The first time I came across the speculative fiction writer Ursula K Le Guin’s work was when I was in my second year of university. My professor introduced the class to the short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” which turned out to be a life-changing experience for me.
This story made me abandon my preconception that science fiction as a genre did not exactly count as ‘literature’.
It instead, made me realise that the sort of messages that readers receive by reading science fiction is unique and important. This is definitely also the case with Le Guin’s work, and her short stories say a lot about our present-day society.
“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” is set in a utopia - a place where everything is perfect. The first half of the story is written in a way to exaggerate how perfect everything is, inviting the reader to imagine their own ideal town. But the story has a harrowing twist, that the happiness of the people and the beauty of the city depend wholly on the misery of a child.
This is a critique of our society, which is utilitarian. This means that it depends on the suffering of a few people for the benefit of many. Le Guin makes it clear that the people of the town of Omelas are not simple folk, nor are they barbarians.
In fact, they are just like us, which is why she invites us - her readers - to imagine the town in any way that we want. This has a defamiliarising effect which Le Guin protrays really well, by taking her readers on a journey from being third-party observers to being right in the center of the violent structures the town of Omelas was built upon.
Most importantly, the story depicts oppression (faced by the child) as seemingly necessary, without giving any real reason as to why the child can’t simply be removed from his miserable condition and given the comforts of life. She tells us that the prosperity of the town depends on his suffering, but the how of this question remains unanswered. This invites readers to rethink whether oppression is necessary in society, and nudges them to step out of the vicious structures and simply “walk away”. The story also show the readers how the difference between utopias and dytopias is perspective.
“The Day Before The Revolution” answers alot of the questions that one may have after reading The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.
A very interesting feature of Le Guin’s stories is that they interset with each other. For example, “The Day Before The Revolution” is a story written by Le Guin about one of the people who walked away from Omelas. This story is also kind of like a mini-prequel to her novel “The Dispossesed”.
“The Day Before The Revolution” tells the story of an old woman who had founded a new society, on the basis of anarchism - something described as “in choosing, one accepts the responsibility of choice”. The story narrates, in detail, the events that occur on the last day of this woman’s life.
What is important about this story is its setting. It imagines a society without a government, and how it would pave the way for a more fair society. It gives the idea of a world with suffering, but not oppression. It acknowledges that suffering is part of the human condition, and there would always be misery, waste and cruelty.
It suggests a world where the misery of the people is simply not attached to the profit of people in power. “Just so long as it wasn’t the business of Business, the source of profit and the means of power for other people”, thus, through this story, are able to imagine a world without it.
Le Guin’s work is rich in meaning, which is clearly visible just by looking at two of her short stories. These stories are taken from her short story collection “The Wind’s Twelve Quarters” which include 17 powerful stories with lyrical writing, rich characters, and diverse worlds.
Le Guin was a prolific and much-acclaimed writer with 23 novels, 12 volumes of short stories, 11 volumes of poetry, 13 children’s books, five essay collections, and four works of translation to her name. Her work won Nebula Awards, seven Hugo Awards, and SFWA’s Grand Master, along with the PEN/Malamud.
She died in January 2018 at the ripe old age of 89.