I am a huge fan of Ursula Le Guin as I have mentioned previously, and I recently read this compilation of some of her stories, selected by her. She described in her introduction that most of the stories in this volume are what she would call science fiction, in that they deal with other planets or alien races. She admits, however, that her stories overlap, containing elements of science fiction, fantasy, legend and other components. I’ve selected three stories from this volume to illustrate what I love about the work of Le Guin.
“The Ones who walk away from Omelas” was written in 1973, and is one of Le Guin’s better known stories. The author describes it as a fable, and I would agree that it is a morality tale, on several levels. This story describes a Utopian society that is made possible by the suffering of one child. The child’s suffering is immense, and the ‘rules’ dictate that it is absolutely forbidden to be kind to the child. The child is given no name, and the reader is not even told the gender, as the child is referred to as ‘it’. On this suffering the success of the society rests. Children are told about the child at a certain age, and sometimes, when they are older, they may choose to see the child. They come to accept that it is too late for the child and they enjoy their privileged existence more fully knowing its cost.
“Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness.”
The last thing the story relates is that every so often someone leaves. They walk away from the city of Omelas and never return.
“They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back.”
So what is the author trying to tell us? I believe there are a few things to glean from this story. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, is that, to some at least, the ends do not justify the means. Those who leave have decided that the price is too high, and that they cannot stay where the joy of many rests on the suffering of one. They cannot save the child, but they can decline the benefits of the child’s misery. They walk away into an unknown future rather than be a party to injustice. If you go no farther it’s still an immensely powerful story, but I do believe there is more to be gleaned. Consider that the child is not a secret, and those who live in Omelas do so knowing what their happiness costs. The sad fact of life is that much wealth is based on someone else doing without. The goods we take for granted in wealthy countries may start somewhere else with slave labour, with poverty, with environmental damage. Many people choose not to see. We close our eyes and stop our ears, and refuse to accept the culpability of our governments, the businesses who make our goods, and ultimately, ourselves. Omelas accepts this as a necessity of happiness, and the citizens live with their eyes wide open to the price they pay.
“… they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality…”
So, the author asks, if we are going to live on the backs of others, maybe we should have the courage to acknowledge it.
Thirdly, the author continually questions the reader, and by doing so, continually points out that the story is hard to believe.
“Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale.”
“… we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid.”
“How to describe the citizens of Omelas?”
“Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.”
Initially this seems as a meta-commentary ie this is a story, readers, a yarn, fluff and no substance. But then, with the “one more thing” comes the twist in the tale. This is the moment where the reader is dragged reluctantly back to reality. Comfort rests on suffering. Will you accept your privilege at the expense of others, or will you walk away?
Will you have the courage to walk away from Omelas?
“The Shobies Story” was first published in 1990. This is more science fiction than the other two stories I am looking at, set in the author’s Hainish universe, a future of interplanetary travel and different races. The Shobies are a group of people who have come together to form the crew of an experimental ship, and they first appear while they are on a ‘honeymoon’ of sorts, seeing if they will fit together and form a ‘family’. (I find this amusing in a weird way – have you ever been on a ‘team-bonding’ session at your workplace, or worked somewhere where management referred to the employees as a ‘family’? It is very rarely true. They could learn a thing or two from this technique.) One of the first things the reader finds out, after meeting the characters, is that the ship they will crew has an experimental drive that no one seems to understand, not even the scientist who keeps trying (and failing) to explain it to everyone. The test flight tests the crew’s bond when it lands them in a strange situation, where everyone has a different perception. Some believe that they have gone nowhere, others that they have travelled to a different planet, still others that they are in some mysterious other dimension of nothingness. Confusion reigns, the bonding of the group starts to fracture, as everyone is convinced that their own perceptions are correct. Eventually, however, they manage to achieve unity in their feelings and thoughts, and essentially think themselves home.
This is a more standard narrative than the other stories I have chosen, but still very complex and very enjoyable. Le Guin excelled in creating characters that were well-rounded and believable, while still being believably alien and other. She never fell into the mistake of writing characters that were essentially contemporary human in their words and thoughts, irrespective of the time or place. You believe that these people don’t come from here. Again there is a theme beneath the narrative, and this time it is about subjective experience and people’s belief in their own narrative. One character is convinced that the walls of the ship are transparent and she can see the stars. She becomes terrified she is going to fall through the ship and out into space. Cause and effect become mixed up, and various different permutations of action are perceived as real by different people. I think ultimately this story is about how we perceive reality, and asks how any of us can be sure about our subjective experience and how anyone can be truly objective when we are stuck inside our own heads?
“Where are we? Are we here? Where is here? What’s the story?”
“The Author of the Acacia Seeds and other extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics” was first published in 1974, and is a bit of a mouthful, though it is usually known simply as “The Author of the Acacia Seeds”. It is written as if it were a scientific journal article, presenting its topic as fact. The topic is the translation and understanding of the communication of animals, and the discovery that this communication has much more sophistication than previously imagined. The titular author, for example, is an ant. The reader is told that the orderly arrangement of acacia seeds in an anthill was what first attracted the attention of researchers. The translation, though fragmentary and interpretive, is remarkable because it is different. The ant ‘writer’ is something of a poet, whose writing includes the following:
Long are the tunnels. Longer is the untunneled. No tunnel reaches the end of the untunneled. The untunneled goes on farther than we can go in ten days. Praise!
The story goes on to comment on Penguin writing, making the wonderful observation:
“…penguins are birds, they do not swim but fly in water …”
and explains their literature as only to be properly translated by ballet rather than in writing. The story ends with an ‘editorial’ defining what is language, and what is art. Communication is the answer to both. But then the question is posed: what about plants? They don’t have language, or art, because they do not communicate. But, is art really just communication? Or is it
… not an action, but a reaction; not a communication, but a reception.
The author then hypothesises that, if plant poetry could be deciphered, could it be possible to go still further and read the language of the Earth itself?
This is a story about assumptions, and breaking them, about looking at things in a different light. It is very entertaining and intriguing on a surface level. What if the world around us was communicating in ways we know nothing about? I have to say I find the concept of ‘weasel murder mysteries’ rather intriguing. But that’s not the theme of this story. The author is insistent that
… we must not become slaves to our own axioms.
So in any area, then, it is wise to at least pause at all the ‘self-evident’ facts that we take for granted, and just wonder, what if it were not so? What then? If we think outside our preconceived notions, what might we discover?
There are many other excellent stories in this collection, and I would strongly recommend them, as well as all the works of Ursula Le Guin, a truly great and innovative author.