Those who exist, have existed, or will exist in the vicinity of Omelas
November 28, 2021 7:26 AM   Subscribe

"That child is going to feel the same either way. We might as well do our part to get the tourist industry back on its knees....You want to go to Mendocino. You think no one ever suffered in Mendocino?" John Holbo's "The Ones Who Take The Train To Omelas" is a parody of a short story by Ursula K. Le Guin (and of another scifi classic), and comes with mocked-up old-school travel posters plus the essay "Thought-Experiments and Trains of Thought". (Via Crooked Timber.) Jed Hartman (disclaimer: a pal) has compiled a list of links to short stories responding to the Le Guin story, including stories by N. K. Jemisin and P.H. Lee.
posted by brainwane (33 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
I enjoyed both the parody and the essay. Oh, and the tourism posters!
posted by Orlop at 7:50 AM on November 28, 2021 [3 favorites]

...and N. K. Jemisin and P.H. Lee.

This project you're doing, brainwave—I like it.
posted by Orlop at 8:10 AM on November 28, 2021 [2 favorites]

LOL, of course Covid doesn't affect Omelas. Also laughed at the recall reference.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:33 AM on November 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

So much to love, packed into this story. Working in the Trolley Problem at the end was absolutely perfect.
posted by panglos at 8:38 AM on November 28, 2021

The Ones Who Walk Away from the Cold Equations

That was pretty hysterically funny and well-written!
posted by sixswitch at 9:00 AM on November 28, 2021 [7 favorites]

Gosh, I'm really unconvinced. I'll admit it's been a long time since I read The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, but I never considered it a morality play or a thought experiment; it's an allegory, an observation.

It's a take on the way we actually live, the way we have lived. It doesn't need to be a thought experiment; we have history. We have lived out the experiment for real. There's no question about our willingness to incur suffering for our own gracious living; of course we will. Heck, we'll do that for minor conveniences. We live in Omelas. Americans are basically the city council of Omelas.
posted by Western Infidels at 9:51 AM on November 28, 2021 [17 favorites]

Western Infidels, it's not uniquely America. And just in the name of parental rights and/or parental determination, there are severely abused children, and that's not starting to get into large scale abuses.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 10:21 AM on November 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Every time I read anything about the story world of Omelas, I feel personally called out. As is the way of such things, it is salutary but unpleasant. Thanks for the post.
posted by eirias at 10:47 AM on November 28, 2021 [6 favorites]

Today I saw a tweet that reads: Every heartwarming human interest story in america is like "he raised $20,000 to keep 200 orphans from being crushed in the orphan-crushing machine" and then never asks why an orphan-crushing machine exists or why you'd need to pay to prevent it from being used.

Holbo writes that thought experiments "are story-problems in which, often, utterly weird stuff is true for no reason ... This is fine. But the results are often weirdly surreal, claustrophobic, and/or whimsical, if you pause to breath in the air. So the ‘solutions’, if they arrive, partake of some of that air."

And so they do in real life as well. The context in which I saw that tweet above was a recent story about a boy who, when granted a wish from the Make-a-Wish Foundation, chose to feed the homeless in his city. Can you imagine. Not a trip to see Disney World or the pyramids but to do what Gov. Taint Reeves wouldn't do in midwinter: take care of Jackson's people.

That also happens to be the place where I was born, and where I have to go for various reasons at least once a month. The bitterness of the story stayed with me especially because I have done far less than that young man in far more years to bring any good to that town. Et in Omelade ego.
posted by Countess Elena at 11:05 AM on November 28, 2021 [13 favorites]

I think Holbo might be too rigorous on one question. He wonders why we assume Le Guin sympathizes with those who walk away. She does, he agrees, but he comes up a empty on "internal" evidence.

I think the title is a bit of a tell--the story is not "about" those people so foregrounding them invites us to assume they are interesting and (like Omelas itself) invent a narrative about their motivations and actions after they leave. But more substantially, the whole framing is going to pull readers away from the Omelas-remainers. The inhabitants are given two choices: One is tempting, one is hard. In the Western ethical traditions, you can spot the wrong choice easily: Temptation is a marker of sin. The person who takes on a hard burden is doing a good thing.

