My first thought while reading this: there are authors and there are Authors, whose reach is seen everywhere.
I think there’s been a large number of books I’ve read this year or in recent time that owe a large debt of gratitude towards Le Guin’s short (some 30 odd pages) story on the society of the Omelas. If you’ve never read it, then steer clear if you really want to avoid spoilers but Le Guin does give away the punchline in her author’s note (the one in this edition, at least). And I think any reasonably aware person knows the point.
But once again, the question we’re forced to confront is this: can you build a just world on foundations of injustice? Unlike the novels that decide to answer this question with a resounding no, personified by the lead character whose ethics drive said decision, Le Guin is a bit vaguer/broader with her brush. It’s a shorter novel, of course. For those who do not know the set up, it’s this: the people of Omelas are happy. Not in a hobbit-unexamined simple life type way, but in the deep contented way that suits any definition you might have of the term. They are healthy, wealthy, wise, curious, artistic, etc etc etc. Le Guin’s is clear on this point: you must understand, there is no downside or gotcha when it comes to the quality of their happiness. They are happy. You would be happy if you lived there as well.
But—in order to maintain this happiness, there is a secret that every citizen of Omelas is required to confront at some point in their adulthood: that there is a child, of 5-6-7 years old, who is required to remain dirty, unloved, uneducated, cold, and miserable at all times. One child’s suffering and pain, which is total and absolute in an equal and opposite magnitude to the happiness of all citizens of Omelas, is the bedrock. There can be no temporary alleviation, no word of kindness—and most importantly, there can be no ignoring the fact. It must be known to all.
Does it matter? Is the unhappiness of one child not equal and worth the happiness of an entire community? Would it be worth the happiness of an entire country? The world? Le Guin is unsparing in her assessment of humanity: when confronted with this fact, most people chose to stay and put the truth out of their minds. Honestly, I don’t disagree with her (not when she wrote it, and definitely not in today’s “I won’t get vaccinated” era as well). But nevertheless, she does give us all one saving grace: the belief that there are those, as the title suggests, who walk away from Omelas without any destination in mind.
Is it hopeful? It occurs to me that walking away might just be the easy part, because the system you leave behind is one that is corrupt and actively harmful. Perhaps there is a corollary, that there are those who leave Omelas and those one day who return to burn the whole system to the ground.