Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Fantasy and Science Fiction’s Most Acclaimed Potemkin Village

Let’s take a look at a signature story of the critically acclaimed award winning author.

Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all. For instance, how about technology? I think that there would be no cars or helicopters in and above the streets; this follows from the fact that the people of Omelas are happy people. Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive. In the middle category, however – that of the unnecessary but undestructive, that of comfort, luxury, exuberance, etc. — they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here, floating light-sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold. Or they could have none of that: it doesn’t matter. As you like it.

Is this supposed to be fantasy or science fiction…? Both…? Neither…?

Whichever way you look at it, it fails to deliver. As fantasy, you don’t get an actual magical place from a mythic past that could very well have been true. As science fiction, you do not get a far future society on a distant planet.

Le Guin doesn’t even go through the motions to create a transparent allegory. Gosh, the dreaded “message fiction” of today is actually a step up from this. All of the smarminess of an NPR radio essay is here, sure. But even the pretense of honest storytelling is gone. All of the skill and powers that fantasy and science fiction authors devote to their craft to create a sense of verisimilitude…? It’s not only dispensed with entirely. This story doesn’t even get the tongue-in-cheek cogency of a shaggy dog story!

I incline to think that people from towns up and down the coast have been coming in to Omelas during the last days before the Festival on very fast little trains and double-decked trams, and that the train station of Omelas is actually the handsomest building in town, though plainer than the magnificent Farmers’ Market. But even granted trains, I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells, parades, horses, bleh. If so, please add an orgy. If an orgy would help, don’t hesitate. Let us not, however, have temples from which issue beautiful nude priests and priestesses already half in ecstasy and ready to copulate with any man or woman, lover or stranger who desires union with the deep godhead of the blood, although that was my first idea. But really it would be better not to have any temples in Omelas – at least, not manned temples. Religion yes, clergy no. Surely the beautiful nudes can just wander about, offering themselves like divine souffles to the hunger of the needy and the rapture of the flesh. Let them join the processions. Let tambourines be struck above the copulations, and the glory of desire be proclaimed upon the gongs, and (a not unimportant point) let the offspring of these delightful rituals be beloved and looked after by all. One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt.

Talk about a product of its times. This comes off like some sort of brainstorm session for a horrible, bloated Robert A. Heinlein novel from a point in his life where he had the benefit of neither an editor nor common sense. But I have to give that dirty old man his due: he at least tries to get the reader to feel something, to vicariously share in his swinging concupiscence.

If you were going to be as charitable as possible, you might say that Ursula Le Guin wrote philosophy disguised as science fiction. But by the time 1973 rolled around, it’s clear that she just wasn’t that into keeping up appearances.  And compared to the truly great writers like Lord Dunsany, A. Merritt, Robert E. Howard, and C. L. Moore, it’s obvious that she could not keep up with the level of artistry expected of even the more mediocre pulp writers.

Of course when it comes to the effluent spewing forth from the establishment media on the topic of fantasy and science fiction, genuine brilliance, craftsmanship, and verve are not the criteria at all, are they?

If you have the right political bona fides, the accolades come cheap.

12 responses to “Fantasy and Science Fiction’s Most Acclaimed Potemkin Village

  1. Pingback: Sensor Sweep: Materialism, Le Guin, New Sun, and Rokugan –

  2. gary glittergold January 30, 2018 at 6:17 am

    you haven’t even read le guin? haven’t you?

  3. gary glittergold January 30, 2018 at 6:25 am

    and you understand that those two passages are literally better then anything written by authors you enumerate as better? le guin, in this story, clearly stands a ground in which genre literature transcends itself and in that way she is more akin to conservative gene wolfe and harrison (whose politics i don’t know or want to know about) then to any of the pulps you compare her with. you are the one with the ideological bias and lack of taste that goes with it.

    • jeffro January 30, 2018 at 8:29 am

      Oh yeah. “Smiles, bells, parades, horses, bleh” is the exact moment when genre literature transcended itself.

    • JD Cowan January 30, 2018 at 10:59 pm

      “genre literature transcends itself”

      In other words “genre literature was only made worthwhile by people who actively destroyed what people like about it”

      Genre literature already contained universal themes and depth that translates and transcends across mediums and time. It sure transcends fashionable political and social screeds that go out of fashion with the passing of years.

      There was nothing wrong with genre fiction until these people sought to destroy it.

  4. Bob W. January 30, 2018 at 8:17 pm

    In other words, he’s saying you’re to stupid to get her.

    And that you smell funny.

  5. jaynsand January 31, 2018 at 1:13 am

    You’re probably better off reading the story of hers that came out in Playboy….that is, if you’re genuinely trying to understand her appeal as a storyteller and not just looking for a reason to trash her as too political for your taste.

  6. Pingback: Bolshevik Marketing and Ursula Le Guin’s Subliterate Fans | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

  7. gordonclandis February 5, 2018 at 1:04 pm

    LeGuin wrote some really good stuff, I’d say. Also some odd stuff that wasn’t always to my taste (I never have been able to decide if I actively dislike Always Coming Home or if I’m just indifferent to its’ style). And it is EASY to see that some of her writing would not be appealing to every reader – like any good author, her response was and should be “that’s their problem, not mine.”

    It’s clear to me that she understood the value of other kinds of stories – it’s just not what she was doing, nor what she thought the world needed more of.

    Now, getting mad at people who use her/her reputation as a bludgeon for their agenda, or to somehow discredit huge chunks of work elsewhere in the field … OK, I can understand that. But she, and much of her work, is in my eyes simply admirable.

  8. atiliusregulus February 22, 2018 at 7:14 am

    I read The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas in 1988 as part of a Governor’s school advance discussion and philosophy class. i was appalled by the story. Sure Le Guin’s wordsmithing is masterful. Let’s give credit where it is due on her craftsmanship, but her philosophy pushed forward in most of her stories, especially this one was that of inaction and indifference. Oh, I know the story is suppose to be about this vast higher attitude toward rejecting materialism, and artificial happiness because it is based upon the suffering of one child. Well take the story exactly at face value, just as it is presented. She wanted the story to be vague in details to inspire some type of nebulous epiphany, instead i would say it is vapid sophistry. Those who chose to walk away are as evil as those who ignore the suffering. It is a story glorifying apathy to suffering. Rejecting the artificial happiness bought upon another’s suffering sounds noble, but is only a first step.

    I found the Earthsea two trilogies to be an interesting world building exercise, and always respected her writing abilities, but the morals of her stories throw the baby out with the bath water.

  9. Pingback: The One Who Milked Omelas For All It Was Worth | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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