In 1973 Ursula K. Le Guin penned one of the most thought-provoking science fiction stories I’ve read. I’ve come back to it again and again when trying to wrestle with deep ethical decisions. It’s called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”.
The story opens with a narrator genuinely struggling with a heart wrenching ethical dilemma. He or she is an inhabitant of Omelas, a utopian paradise. The narrator gushes,
“Joyous! How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?”
A description of this paradise ends as follows:
“A boundless and generous contentment, a magnanimous triumph felt not against some outer enemy but in communion with the finest and fairest in the souls of all men everywhere and the splendor of the world’s summer; this is what swells the hearts of the people of Omelas, and the victory they celebrate is that of life.”
One is easily convinced that there could be no better place to live. Except for one thing. To maintain this utopia requires that a child must suffer in squalid conditions,
“The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect.”
The child suffers in the room abysmally. Covered in sores, it sits in wretched conditions. The narrator explains that this is not done in ways unknown to the people of this city:
“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”
Most let the child suffer. They understand its necessity. But others take a different course:
“At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates.”
The thing I’ve never understood about the story is why are there only two options? Why can’t the child be lifted and embraced and be given a place among those who dwell in Omelas? Maybe they should at least try?