The Ones Who Walk Away and the Ones Who Stay and Fight: Social Justice in Science Fiction

So I’ve recently discovered a new favorite author, three-time Hugo Award winner and all-around badass N. K. Jemisin. I finished reading The Fifth Season and immediately had to learn more about Jemisin and her other works. Of course books 2 and 3 of the Broken Earth trilogy have gone to the top of my TBR, along with her Inheritance trilogy, but right now I’m working my way through her recently released short story collection, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? 

In her introduction to the collection, Jemisin states that the title of the book comes from an essay she wrote in 2013, which is a great read and a celebration of Afrofuturism, and particularly music artist/actor Janelle Monae. (If you don’t know what Afrofuturism is, watch Black Panther; Wakanda is an embodiment of Afrofuturistic ideas. Or read Jemisin’s essay, or this or this for more in-depth discussions.)

Also in the introduction, the author mentions that “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” the first story in her collection, “is a pastiche of and reaction to [Ursula] Le Guin’s ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.'” But here’s a story: I saw the title of this story in the table of contents before I read the introduction, and having Le Guin’s story in my mind for a completely unrelated reason, I thought, “Oh, ‘The Ones Who Stay and Fight,’ that’s a cool title. I wonder if it has anything to to do with ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.'” Total head cannon.

Anyway, I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about both stories. And now I will attempt to explain them.

Le Guin’s story was first published in 1973. I remember first reading it in my 8th grade English class, but I don’t remember any discussion that my class may have had regarding the story. We were 13-year-olds, so we probably didn’t really get it, honestly. I’ve reread it at least five times since then, most recently just last week, right before I started How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? Very fortuitous.

This is a story with kind of no plot and basically no characters. The first half describes this beautiful, joyous Utopian city, Omelas, filled with majestic architecture and technological marvels, where everyone is happy all the time, except… in order for the rest of the city to be beautiful and happy and thrive, they have to keep a child locked up in a dirty, dark dungeon. This child is physically abused, malnourished, and never spoken to.

Everyone knows the child is there, and some people have even gone to see the child. But those who see and are rightly angered and disgusted by the child’s treatment apparently can’t do anything about it: “They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms.”

The only thing you can do if you find yourself unable to stand living in Omelas, knowing your happiness is dependent on this child’s misery, is to leave. And there are a few who do just that, the narrator tells us. We don’t know where they go, but we know that they walk away from Omelas.

Jemisin’s story begins much the same way as Le Guin’s, with descriptions of a Utopian city’s beauty and happy citizens. Jemisin’s narrator describes this city, Um-Helat, as very intentionally diverse, with equality of opportunity, in virtually every way; there are mentions of adaptive equipment for anyone with physical disabilities, the availability of housing for everyone, and the intentional efforts of all in the city to equally integrate people of all races into all professions, “because the people of Um-Helat are not believers in good intentions as the solution to all ills. No, there are no worshipers of mere tolerance here, nor desperate grovelers for that pittance of respect which is diversity. Um-Helatians are learned enough to understand what must be done to make the world better, and pragmatic enough to actually enact it.”

Jemisin’s story departs from Le Guin’s in their Utopian cities’ “one glaring flaw.” The people of Um-Helat have pioneered technology that allows them to see in to other worlds, in particular our world. Not many people do this, we are told, because why would anyone living in this perfect world want to see our terrible one? In fact, doing so is forbidden in Um-Helat, because the hateful and harmful ideas of our reality have been known to corrupt people’s minds in Um-Helat. And once that happens, once someone in Um-Helat has allowed these ideas to enter their mind, the only way to stop them from spreading to others is death, swift and painless death at the hands of what the city calls social workers.

Yeah.

I don’t know if the narrator of “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” is condoning this practice, or if, like the tortured child in Le Guin’s story, its existence is supposed to serve as evidence that Um-Helat is not, in fact, a perfect Utopia. I don’t think it’s the latter. The narrator is intentional about stating that Um-Helat, with its near-perfect equality and total lack of prejudice and injustice, is within the realm of human possibility. But to say that the only way to keep a Utopian society equitable and free is to kill anyone who expresses ideas of hate or prejudice, even if they haven’t acted on them yet, is… I don’t know. I don’t even know if that’s even what the story is saying. I feel like I’m going to be thinking about this idea for a long time, so let’s move on to a different yet somewhat related thought.

The main thing that always frustrated me about “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is the alleged powerlessness of Omelas’ citizens to change the status quo in the city. The narrator claims that if the child is let out of their dungeon, given food and shelter and treated kindly (read: like a human being), the order and beauty and perfection of their society will come crashing down.

But why?

What would actually happen? The narrator is pretty vague about this. It just says “to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed,” and then explains how most people rationalize away their guilt by claiming that if the child was let out and allowed to live a normal life, it wouldn’t be that great of a life anyway, so might as well keep them in the dungeon so everyone else can live in this futuristic paradise. (Of course that’s bullshit, and the narrator might not believe that it’s bullshit, but Le Guin definitely does, and wants the reader to realize it, too.)

So when I saw the title “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” I was like, yes! Finally, someone’s going to fight the power in Omelas, free the child and start a revolution to take down the patriarchy or President Snow or whatever (sorry). This is the story I’ve been waiting to read without even realizing!

But I didn’t feel like that was what I read. At first.

I’m not one of those readers who believes that the author’s intent is irrelevant and that the reader’s interpretation is all that matters. If anyone could write a reactionary story that can stand alongside Le Guin’s it would be Jemisin. I think I understood what Jemisin was trying to do with this story, and I appreciated it as far as I understood it.

It’s revealed near the end of the story that Um-Helat is not in another universe after all, but rather the future of our universe, built on the ruins of our societies after centuries of war and upheaval. The Um-Helatian policy of eliminating anyone who has harmful ideas before they can spread is presented as an artifact of our time: “They did not choose this battle, the people of Um-Helat today; their ancestors did, when they spun lies and ignored conscience in order to profit from others’ pain. Their greed became a philosophy, a religion, a series of nations, all built on blood. Um-Helat has chosen to be better. But it, too, must perform blood sacrifice to keep true evil at bay.”

Maybe it was entirely my own fault for having predetermined expectations, but I didn’t feel like anyone really “stayed and fought” in this story. Much like in “Omelas,” “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” presents the status quo as the only way this city can continue to exist in its beauty and goodness.

But maybe that’s not inevitable. Maybe the true message of “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” is that we need to start NOW to affect change and enact justice, before it’s too late and we come to a point where even the most beautiful future would still involve senseless death.

Because what I came to realize is that “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” was never just about the abstract idea of a Utopia. It’s about privilege: racial, cultural, social, gender, any kind of privilege. Are we ok with living in a society that oppresses some for the benefit of others? And if not, what are our options? Will we walk away, or will we stay and fight?

Jemisin’s story ends with a call to action, and perhaps a calling-out of Omelas (that is the reactionary part), a challenge to be one of the ones who stay and fight:

“So don’t walk away. The child needs you, too, don’t you see? You also have to fight for her, now that you know she exists, or walking away is meaningless.”

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