“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin – Classics of Science Fiction


Today our group, Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction, is discussing “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s part of “Group Read 69 – Previously Unread Hugo Winners.” I can’t believe out of all our previous sixty-eight group reads we haven’t read this 5-star story before. I have written about “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” before in the essay “A Philosophical Conversation Between Two Short Stories.”

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is perfect for generating classroom discussions about philosophy. It’s short, only seventeen minutes on audio, and is told as an allegory. Le Guin presents a tiny utopian country where everything is wonderful except for one detail. Happiness in this land depends on the suffering of one child. Nearly everyone in Omelas accepts they must allow one ten-year-old child to suffer horribly, because that suffering allows everyone else living in Omelas to be happy. Of course, as you can guess from the title, some citizens can’t accept this and walk away.

Is Le Guin’s story questioning Christianity and asking why did Jesus suffer for all of us? I don’t think so. Is Le Guin pointing a finger at Capitalism, where the happiness of many depends on the suffering of the economic losers? Maybe. Do you worry about the losers in your society when you’re one of the winners? Is the story also asking how can we have a perfect society if even one person must pay a price? Isn’t it true that in every society some must suffer? Where can those who walk away from Omelas go?

Most people who read “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” focus on the ending, the problem of the suffering child. But in the story’s buildup Le Guin describes what she thinks is a utopian society. Le Guin is challenging her readers to imagine a perfect society too. Le Guin says she doesn’t want clergy or the military, but figures she’ll have to accept orgies and drugs. What would you reject and accept?

I think Le Guin started writing this story wanting to speculate about creating a perfect society, but then realized it couldn’t go anywhere, and then came up with the idea for the suffering child, which led to the idea about those who walk away.

I sense the brilliance of this story wasn’t planned. It’s like my recent discussion of Slaughterhouse-Five. Sometimes a writer accidentally produces a story that works perfectly as a mirror. In my essay, I talked about reading Vonnegut’s classic when I was 18, 55, and 72. With each reading I saw something different about myself. I believe this is also true with “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Le Guin has created a mirror for her readers.

However, I do believe there is a universal psychological theme that deals with the suffering of a few that allows for the benefit of the many. I thought that theme was explored twice in 1956 by Damon Knight with “Stranger Station” and “The Country of the Kind.” I even wondered if Le Guin was inspired to write “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas” after reading “The Country of the Kind.”

On my other blog, I produced a theory about ChatGPT, and similar AI programs. I’m wondering if our unconscious minds work in the same way AIs based on large language models. Those AI models are trained on millions of pages of text and images using neural networks. We can query those AI models with a prompt. Imagine all the books Ursula K. Le Guin read in her lifetime before writing “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas.” Now imagine Le Guin asking herself, “How would a functional utopia work?” Isn’t that the same as prompting an AI model? Her unconscious mind then generated “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas.”

Readers add the story to their own mental model and then prompt themselves with a question: “What does this story mean?” Their answers will depend on what they’ve read during their lifetime and how their unconscious mind processed that content.

Instead of asking, “What did Le Guin mean by “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas,” we should ask instead: “Why did I interpret the “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas” the way I did?”

I’m guessing great writers don’t intend to mean anything specific but aim to excite our unconscious minds into a kind of creativity. In other words. “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas” is a bit of prompt engineering, aimed at readers, knowing they each have a mental model that will generate a unique personalized output.

James Wallace Harris, 2/13/24

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