Friday, June 25, 2010


Coda: A Play in One Act

(a post vaguely in the style of Acephalous *)

[A MAN and A WOMAN are at the science fiction section of a Barnes & Noble. A MAN is 45-ish and is dressed in the drabbest possible outfit of undecorated T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, A WOMAN is apparently in her 50s and is in a dress and sandals. They have just done that strange social interaction in which two people who don't know each other happen to slowly walk through the section, peering at the titles, more or less at the same speed and in the same direction. Although they are 3/4 of the way through, neither of them is holding a book.]

A MAN: Whoever's been buying science fiction for this store hasn't been doing a very good job.

A WOMAN: [looks displeased, makes hand motion to encompass shelves] Yes. It's ... too many vampires. There shouldn't be so many things with vampires, you know?
There should be, well, real SF... I like Neil Stephenson.

A MAN: [slightly encouraged] You know who you might like? Adam Roberts. He's a British writer. He's pretty good ... um, his day job is as an English professor. So, you know, he knows how to write. **

A WOMAN: [nods] Robert Adams you said?

A MAN: Adam Roberts.


[A MAN realizes that this Barnes & Noble has no books by Adam Roberts.]

A WOMAN: Robert Jordan. I really, really like Robert Jordan.

A MAN: Mmm-hmm!

[Both turn back to the shelves. Boggled, A MAN covertly glances to see if a liking for Robert Jordan means that she's wearing anything that might indicate that she likes to be spanked. She's leaning forward to see the books with her hands behind her waist, wearing many fake-gold bracelets. Hmm.]

* If this really were an Acephalous post, it would be better written and would include not only a claim that this really happened, but would also be followed by a claim that there is some kind of ill-defined documentary evidence that it really happened. This did really happen, although I of course have no documentary evidence.

** I am fully aware that being an English professor does not mean that one knows how to write.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

Encouraged by a comment of Adam Roberts' on my last post, I'm going to write more about the Ursula Le Guin short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. Here's a link to the full text of it, for as long as that lasts.

It's a difficult short story for me to look back at. On the one hand, it's an artistic and moral failure -- one that I recognized, instinctively and angrily, the first time that I read it as a young teen. On the other hand, it deals with the aesthetic and moral issues that I've been concerned with my whole life. Therefore, it stands as a particular sort of symbol, not only a personal one, but also for an American left that has largely been a failure at articulating the very same problems over the period since the mid-70s.

1. Bland utopias

"Yet I repeat that these were not simple folk, not dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians."

That's what Le Guin tells-not-shows us. But what does she actually show us? The first paragraphs of the story show people, in theory, but they are people statically going about their roles, sprinkled with authorially desperate adjectives that try to spice them up just like the scenery. Then Le Guin tells us that she is struggling to describe happiness, and brings us through a number of attempts. Coyly, against what she calls her own puritanical thoughts, she tells us that if we like we can imagine these people having sex and drugs. (Therefore prefiguring pretty much all of Iain Banks.) Is there any human contact in the sex described? No.

"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."

In other words, for these semi-divine already half in ecstasy souffles, who you are and who they are doesn't matter in the least. You consume them, just like food, and there isn't any person-to-person contact at all, no like or dislike, no relationship however brief, no growth.

Does anyone say anything to anyone else in Omelas at all? Well, there is one direct quote (other than the words of the child, which I'll get to later.) "Quiet, quiet, there my beauty, my hope..." -- That is said to who, a lover? No, a horse. The only human speech of these great people is said to a horse, before a race. A race which is prepared for, but which never occurs in our sight, because everything is static.

Le Guin refers to this very problem:

"The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can't lick 'em, join 'em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe happy man, nor make any celebration of joy. How can I tell you about the people of Omelas? They were not naive and happy children--though their children were, in fact, happy. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched. O miracle! But I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you."

But she can't. Why can't she? Well, in part this is a general problem, one which the left has struggled with for a long time. How can you describe utopia without making it sound boring and lifeless? In that sense, it's a universal problem. And the more-or-less acknowledged failure of the artist is also universal. It's what I call the problem of Demiurgy, the consciousness -- especially within science fiction, in which the world needs to be built as well as the people -- that the creator must work within human limitations, must be in some sense a failure. (Here Le Guin prefigures China Mieville, who would like to describe life after the socialist revolution but who really can't, since he feels that you can only describe it after you've lived through the transformation of it, and who must therefore freeze his revolution in The Iron Council and kill the scapegoat character who froze it.)

