in the summer of 2009, a group of literary-minded people hosted a “summer reading” series of events in portland. one of the events featured ursula k leguin’s short story THE ONES WHO WALK AWAY FROM OMELAS.
the story was posted online for interested parties to
read, and the author herself made an appearance at a
trendy watering hole to discuss it. no way i was going
to miss a chance to attend a (free) public event featuring
one of the most amazing writers in the science fiction genre.
instead of giving a summary of the story, i’ll paste a link to a pdf
below, then share my impressions of the crowd’s reaction. sorry, but the rest of my commentary about the event will not make much sense unless you’ve read it.
by Ursula K LeGuin – from The Wind’s Twelve Quarters; Short Stories
i arrived late to the event, and ms. leguin was addressing the overflow crowd. afterwards, a microphone was made available so that people could make comments or ask questions about the story.
the reaction was pathetic. one speaker after another stepped up to demand that people would not tolerate such cruelty and that it was possible to show compassion for the sad, mistreated child, who suffered so that everyone else in omelas could live carefree, joyous lives. to me, the entire point of the story was that we, here in the nations formerly designated as the “first world,” enjoy lives of comfort and ease that the majority of the people in the world will never attain. instead – in africa, south and central america, polynesia, and asia – millions of people live in squalor and destitution.
many of the regions with almost incalculable amounts of wealth in natural resources are also the location of failed nations, where the local inhabitants are massacred, the women raped, the children conscripted into service as slave laborers and soldiers by the latest rogue militia. why? because working people to death is cheaper than paying them.
the corporations that bankroll these atrocities make unbelievable profits from illegal mining and other resource extraction.
we all live in omelas, but the good, kind, happy citizens just aren’t interested enough about the lives of distant, dark-skinned people to be bothered to care about how much the opulence available to us causes suffering around the world, to billions of people. i get heartsick every time i think about this. isn’t it time for us to abandon this globalized deathcamp and create something different?
since there is no “away” for us to walk to, we’ll have to make our something different here. though this may seem like a dangerously daunting task, what we must never forget is that we – the people – made this country, and we can remake it according to our own desires. we should not be afraid of creating ruins.