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Nov 12 2011

Saturday Storytime: The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

John Scalzi mentioned this story earlier this week, in his post on the Penn State football rape debacle. It had been a very long time since I’d read it. It was time again.

When I was in the same room as Ursula Le Guin, my brain simply refused to accept the fact that it was happening. I’ve met New York Times bestselling authors, chatted with them about dogs and refrigerators. Being starstruck doesn’t happen to me. But there was a woman who has, perhaps more than any other, perfected the art of using the unreal to tell us about ourselves. Just right over there. And that was itself completely unreal.

He finishes, and slowly lowers his hands holding the wooden flute.

As if that little private silence were the signal, all at once a trumpet sounds from the pavilion near the starting line: imperious, melancholy, piercing. The horses rear on their slender legs, and some of them neigh in answer. Sober-faced, the young riders stroke the horses’ necks and soothe them, whispering. “Quiet, quiet, there my beauty, my hope…” They begin to form in rank along the starting line. The crowds along the racecourse are like a field of grass and flowers in the wind. The Festival of Summer has begun.

Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.

In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is.

The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room, a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect.

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