But Le Guin has her own particular problems. After the bit about sex, she writes: "One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt." Really? None at all? That's a picture of inhumanity, of people without a core human emotion. And of course there is guilt in Omelas; the entire story ends up being about guilt. But perhaps she means merely sexual guilt. Still, though, it just doesn't work: every relationship, since we are mortal, means less attention paid to some other relationship. Even in utopia, there is going to be the guilty feeling that in being with someone you're ignoring someone else. To speak nothing of those people who wouldn't be, even in utopia, quite as vanilla as all that. Le Guin has a particular failure here as well as a general one.

2. The Ones Who

The second half of the story is about the abused child whose existence in some way permits the existence of the city of happiness. And here's where the authorial lies pile up really quickly. In essence, I think that this whole section comes down to flattery: self-flattery of the author smoothed over and made attractive through flattery of the reader.

The child is maximally sentimental. Its only speech is "'I will be good, ' it says. 'Please let me out. I will be good!'" This child can't curse its captors, in fact, it cant' really say much at all, as Le Guin closes down anything else with "It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect." It speaks less and less often, she tells us.

How do people react to this simplified figure of pity? They get disgusted, angry; they feel shocked and helpless. Then they rationalize it away -- with a particularly bad rationalization that I won't bother to quote -- since doing anything for the child would magically destroy the happiness of Omelas. And therefore their frustrated sympathy makes them compassionate, makes possible the nobility of everything else that they do.

That might be an interesting ending for this story. Those people are so disagreeable, aren't they? And they are us, of course, minus the bit about the nobility. Because if you're allowed to see the child as plural rather than singular, and as adult as well as childish, this is a story about the middle class and its dependence on the many others who make possible their lives.

But no. There are individual heroes in this story. They take action. They are the only ones who do anything, in fact.

"At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or a woman much older falls silent for a day or two, then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman.

Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow- lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas."

Perhaps, re-reading this, the story would not work after all without this lie. Because this is the ultimate fantasy, isn't it? Just walk away! The people walking away may not know where they are going -- the author certainly doesn't -- but they are clearly better than any of the people whose happiness is dependent on those horrible rationalizations about their scapegoat.

What else is noteworthy about them? They are alone. They are "the ones who". They don't have a revolution, or an uprising, or even a communication with any other person. They just individually vanish from society.

Le Guin offers this fantasy to the reader -- these are the only active people in the story, and therefore invite reader identification. So of course the reader would be one of them. The reader would be one of the virtuous, risk-taking people who walk away from boring happy lives that are based on exploitation, even though they don't know where they're going. In this Le Guin echoes a whole host of bohemian fantasies that the children of the middle class hold. And as the author offering this to them, Le Guin is making herself something wonderful, giving her readers a momentary feeling of wonder and escape. Not being an authorial failure at all, right?

This short story, with its central lie, really does hold something important about our time. Le Guin wrote, in part, in reaction to a "Golden Age" of SF that I now find pretty much unreadable. She's one of SF's best writers, and some of her work is undoubtedly going to survive. But some of it is going to join what it reacted to as works that can no longer really be read.

Update: a similar read here, as linked to from here. One of the things that I didn't make clear is how Omelas stays with you. Or of course I made that clear, with this post and the last, still arguing with a short story read decades ago. It's worth arguing with: so many short stories are not.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Ones Who

