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

There are some stories that feel almost like a wounding. Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Bloodchild’ was one for me, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s ‘Hell Screen’ is another. I can’t think of many stories that left me feeling as burned as ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’. It’s a complicated story but in one sense, it’s a warning about utilitarianism, the suffering borne by others and complicity therein. Growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, it took me a while to realise that great evil almost always emerges from and is enabled by a process of abstraction. Murder becomes just a statistic read out on the evening news like the football results; an act that aids the murderers and erases the victims and their families. It’s much more difficult for ideologues to justify the unjustifiable when the actualities of what they did is revealed. I have a chapter in my recent memoir Inventory (Chatto & Windus / FSG) that recounts a number of killings during the conflict not in abstracted terms but according to specifics. So instead of ‘a Catholic or Protestant was shot today’, we are told the reality of, say, “a family were sitting watching Coronation Street on the television with their dinners on their laps and a trembling teenage stranger walked into their house and shot the father in the face.” Though Le Guin’s speculative fiction is a different world to mine, she was immensely influential for me, especially with this story. She tells us, ‘Do not allow yourself to look away. This is the cost. Are you prepared for someone else to carry that? And if you are, what does that make you?’ 

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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