Short Story Reflections: Omelas
Before you read today's short story reflection post, you should read Ursula K. Leguin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" and Isabel J. Kim's "Why Don't we Just Kill the Kid in the Omelas Hole?" as this post has heavy spoilers for both. Plus both are brilliant.
Short Story Reflections: Omelas
Omelas is a seemingly perfect place where everyone is fed, content, and happy. Children have idyllic childhoods and adults never have to worry. When new people come, or children come of age, they are taught the truth: all of this happiness depends on the suffering of one child. This poor child is kept in a hole and feels unimaginable pain, forever. Like Dorian Gray's portrait, this child bears all the sins and horror, so everyone else can live a wonderful life. Some people cry, but continue to stay in Omelas, but others will leave Omelas and never return.
As a white person in the Western world, I know that the society I live in has been built by breaking the backs of others and the continued suffering of "the child". The only thing is in our Omelas, we can't walk away. Where would we go that isn't more of the same? How would we live? Our society is constructed so that the average person like me, can only do so much.
Isabel J. Kim's "Why Don't we Just Kill the Kid in the Omelas Hole?" explores what would happen if someone took radical steps to try to fix this problem. A group breaks in and kills the ever-suffering child. The moment he dies, disasters strike. People grow angry, homophobic, typhoons, and earthquakes ravage the land, so what do the Omelans do? Throw another child into the hole. This sparks an endless cycle of activists (terrorists?) breaking in, killing the child, only to have another child thrown into the hole. Even when they catch and execute the murderer, it does not solve the problem. The citizens of Omelas and people outside the city, debate, discuss, condemn, rant, and, ultimately, do nothing. The activists think they are helping the child, while the Omelans are focused on the "greater good".
No one rescues the child.
No one works on a way to keep Omelas safe without a suffering child.
They just point fingers and shake their fists.
And the children keep suffering and dying.
It feels almost ludicrous to point out the meaning behind these metaphors because it's so obvious. If the first story put me into quiet contemplation, this one is even more disturbing. Le Guin's story brings to light that we are in Omelas (well except those of us who are the child), but Kim's story takes it further - when people think they are "helping" - are they really? Or are they just making it worse? In the original Omelas, only one suffers, but in the new cycle of violence, everyone suffers.
Missing from this new cycle are the thoughts/desires of the people at the center of everything - the children. I imagine a third story where the children begin to speak up and fight back against the endless suffering they endure. The activists cheer at first, until the children (rightfully) point out that they are not their allies. Their solution is murder. That's not better. Some of the activists listen, while others switch sides and start to blame the children. They argue that the children deserve to suffer because there is something wrong with them. That they belong in the hole.
That's what's happening in some parts of our society right now. The oppressed speak up and demand that everyone else stop torturing and murdering them (metaphorically and literally) and we are witnessing a cruel backlash against that from some factions. If there is no child in the hole, then they have to face hardship and endure their own suffering. For people who have never experienced that, it's terrifying (not that I'm condoning the backlash - far from it - just explaining it).
But, pain and hardship make us human. They make us stronger and adaptable. Without work and some struggle, we are complacent and dormant. This concept can be seen in other stories. Think about the soft future people in WALL-E, who don't get better until they get up and work together, or how in Inside Out, Riley only achieves real growth when she finds a way to process her sadness and grief alongside her joy.
Does that make the child the strongest of them all? They have borne all the suffering. No, because there is a different between hardship and growth, and trauma, especially trauma with no end. People can recover from trauma, but not if they are trapped forever in the hole.
So, what do we do?
First, we help the children out of the hole. We listen to what they have to say. And then we work to find a way to exist with no one in the hole.
Because just walking away from Omelas doesn't help either.
Isabel J. Kim's "Why Don't we Just Kill the Kid in the Omelas Hole?", Clarkesworld Issue 209 – February 2024Isabel J. Kim's Website