When I finally got the brilliant and renowned writer Ursula K. Le Guin all to myself on a stage in Portland, some years ago, I asked her the question I’d always been longing to ask: “Where do the ones who walk away from Omelas go?” Tricky question! She changed the subject.
Omelas is one of Le Guin’s fictional “thought experiments”: a perfect city where everyone has a lovely time, but everyone also knows that the city’s fate rests upon a single child who is kept in a dungeon and horribly mistreated. Unless this happens, the city will fall. Think slavery in the world of ancient Greece and Rome, think the antebellum South, think people under colonial rule, think England in the 19th century. That miserable child in Omelas is a close relative of the poverty-stricken but threatening children who clutch at the skirts of the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” Their names are Ignorance and Want, and they are very pertinent today.
A wealthy city sustained by the mistreated — this is what the ones who are walking away from Omelas are walking away from. My question was therefore: Where in the world could we find a society in which the happiness of some does not depend on the misery of others? How do we build Omelas, minus the tortured child?
Neither Ursula K. Le Guin nor I knew, but it was a question that Le Guin spent her lifetime trying to answer, and the worlds she so skillfully created in the attempt are many, varied and entrancing. As an anarchist, she would have wanted a self-governing society, with gender and racial equality. She would have wanted respect for life-forms other than human. She would have wanted a child-friendly society, as opposed to one that imposes childbirth but does not care about the mothers or the actual children. Or so I surmise from her writing.
But now Ursula K. Le Guin has died.
When I heard that, I had an absurd vision based on the scene in her haunting fantasy novel “A Wizard of Earthsea,” in which the mage Ged tries to summon the spirit of a child back from the land of the dead. There was Ursula, moving calmly away down a hill of whispering sand under the unchanging stars; and there was me, distraught and running after her and calling: “No! Come back! We need you here and now!”
Especially now, in the land of normalized p---y-grabbing, the rollback of women’s rights on so many fronts but especially in health care and contraception, and the effort to squeeze women out of the workplace by those who, having failed to compete through skill and intellectual superiority, have weaponized their penises.
What would Ursula K. Le Guin have said about #MeToo and #TimesUp?
She had seen a similar explosion of women’s anger in the early 1970s, at the time of the second-wave feminist movement, a time of high creative energy for Le Guin. She knew where outrage came from: suppressed anger. In the ’60s and ’70s, that anger came from many directions, but in general from being treated as lesser — much lesser — even though the work done and the contribution made were as great, or greater. One of the first catchphrases of the day was “Housework is work.” One of the most resented quotations came from the civil rights movement: “The only place for a woman in the Movement is on her back.”
Anger was something that long puzzled Le Guin. In her 2014 essay “About Anger,” she writes, “Anger is a useful, perhaps indispensable tool in motivating resistance to injustice. But I think it is a weapon — a tool useful only in combat and self-defense. . . . Anger points powerfully to the denial of rights, but the exercise of rights can’t live and thrive on anger. It lives and thrives on the dogged pursuit of justice. . . . Valued as an end in itself, it loses its goal. It fuels not positive activism but regression, obsession, vengeance, self-righteousness.”
The long-term goal, the dogged pursuit of justice — that took up a lot of her thought and time.
We can’t call Ursula K. Le Guin back from the land of the unchanging stars, but happily she left us her multifaceted work, her hard-earned wisdom and her fundamental optimism. Her sane, smart, crafty and lyrical voice is more necessary now than ever.
For it, and for her, we should be thankful.
Margaret Atwood is the author of many novels, including “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Alias Grace.” Her book “In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination” is dedicated to Ursula K. Le Guin.