This reaction is separate from the intellectual, thought-experiment aspect of it. You could still say "no, I'm a utilitarian and the away walkers are silly." But the set up is baked in to the story. If you were a strict consequentialist you could rewrite this to cross some wires in the opposite way while maintaining the faux impartiality.

It occurs to me that this intuition (hard = virtuous, tempting = sinful) is also being exploited by the Cold Equation style stories. They are vastly less interesting than anything Le Guin ever wrote. But presumably the thing that appeals to the brainy teenage reader who thinks its profound is precisely that it's a tough decision the protagonists hate making. It's funny to view the people not being thrown out of the airlock as the martyrs but I think it's vital to those stories.
posted by mark k at 11:37 AM on November 28, 2021 [7 favorites]

“I thought Omelas was all, like, serene and gracious. How can there be social media personalities?”

I laughed.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:10 PM on November 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

It had a similar vibe as the Xanadu tweet thread
posted by sixswitch at 1:30 PM on November 28, 2021

Add on to this list a set of tweets:

GCU We’re Coming For You, Omelas
posted by mephron at 2:01 PM on November 28, 2021 [7 favorites]

It doesn't need to be a thought experiment; we have history.

It's not just history, this is literally the reality we live in today, Australia being the clearest example.

Australian laws allow indefinite "detention" of refugees without trial or recourse - some have been detained for over 10 years in the brutal conditions of our offshore detention centers. NZ has offered to take those refugees off our hands, but Australia has refused - the point is to make them suffer - and letting NZ offer them residency would defeat that. The right wing Coalition has had a consistently harsher stance on refugees, and since they won the election, two or three people were attempting suicide or self-harm daily by "cutting, overdosing with tablets, setting themselves on fire, and hanging themselves" (Al Jazeera, 2019)

In the story about Omelas, it doesn’t matter why the child needs to be tortured. Perhaps no one in the story even knows why. Perhaps if the child was let loose and treated humanely, nothing would change. Or everything would change – the point is, no one knows, so they keep on doing it. In Australia, both sides of government offers the rationalization that offshore detention prevents greater suffering and prevents deaths at sea by deterring people smugglers. They say that allowing too many refugees into Australia would compromise our way of life, or hurt our bank balances.

Like in Omelas, the reasons don’t really matter: all the prosperity you see around us, the happiness and joy, all the great works we have achieved in our cities of Melbourne and Sydney – is this all tainted by the knowledge that for this to exist, some people must suffer and die in detention?
posted by xdvesper at 2:12 PM on November 28, 2021 [18 favorites]

Dr. Orpheus: Did you say an ORPHAN?!
Dr. Venture: Yeah, a little... orphan boy.
Dr. Orpheus: It's powered by a FORSAKEN CHILD!?
Dr. Venture: Might be, kind of — I mean, I didn't use the whole thing!

posted by doctornemo at 2:43 PM on November 28, 2021 [9 favorites]

I admit, my intial response is the same as Western Infidels'--a parody of Omelas seems like it's missing the point (and agreed that it rarely seems to be accurately identified as allegory). But maybe also there's something interesting in taking this famous (and famously disconcerting) story and casting it in a Whedon-esque jokey re-imagining. Diana Wynne Jones' classic "Tough Guide to Fantasyland" imagines fantasy tropes as a real place one might visit; it strikes me that imagining Omelas likewise is also to imagine it as a fictional place. "What if Omelas was real?" say the residents of Omelas, laughing.

The utopian Um-Helat in NK Jemison's "The Ones Who Stay and Fight" reimagines Omelas by replicating its moral calculus almost entirely; what differs is who must be sacrificed and the knowing complicity of its public. Omelans know the bargain they have made. How many in Um-Helat are very careful to not know what they must not know?

The music video for BTS's song "Spring Day"/"봄 날" references Omelas (alongside the sci-fi film Snowpiercer). Many believe the song was partially inspired by the deaths of 250 students in the 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster. The subsequent governmental coverup included a blacklist of Korean artists who commemorated those who died in the accident.
posted by radiogreentea at 4:26 PM on November 28, 2021 [6 favorites]

Slightly off-topic, but this post reminded me of your brilliant Randomized Dystopia Generator (that the same Jed introduced me to several years ago). Something about riffing on Omelas has a similar vibe as hitting refresh over and over and continually ending up where hypotheticals collide with reality.
posted by foxtongue at 5:33 PM on November 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

What I liked about this version is that it implicates the audience. It's not like there are two choices - stay or leave - or even two choices - go there on vacation or join the boycott and disinvestment campaign. The deck is stacked, the story implies that honestly, most of us would visit omelas, and come up with a million different rationalizations to justify why that's okay.

