Le Guin signals that this is a fable or fairytale by opening with a utopian scene. She unfurls it with the flourish of a carnival, a Festival of Summer that brings out merry mothers, elders in stiff robes, and children whose high calls do no harm. There are horses, colours, ceremonial nakedness, numbered mountains and bells.
It’s familiar. It’s the archetypal virtuous kingdom in which women have no need to work, all men are created equal and serve their kings and masters humbly, everyone speaks the same language and (I suspect) shares the same delightfully pale skin tone. It’s the playground of that white supremacist nostalgia for a golden age that never was.
But then, without entirely shifting tone, Le Guin addresses the reader, who has begun to sink into a slumber, with a series of corrections. No king here, no slaves, no secret police. We are warned off the notion that happiness is stupid (pain is boring, she reminds us). She sets out to persuade us that her citizens are real, complex, honestly joyful, and, admitting limited powers, begs us to design our own perfect city, our own Omelas ‘as you like it’. She chats with us, takes us into her confidence. She raises fears and smooths them away, she weaves the ecstatic vision with lovely words.
And knowing she has failed she tells us the dark secret, the maggot in this shiny wholesome apple.
Le Guin laboured to make describing joy a confounding struggle, but from here she is running downhill; appeals to the reader cease, and in an almost audible breathlessness she lays out the injustice perpetrated and sanctioned by every member of the society. Most damningly, she describes the witnesses who have wept and brooded over the cruelty fashioning, in their discomfort, a narrative of denial. She gives this way of life its very best, yet wholly unsatisfying account:
‘Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science. It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children.’
But we aren’t alone with them. Among them are the ones who walk away from Omelas, the people who won’t accept paradise at the cost of a child’s torment, who won’t build their palace on bones. We can go with them.
Fables and fairytales are about ‘human nature’ and purport to be timeless, and to give lessons. They are dramas of power, passion or transgression where cultural values and norms are tested and enforced. The originality of this tale is that it takes an entire society to task (where were social services for Cinderella? Why are the ducks letting their kids bully this gangly cygnet?). It’s not about the good or evil acts of good or evil agents, but about injustice wrought by complicity and selfishness, a very contemporary problem that speaks to us directly and demands a response.
By breaking the structure (the plot of the story is derailed) of the fairytale, Le Guin calls on us to examine the metanarratives lurking behind mythical texts, questioning what they teach, and if necessary, to leave them behind.