar is the Global South – the parts of the world that we will ravage, destroy, and pollute, and whose people we will deny and discard, forcing and coercing them into labour as though they were automatons made of meat and not real people with souls and internal lives as rich as our own. The child in the cellar is the literal slave children of our world farming cocoa beans for our chocolate, coca leaves for our cocaine, coltan for our mobile phones, and granite for our headstones.
But if our society is Omelas, how does one walk away? To be truly severed from capitalism’s logistical networks requires wilderness that capitalism is quickly devouring, and skills that many of us simply do not have. We rely too much on wikihow and youtube when we need to fix, build, or work something, and without the phones in our hands, many of us are just very smart but practically useless primates. Ours is a world of connection now, and that is beautiful, but it also makes it even harder to walk away from Omelas. One cannot stay in Omelas and protest, because it could not be a perfect society if there was protest, and Omelas is perfect (and in the real world we see all too often the ways capitalism co-opts the anti-capitalist, selling our protests back to us, because nothing is stronger than the Almighty Dollar).
If protest is impossible and/or pointless, and we are unable to walk away, then could the solution then be death? The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by way of Thomas Ligotti’s A Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Our society has evolved to the point where opting out of capitalism is nigh on impossible, but opting out of life is there, always on the cards. For some of us more so than others.
The other week I tweeted:
Gonna write a gritty reboot of/sequel to The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas: SHE WHO RETURNS. On her sixteenth birthday she was taken from her cell beneath the city and dumped outside the city limits; left to die, with no clothes and not even a name she could remember.
After being saved by one of those who walked away, she must process a decade of trauma and learn the sacred arts of assassination if she might ever have a hope of bringing this “perfect city” to justice for it’s cruelty and decadence.
Now, this was a joke, I promise. It was a joke precisely because writing a gritty, violent femsploitation thriller based on Omelas would be ridiculous and would completely miss the point.
My tweets didn’t get much traction (they never do, so that’s ok), but I did have one person respond saying they hoped it meant that she’d obliterate the city and all the selfish bastards that live within it. Now, I’m not sure if this tweeter (twitterer?) was joining me in my ridiculous fantasy where this was not a terribly misguided idea for a story, or if they’d perhaps missed the point of the original. I mean, isn’t hoping my fictional heroine kills all the “selfish bastards” the same thing as hoping that a person, broken and traumatised by mining coltan as a slave, would one day come to your house and murder you for the smart phone you clutch in your hands? Yes, the citizens of Omelas are selfish bastards, but let he who is without ties to the oppressive systems of capitalism cast the first stone. Remember: there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, so be careful what you wish for. We are Omelas, and to be able to function in this society we either pretend we don’t know any better, or we cultivate ignorance so we don’t need to pretend.
Or perhaps we don’t all live in Omelas. If you don’t live a carefree life of plenty and peace, then maybe you are the child. Maybe 99% of us are. Maybe the billionaire elite are the only true residents of Omelas. Our toiling contributes to a global economy that is more and more geared to giving them more money, power, and control. We are building their Omelas on the backs of our own suffering. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? It absolves a lot of us of any guilt. GUILLOTINE GUILLOTINE GUILLOTINE, etc. But we aren’t blameless. We understand about the immense suffering of animals in factory farms, and yet we still eat meat. We know that child slaves pick cocoa beans, and we still eat chocolate, we know that our consumption is slowly destroying the planet, but we keep on consuming. We still choose, or maybe we don’t choose, because carrying on is simpler than considering our actions.
If Omelas is a utilitarian heaven, then our world is a utilitarian hell. Our global imperialist systems of commerce are designed with the suffering of hundreds of millions of people baked in. It’s a feature, not a bug. To paraphrase a popular saying, maybe the true Omelas is the poor, brown people we devoured along the way.
So, Omelas. We want to tell ourselves we’re the child, or we’re one of the ones who walk away, but chances are, we’re not. We are the ones who stay.