It's not really a commentary on the original story as much as commentary about consumer choices. Right now we're in a moment where most people have realized that "we can effect change by being more ethical consumers" is a lie, your consumption choices matter very little. And at the same time, the knowledge that we don't have the power as consumers we were told we had - as a substitute for collective power, political power - is something people use to justify giving up the fight.

Anyway this lead me to a very long thread on arguing about the morality of The Cold Equations so here you go:
posted by subdee at 8:07 PM on November 28, 2021 [7 favorites]

that essay accompanying the satire was weird. its premise is 'what if we took the allegory of Omelas and moved it a few steps closer to reality' and then it diverges into a lot of words about what thought experiments are and what Leguin may have been trying to do from a craft perspective (which shouldn't be confused for actually engaging with the ethical question that's at the heart of the original story) and then like Leguin trivia?

Omelas, to me, is a pretty simple allegory about complicity in systems of domination. for the time LeGuin was writing in, 'walking away' probably looked a lot like how people were actively detaching themselves from those systems - anti-war protests, etc

we know now, with the benefit of half a century, that complicity is a much more complicated equation - there's literally not a way to not be complicit in some fucked up system of power, to be a cog that contributes to the engine. you can't 'walk away' because the issues are intergenerational, you've already benefited, and it's likely you're still benefiting in an invisible way.

and so now the question is 'just how much are you actually willing to do about it?' when before it was more 'did you notice that a lot of our privileges are based in and sustained by colonization, white supremacy, and exploitation'

Omelas doesn't satisfactorily bring up that question of how much you're actually willing to put on the line to try to push these systems towards better, less brutal producers of totally unnecessary misery and suffering. but Leguin also wasn't a radical so wouldn't ask those questions - I don't think her activism would ever approach something like what Black Nationalists were doing (which was literally creating the foundation for much of how we conceptualize affinity politics today) and she had the privilege of feeling like she could 'walk away' rather than knowing how hopelessly enmeshed in these systems we all are and how you'd need actual revolutionary politics of the overthrowing, likely violent kind to produce change (see, for eg, the amazing organizing of BLM vs how much policing has actually changed in the US)

so yeah. I had the same reaction other people did in this thread which was feeling like the original satire and the essay explicating it kinda missed the point, both of Leguin's original story but also the conversation that's been happening inside of activism since then. I wasn't exactly expecting a lot though so I can't say I was disappointed lol
posted by paimapi at 10:45 PM on November 28, 2021 [5 favorites]

I worked for a major federal government agency that would put people on a leadership training program where the Omelas story was read and discussed. It didn’t occur to me until afterwards that the point of the exercise was to acknowledge the merits of that arrangement from a public policy perspective.
posted by moorooka at 12:54 AM on November 29, 2021 [6 favorites]

foxtongue: Oh wow I hadn't thought about Randomized Dystopia for a while! Thank you for thinking of it and glad it was of use!

Jed also pointed to "In The Cold" by Kelly Jennings, another short sf story in dialogue with "The Cold Equations".

I guess I'm kind of in the mood for cover songs and remixes and fanfic right now, I say while listening to the Laibach album covering songs from The Sound of Music. I've been thinking of rereading Maureen McHugh's excellent, searing novella The Cost To Be Wise which is is in part a critique of Star Trek's Prime Directive and noninterference policies like it. But maybe I'm not up to it right now!

Hoping some folks in this thread will make front page posts pointing to scifi/fantasy stories that are interestingly in dialogue with other well-known works!
posted by brainwane at 7:21 AM on November 29, 2021 [5 favorites]

I'm enjoying that conversation at Tor. Thanks, subdee.
posted by Orlop at 11:59 AM on November 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

You're welcome!
posted by subdee at 7:43 PM on November 29, 2021

Like in Omelas, the reasons don’t really matter: all the prosperity you see around us, the happiness and joy, all the great works we have achieved in our cities of Melbourne and Sydney – is this all tainted by the knowledge that for this to exist, some people must suffer and die in detention?

