When Good Science Fiction Goes Bad

Tuesday , 8, July 2014 15 Comments

There are many things that science fiction has traditionally done very well, but, just as Ender’s psychological “flaw” is critical to his “Game,” and just as every Death Star seems to be remembered for its version of an exhaust port, sometimes it is important to take a hard look at the genre’s fail points, and ask, “Why?”

Ursula LeGuin’s Hugo-winning and Locus-nominated short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is an allegory told in the first person by a narrator who is incapable of describing the society being allegorized:

I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you.

The story has no plot, no protagonist, and a narrator who fumbles about describing the indescribable (The narrator is thoroughly contemporary 1973 American, by the way–using common slang like “If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em” and “Bleh.””–and never bothers to answer how she has seen the wonders and horrors of Omelas.); but these are not necessarily problems. The story is fully sociological, and so intentionally avoids traditional forms in an attempt to take the simple guise of a “Just So” story about the concept of modern privilege.

The problem really arises when the reader starts to notice that the sociology behind the allegory is wrong.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading–the story has been widely anthologized and is frequently used in university science fiction classes for analysis–just that its underlying framework highlights a common shortcoming in the genre.

The narrator contrasts modern society (“we”) against her inability to describe the happiness and progressiveness of the people of Omelas (“they”):

The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy.

And elsewhere:

They were not simple folk, you see, though they were happy. But we do not say the words of cheer much any more. All smiles have become archaic. Given a description such as this one tends to make certain assumptions. Given a description such as this one tends to look next for the King, mounted on a splendid stallion and surrounded by his noble knights, or perhaps in a golden litter borne by great-muscled slaves. But there was no king. They did not use swords, or keep slaves. They were not barbarians. I do not know the rules and laws of their society, but I suspect that they were singularly few. As they did without monarchy and slavery, so they also got on without the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb. Yet I repeat that these were not simple folk, not dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians.

So, the people of Omelas (that is, “Salem” backwards and emphasized, an obvious reference to both the original meaning of the word–“Peace”–and the popularized bogey-version of the infamous witch trials. Salem, O!) are not backward in their contentment in any way. They are a progressive society, farther ahead in the future than us: they have ended violence and commercialism and dictatorship and financial tyranny, without losing civilization: in fact, civilization has clearly advanced in the pursuit of peace, goodwill and happiness.

How does this fumbling narrator describe this ideal society at the pinnacle of contentment? Why, of course, with a pagan festival of naked children and expressly non-clerical ritualistic orgies:

All the processions wound towards the north side of the city, where on the great water-meadow called the Green Fields boys and girls, naked in the bright air, with mud-stained feet and ankles and long, lithe arms, exercised their restive horses before the race.

She goes on:

I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells, parades, horses, bleh. If so, please add an orgy. If an orgy would help, don’t hesitate. Let us not, however, have temples from which issue beautiful nude priests and priestesses already half in ecstasy and ready to copulate with any man or woman, lover or stranger, who desires union with the deep godhead of the blood, although that was my first idea. But really it would be better not to have any temples in Omelas–at least, not manned temples. Religion yes, clergy no. Surely the beautiful nudes can just wander about, offering themselves like divine soufflés to the hunger of the needy and the rapture of the flesh. Let them join the processions. Let tambourines be struck above the copulations, and the glory of desire be proclaimed upon the gongs, and (a not unimportant point) let the offspring of these delightful rituals be beloved and looked after by all.

The narrator’s “as you like it” approach is betrayed by her first instinct, now rejected. In other words, imagine any religion at all–except for any that promises “union with the deep godhead of the blood.” This is a very specific utopia that she suggests, beyond even the imagination of Herodotus: something akin to the Marion Zimmer Bradley-wing of the SCA (i.e. the alternate reality counter-culture aspects, as opposed to the studious historical modeling cliques.)

In short, it portrays a sociology instantly recognizable to “fandom”. It’s errors and oversights in sociological views make sense to a reader who, for example, believes himself to be a member of a privileged class  at the expense of the poor. He may not know exactly how that mechanism works, but he knows, in his bones, that it is true. That’s why he feels so guilty all the time.

That is also why the “utopia” of Omelas is so appealing to the narrator: there is no guilt.

One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt. But what else should there be? I thought at first there were not drugs, but that is puritanical. For those who like it, the faint insistent sweetness of drooz may perfume the ways of the city, drooz which first brings a great lightness and brilliance to the mind and limbs, and then after some hours a dreamy languor, and wonderful visions at last of the very arcana and inmost secrets of the Universe, as well as exciting the pleasure of sex beyond belief; and it is not habit-forming. For more modest tastes I think there ought to be beer.

