‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’ by Ursula K Le Guin

The capaciousness of Le Guin is likewise a problem. The most famous of her stories is ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’, which incorporates the moral questioning and philosophical weight of her speculative fictions, but also her ability to make stories that already feel like myth, graven into time. Her Earthseatrilogy does this, as does her now increasingly politically crucial novel, The Left Hand Of Darkness, set on a planet where gender is transitory and people remain gender-neutral until certain times. Perhaps you’re groaning and thinking this can’t be subtle, but Le Guin pulls it off, always deft in her framing of otherness but also in making quotidian things—cold winters, stone walls, the words exchanged in passing during friendship—appear in turn to make her worlds real. Some of LeGuin’s further short stories in Tales From Earthsea and The Birthday of the World are set in her existing universes, and for anyone who comes to love them they are excellent. Le Guin did the metanovel before David Mitchell was even born! However, here I’d like to stick to standalone stories, and hence…

First published in New Directions 3, Nelson Doubleday/SFBC, 1973, and collected in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Harper & Row, 1975. Also available in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters and The Compass Rose, Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2015.

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