Ursula K. Le Guin, a Remembrance
"At the moment, I tend to avoid fiction about dysfunctional urban middle-class people
written in the present tense. This makes it hard to find a new novel, sometimes."
U.K.Le Guin, 2015
I have eagerly read most of what Ursula Kroeber LeGuin wrote during her eighty-eight years. She wrote novels that reached deep into the genres of "science fiction" and "fantasy" –whether dystopian, utopian, magic, or poetry, what Margaret Atwood combatively called "speculative literature"—and emerged with jewel-like parables of human psychology and sociology. Her heart, intelligence and dedication to craft allowed her to hover over large questions, the big themes of human life. What actions could create space for peaceful community? Where does evil come from? Why are humans the only creatures on earth who are sexual (in "heat") every day of their reproductive lives? Fear, loneliness, contempt, self-reflection: what causes these themes to dominate people's lives?
One story she wrote marks itself indelibly on the minds of all who read it: "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas."
In it, there is a perfect city where all people are healthy and happy. Their laws are mutual agreements. Their enforcement is through skillful loving-kindness. There is little disease before natural lifespans are achieved, and their medical skills can treat--and cure if necessary and desired—pain, injury and disability.
In a deep cellar in the city, however, in darkness and chilly dampness, there lies a pathetic child whose mind is dysfunctional, retarded by the absence of social contact or kindness or comfort. Thin eerie wails could be heard if one were nearby. A feeder comes once each day to throw food scraps into the well. No one speaks of this child, but as they reach the age of maturity, at twelve or thirteen or fourteen , each young person is conducted to see the child they had no idea existed at the heart of their bright world.
They are each warned that this is a moment they are never to speak of. It is a condition, they say, it is needful. This is the price that is paid for their utopia.
And indeed it is never spoken of.
But from time to time someone, usually young, fills a bag with food and water, and turns her or his back on the familiar world of childhood, away from family, away from friends, in order to refuse a social happiness rooted in that suffering. A few others may see them go—and join them. One or two or three at a time, even more occasionally, turn their faces away and leave that home forever.
Thank you, Ursula: October 1929 to January 2018. Rest in the Peace. You have done good work.