The narrator later goes on to say that probably no one takes the drug, because they are already so happy. So,no guilt, free drugs, free beer, free love. What’s not to like? Of course, with any allegory, there’s always a point. And the narrator illustrates this by confessing that all of this happiness and wonder is–without explanation–the result of the ongoing abuse, imprisonment and neglect of an innocent child.

The tale is passive throughout. Most Omelas residents learn to live with the cover-up. A few get fed up and leave. But none dare act on behalf of the child.

Compare this story to  Flannery O’Connor’s (non-scifi) The River, which also contrasts rich and poor, light and dark, and the suffering of a child. What O’Connor does, however, that so many science fiction writers writing for “fandom” don’t do is she gets the sociology right. The rich abuse their privilege, but so do the poor. The struggle for meaning and right living, the importance of faithful, if failed, saints, and the movement of courageous action are all included in a speculative story that is far more complex than Omelas pretends to be.

And this is really where Le Guin’s allegory comes apart: those who leave Omelas are looked upon in wonder and uncertainty, as if their acts are acts of courage. But they aren’t courageous, in any sense of the word. They flee tragedy, but out of the dozens or hundreds or thousands of the “ones who leave Omelas,” not a single one attempts to defy the rules and save the child. In fact, the narrator insists the child can’t be saved, is not worth saving, and is better off suffering in the dark. The message of the story, if there is one, is this: There is no courage.

And if any genre should choose to embrace such a theme far less frequently and to far fewer accolades than it currently does, one might think it would be the genre of ideas.

15 Comments
  • Jeff Johnson says:

    Incredible.

    You can’t make this stuff up.

    • Daniel says:

      If the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting, one could do worse than read Le Guin’s award-winner, both as a lesson in warmaking rhetoric, and to get inside the head of those well-meaning destroyers of the social order.

  • Jill says:

    I’m glad I was spared having read this book, though perhaps I might have found it a fascinating piece to analyze. I’m not sure. But for whatever reason, after reading the Earthsea trilogy, I didn’t pursue any more of Le Guin’s work.

  • Daniel says:

    I believe that Earthsea suffers from the same disease and another: bad sociology and terrible geography.

    The problem is NOT that an author should not attempt to construct fantasies based on sociology that is in some way different from modern sociology. Of course he should! Le Guin’s error is that she based her sociology far too closely to the flawed sociology of the moment.

    Now, she was actually on the cutting edge (along with Pierre Boulle, and Philip Jose Farmer) of popular sociology of the day. Problem is that it was a particularly bad period of sociological study and projection. Social sciences in general took a number of spectacular and idiotic dives in the wake of the collapse of psychology (Freudian wing).

    The big problem is that there is a political reason to prop up this stuff, 30 years after its sociology has ripened and rotted. Left Hand of Darkness is the same: flat, void of character, and as outdated as an editorial in the SFWA Bulletin.

  • The CronoLink says:

    That sounded like the book tried to be oh-so-deep-and-thoughtful but came out as superficial and pretentious.

  • Daniel says:

    The story is pretentious, but not entirely superficial. There is some power to it: the award nominations came from no small sense of buzz (as opposed to many awards today, which simply seem to originate out of a sense of duty). If you are of a certain mindset, it is one of those stories that resonates and stays with you.

    If you are not of a certain mindset, the emotional manipulation is marginally effective, if you are so inclined to allow it.

    Perhaps I’m giving her too much credit in this age when the heroes they now throw up the pop charts are neither heroic nor popular, and Le Guin’s craft has always been a bit overrated, but she has a better sense of the popular and of emotional levers to be dismissed entirely as superficial.

    In other words, she is guilty of running a drooz lab with this tale, but at least she had standards. It is refined drooz.

  • Dan says:

    I fail to see you guys are so worked up with Le Guin’s little narrative. The concept of the scapegoat that is cast out to take on the sins of the people is deeply imbedded in Judea-Christian thought. As far as a happy society without kings, soldiers, priests, slaves, where naked children and orgies abound? Well, it works for the Bonobos.

  • “Religion yes, clergy no. ”

    The allegedly Taoist authoress betrays her Protestant background.

    The guilt-free hippies mistrust organization, rules, hierarchy, discipline: but neither can they actually organize a rescue of the child.

    Horrible story. This is what shallow 60’s folk sound like when they try to sound profound.

    • Daniel says:

      Too true, but a Catholic background would have only resulted in the Liberation Theological wing of this same story. Instead of fleeing in “righteousness” the Catholic social justice version would have had “the Ones” offering themselves as psychospiritual stand ins for the child; by being cared for by the state and touring on extensive speaking engagements, the Lib Theology “Ones” would likewise not change the conditions of the child…as that would eliminate their reason for existence.