for Michael Bérubé

Hello in 2010 this is the poem     
This is the poem     
That argues (isn't that annoying?)     
They were the ones who walked away     
From Omelets no Omelas stupid story     
There was a perfect city and     
There was an imprisoned child and     
The first depended on the other     
The child can't really talk     "feeble-minded"
You know how that goes, don't you?     
You know how that goes in stories     
They're always sweet angels or perfect sad cases     
And at the end some people walk away     
They walk away from Omelets     little oubliettes
     every village has one
Where do they walk to, these good people?     
The author can't describe that place it must     
Exist oh yes the world being Omelas would     
"It is possible that it does not exist"     
But they know where they are going, do they?     
The world being Omelas would be     
When you leave a place you find another place     
Just like the first     not that hard to say
The world being would be     go around, return to start
     do nothing, you do your part
     you can't walk away
The world being Omelas, no, omelets     
No one got that big O after all     
We have lots of broken eggs. All over!     
We make that omelet every day     
Middle-aged people with children     
Like you and me, that's what we do     
If we didn't try to say "Look, a broken person!"     
"There's been a break!" then those deaths would     
Be for nothing     
It would be     
A waste     
     The transformation of waste is perhaps the oldest
The transformation of waste     pre-occupation of man
There must be a way to take the remains     
And make it whole (again?)     
And make them whole again     
Oh shit     
Here's how the second story goes     
And it's even true!     
Once there was a country (and we know,     
We know better than to say exceptional)     
But a country in which some suspects were     
Prosecuted justly. It was back in 2001     
     that there were 2 million people in prison   
Back in 2001 that prosecutors tried     
terrorists justly     
     and two years later six hundred thousand   
genuine and legitimate! There was credibility     
and integrity, then there was a radical break     two years later we built a mountain
That hasn't been fixed but we can     of six hundred thousand skulls
Yes we can     
They were good people, the prosecutors     
And did good, civilian trials are good,     
And that's what goodness means in an omelet     
It means that you can make more good omelets     
And all of us would like to be good     
And that's what good does it makes it good     
For the people who say that we are good     
And since we are good      can't stop cooking, can't step back
We can build a city on a mountain     eggs arrive, already cracked
     making omelets, nowhere to turn
     all you can do is LET IT BURN
No, we can't let it burn     
The fire if it comes would be darkness not light     
And anyways, middle-aged people with children,     
We may not be good but we persist     
We're not allowed to give up     
     the transformation of waste
So yes the transformation of waste     
People like the lie that once we were good     
Before the break and so we will tell that lie     
And maybe that will get them to be good     
The living are more important than the dead     
Well, the woman I knew from El Salvador     
Isn't really dead but whatever!      
I'll go and say that once America didn't torture     
Or rather that we didn't torture openly and     
Formally and perhaps that made a difference     
To her when she heard the head torturer     
Speaking English-accented Spanish     
And I'll go spit on the grave of a Salvadoran child     
(Well not the grave, they never found the body)     
Who was tortured (more tolerably?) by proxy     
What's a little spit?     yeah, you and what spitting army
That's a problem.     
Does anyone really care what we say?     
The One who matters says America doesn't torture     
And that's how it is     the first lie of Omelas: there's somewhere to go
     the second is that these are children, you know
Does it matter what we say?     
We aren't rescuing children      
They aren't children in our prisons      
(Well yes some of them are) but the bad scary     
Terrorists that our America depends on     
That America depends on to make us feel good     
Are doing what people always do in prison,     
Or when they hide out in the hills somewhere,     
People who can talk: they are writing,     
Writing that our system is unjust     
And I think that they don't really care about     
Our noble, useless spit     
Or are we lying for America, for "us"?     
I'd rather not lie then kthxbye     
The third story is mine I don't see why not     
Poetry in the first person is annoying but it is mine     
why should I care about truth     the truth will never really set you free
and the lying homilies we tell about truth     it's what you do that matters, not what you see
     see what you like as long as you're yoked
My daughter's 1st grade teacher waves an     and speaking truth to power is a joke
American flag for the class, teaches a song     
And my daughter sings John Lennon's "Imagine"     
At the music festival two massive lies all lies     
You can say there are dreamers, they are not     
The only ones, but there are so many more      
People dreaming approvingly     
Of hellscapes she could not even imagine     
I lie to her too     
I tell her that things are basically going O.K.     
Maybe when she's older      
I'll tell her that there was a radical break     
Just before she was born     
When we formally approved of torture     
And there's still the hope of fixing it     not even Obama can strangle hope
Why should I care? It's a hobby I guess. Like      no this is a lie too why not admit
Science fiction. Not everyone has to like it.     there don't seem to be many chances at all
     since no one knows what will make the thing fall
     might as well not be lying when standing in shit
     since none of us knows what the future will bring
"Freedom never existed     I can still be attached to true naming of things
And there's even less of it now"     
Freedom is what we take, or make     
While we frolic around the junk pile     memories of garbage cans and
It's not what we're given, formally     memories of garbage
Not in Omelas     
If one of us sees someone about to be thrown      
To Moloch then sure, say any lie you like     
About how we used to not throw people     
To Moloch quite in that way     
(Yes not formally a lie, formally true)     
And if it works, great!     
The living are more important than the dead     
We are the people who persist     
We never give up     Did this poem work? Was my sense preserved?
But the omelets are still being made afterwards     America, you get the fucking poets you deserve
And I don't think it's a contrradiction     I don't have the time for any more tries
To say that someone was saved from the frying     Even the best of us can only apologize
With our talk of fair trials this once     When my kids ask what I did in this time
But really we'd be better off without it     I'll say that I laughed and made a stupid rhyme