Secret prisons in Libya keep migrants out of Europe - "NPR's Mary Louise Kelly talks with investigative reporter Ian Urbina about his piece The New Yorker. He headed into Libya to better understand its role in migrants' movement toward Europe."[1,2]
KELLY: What is Europe's responsibility here?

URBINA: Yeah. I mean, the entire system is funded and guided by the EU writ large and, quite especially in this case with Libya, Italy in particular. The aerial assets or the Air Force in this war against migration is run by Frontex, which is the EU's border agency. So there are drones and airplanes 24-7 monitoring the Mediterranean, looking for these rafts and reporting them. That intel is then handed to the Libyan Coast Guard, an EU-created, EU-funded force that goes out and scoops them up in so-called rescue missions. But really, they're arrests.

They bring them back to shore, and then they put them in this sort of gulag of prisons, which, again, are largely EU-funded, mostly money routed through aid groups and the U.N. and other entities. But they nonetheless would not exist were all these migrants not being returned to shore and funds coming in to run the operation. So the EU really is the overseer and largely responsible for the system.
posted by kliuless at 10:04 PM on November 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

Look, when I get to teach my speculative fiction unit to jaded 15 year olds, it’s Omelas that comes through with the goods every time. Maybe next year is the year I get my kids to write their own creative writing responses. (May remove a few of the swear words from this one though if I show them). And it’s a shame we’re about to finish for the year (Southern Hemisphere, yo), otherwise I think buying a stack of Omelas stickers as a gift for them would really tickle their fancy.

Omelas as the gift for (the equivalent of middle school) English teachers. Kids just love talking about it.
posted by chronic sublime at 3:22 AM on December 1, 2021 [5 favorites]

A new story in Clarkesworld's December edition: "The Cold Calculations" by Aimee Ogden, an extremely political and full-throated response to "The Cold Equations". If you like it please feel free to make a front page post about it!
posted by brainwane at 4:39 AM on December 2, 2021 [3 favorites]

I'll just leave this here:

The Cold Crowdfunding Campaign by Cora Buhlert:
Save the Girl and Save Me From Having to Toss Her Out of the Airlock
posted by creepygirl at 5:28 PM on December 6, 2021 [5 favorites]

I enjoyed the Buhlert piece tremendously! Thank you!
posted by brainwane at 5:56 PM on December 6, 2021

That crowdfunding story is GREAT.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:44 AM on December 7, 2021

I was talking about the Ogden piece with a friend who told me a fact about "The Cold Equations" I'd never known before. To quote the English Wikipedia piece:
The story was shaped by Astounding editor John W. Campbell, who sent "Cold Equations" back to Godwin three times before he got the version he wanted, because "Godwin kept coming up with ingenious ways to save the girl!"
The names of critics in the "Reception" section of the Wikipedia article also give me a lens to understand the names of commenters in "The Cold Crowdfunding Campaign".
posted by brainwane at 8:17 AM on December 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

"The Midnight Society" has weighed in and it's fun.
Ogden: You can just make things happen in stories, ya know
Ogden: like a god!!!
posted by brainwane at 1:18 PM on December 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

I noticed that, brainwane! I follow them on twitter (and check the writer bitterkarella's twitter) because I'm a big fan, but I think bitterkarella has the wrong end of the stick here. It's not about refusing to listen to the story because you don't like unhappy endings. It's about questioning the underlying assumptions of the story. I ended up in a rabbit hole of writers being really ungenerous and obtuse about this, but I follow the first rule of tweeting -- that is, don't tweet -- and so I haven't had anyone to discuss it with, until now.

(That's also how I found out the recent deal with Neon Yang, which ... this is of interest to SF twitter and the SF/F author scene, but I thought it was too inside baseball for MeFi. Put their name into the search bar if you are interested in just that.)
posted by Countess Elena at 1:39 PM on December 12, 2021

Countess Elena: yeah, I agree that Ogden is not just against unhappy endings but is pointing out how authors and editors have choices in what we assume. I figure Midnight Pals is being lighthearted and a little non-serious poking-fun here in a way I don't mind but I get that others might read it differently.

A collection of stories responding to "The Cold Equations".
posted by brainwane at 5:40 AM on December 24, 2021

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