  • David Wandem says:

    I’m starting to wonder if it was not as abstract and cerebral as everyone assumed.

    Perhaps it’s about SMOF in the late 60’s and early 70’s and how Science Fiction Fandom was being haunted by sadistic pedophile weirdos like Marion Zimmer Bradley and Walter Breen who victimized even their own daughter.

    Read this was we can see LeGuinn torn between the seeming beauty of the writer/fandom enterpise the ugliness it conceals that would be ruined if the facts came to light.

    If Omelas was SMOF and the convention scene then she might well have thought about walking away when discovering the open secret of Bradley and Breen which everyone ignored, and found herself appalled that she wanted to stay and thus feels compelled to rationalize the whole thing yet understanding that she’s doing so in a cold utilitarian manner.

  • White Knight says:

    I read this story many years ago, long enough that the details escape me. At the time, I thought I understood what kind of society she was trying to paint (although I missed the orgies and nudity bit somehow), and then it got to the subject of the child.

    And I couldn’t process it.

    It was… presented as though there was some sort of magical curse that allowed these people to live this way only so long as they scapegoated a child. That if someone were to rescue this child, another would have to be sacrificed in his place or else the society would fall apart.

    I can see a lot of people making that choice. What I can’t see is a lot of people making that choice without mountains of repressed guilt, enough to drive people mad over time. Definitely enough to completely eradicate any semblance of empathy between people, as they ignored the harm they were doing to the child.

    So yeah, I didn’t like it even then.

  • Eric Johnson says:

    When I was very younger then what I am now, I used to gobble up every old SF paperback I could find from flea markets and the Sal. Army. At that time my step-grandfather, who was a very religious southerner, told me such stuff was the work of the devil. After reading about these various scandals involving children, I cannot help but think that he may have been right.

  • Daddy Warpig says:

    Is it so different from modern America? Not that this is what she meant to write about, but…

    We have our Epicureans, our licentious and pleasure-seeking masses, and in order that they may seek pleasure without consequences, they sacrifice children. And not just one.

    I speak not only of abortion, but of neglect or, on the other extreme, over-parenting, that smothering “helicopter parenting” which produces adult infants unable to handle the rigors of a good, harsh “You’re wrong.” without seeking to punish the offender.

    America IS Omelas, and those who reject Bohemia have walked away from it.

    • R.K. Modena says:

      I know I replied to you on Twitter, but I had a few hours to think while working ’round the house, so I thought I’d sit and reply while I give my back a break.

      While I still hold that it is still too broad a condemnation of modern America, and that the general core of America’s (largely called conservative-leaning) cultural approach to say that America is Omelas; I think it is not inaccurate to say that there are folk who wish to turn America (and the whole damned world!) into Omelas. When viewed in this light, the steady encroachment of social justice-identity politics and erosion of morals as a whole makes sense.

      CHORFs, SJBs, vileprogs, etc want Omelas, and are the selfish enough types who are happy to sacrifice someone else if it means they’re happy, fed, and content. While the main essay above is focused on it’s impact on Sci-fi/Fantasy and the Fandom, in approach, the desire to have Omelas by these who call themselves ‘better’ than the rest of us, who wish to install themselves as the new variation of social aristocrat is visible and open if one actually pays attention, and is far more widespread a cultural psyche disease than just gaming/fiction/media/education.

      A good study on it would be to study the methodologies used for Margaret Sanger’s eugenics program, it’s whitewashing and mainstreaming into Planned Parenthood, and how it became so acceptable to sacrifice someone, an innocent child, for their fun and pleasure. It’s never their own children they sacrifice either, but the children of others (to wit, the German politicians sacrificing their own future and the children of the ordinary law-abiding German, to the altar of the xenophillic multiculturalism cult.

      Those of us who are not so deprived to think that atrocities are acceptable upon innocents as long as we get our pleasures are unwilling to sacrifice our children or their futures are hampered by the policies of the Omelas-seekers. For example, those parents who would like their children not to become infantilized puppets find it harder to parent, indeed to discipline their children. It is no surprise that this embargo on disciplinary actions extends to the boot camps of our national military institutions, and the lowering of standards all throughout society, weakening us all as a whole; to the machinations of the Omelas-seekers through their increasing use of lawfare to hobble strengths, victimize the law-abiding, and gut the systems which have allowed us to rise as a civilization.

      The Omelas-seekers have no desire for a utopia for all, merely a utopia for themselves, built upon the backs of either the dhimmi, or the sacrifice of children.

      I would hope that the ones who leave Omelas in this case would rescue the child.

      It is easy to say “So go your own way,” but when one is quite unable to establish new landholdings, or new countries,

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