One of the things I love most about fiction is the way stories talk to each other. I don’t mean when one story is told in response to another, although I love that too, from the most intense scholarly research down to the silliest fanfic and memes. I’m talking about the internal conversation that happens inside our minds, when we experience one story in a way that makes us think about another, encourages us to reconsider our previous experiences, and reveals interpretations and possibilities we hadn’t thought of before.
Best of all is when that connection takes us by surprise. When two stories that don’t necessarily have any natural connection to each other show up in the shady dive bar of the mind, eye each other warily across the darkened room, and there’s a spark of recognition, a mutual eyebrow raise of, “Huh, I didn’t know you hung out here.”
Consider Ursula K. Le Guin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” Since its publication in 1973, this story has become part of the literary ecosystem, especially (but certainly not exclusively) in SFF. It’s an odd little piece of philosophical fiction, not even 3,000 words long, that sets up a thorny moral and ethical problem without offering any easy answers. Literature and philosophy students have argued about it for decades, and there are several works of art that reference it directly, ranging from direct responses such as N.K. Jemisin’s “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” to interpretative allusions such as the BTS video “Spring Day.”
Here’s a quick refresher: The story describes a summer festival in Omelas, a city full of beauty and joy, unburdened by suffering and sadness. But somewhere in that city, in a windowless broom closet in a damp cellar, a single, malnourished child is locked away in the darkness, never to be released or treated with kindness. The child’s existence is not a secret. Every adolescent in the city is shown the child and told about the terrible bargain that underlies their society: “…their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”
It’s not until the very last paragraph that we meet the people of the title, the ones who choose to leave the city entirely rather than live in such a system. The story refuses to allow the possibility of changing the system—a deliberately rigid binary that frustrates readers to no end, because the questions it raises cannot be brushes away by the narrator’s assurance that this is how it has to be. Do people really have to suffer for a society to function? Who makes that decision? Why can’t the rules be changed? How complicit are those who stay? What good does leaving do? Why can’t we fight? What happens if we give the kid in the closet swords for hands?
Right. About that.
Let’s switch gears for a moment, to a piece of fiction that is, as far as I know, completely unrelated to Le Guin’s story.
The 2019 anime Dororo is based on a manga by legendary mangaka Osamu Tezuka that was first published in 1967-1968. It takes place in a fantastical, monster-filled version of Japan’s Sengoku era and tells the story of the young orphaned thief named Dororo who befriends the mysterious ronin Hyakkimaru. When they first meet, Hyakkimaru is completely hidden behind a mask, cloak, prosthetics that conceal swords, and swaths of bandages. All of this is to hide the fact that he has no eyes, no ears, no mouth, no organs, and only one limb, but is still a terrifyingly effective warrior with superhuman strength and speed. (Because magic, yo.) He doesn’t even have any skin—not until (in the first episode) he kills a demon that’s causing trouble, after which he grows skin.
Dororo, who is extremely clever but also has very few options for surviving in a world that is relentlessly cruel to orphaned children, takes one look at this terrifying swords-for-hands teenage warrior and thinks, “I like him. He’s going to be my best friend.”
Which is, yes, completely adorable, as well as the root of the whole mesmerizing tale that follows. The anime is beautiful, the characters are complex and fascinating, the story is brutal and sad and funny and heart-wrenching in all the right ways, and all of it has so much going on that I still think about all the different layers months after I first watched it.
One of the layers I am still thinking about is how Dororo is addressing the same thorny moral quandaries raised in Le Guin’s Omelas story: the questions of who is expected to suffer for the success of a society, what that suffering does to both individuals and communities, and what happens when somebody decides to break that social contract rather than submit to it.
We learn right from the start what’s going on with Hyakkimaru: he’s the firstborn son of a warlord named Daigo, who offered up a sacrifice to demons in exchange for power and prosperity. The trouble is, Daigo kinda sorta forgot to specify exactly what he was willing to sacrifice, so the demons took his newborn son’s limbs, face, senses, and organs—but not his life. When Daigo gets a look at his infant son, instead of being horrified by the price of his demonic deal, he basically says, “Ugh, gross, get rid of it, we’ll have a better son next time.”
So the baby is set adrift in a river and rescued by a man named Jukai, who gives him prosthetics, teaches him to fight and survive, raises him, loves him. They discover that if Hyakkimaru kills one of the demons who took his body parts, he gets that body part back. Thus Hyakkimaru sets out on a quest to kill monsters and take back what was stolen from him.
What Hyakkimaru doesn’t know is why the demons took his body parts or what happens when he kills those demons. He doesn’t know why his life is the way it is. He doesn’t know who is responsible. Through a series of tragedies and the world’s most unpleasant family reunion, Hyakkimaru learns—and we learn right along with him—that killing the demons breaks the bargain they made with Daigo. And that means removing the protection that bargain provided. For the last sixteen or so years, Daigo’s lands have been spared much of the war and disaster that surrounds them, but once Hyakkimaru starts killing the demons that changes. Landslides and drought beset the villages; neighboring warlords gather armies to attack; the period of relative peace and prosperity comes to an abrupt and violent end.
Thus every character in the know faces the same question all the people of Omelas face: what do you do when you find out peace and prosperity are built on intense suffering?
Daigo answered that question for himself years ago, when he decided that he was happy to sacrifice his infant son; Hyakkimaru’s mother resigned herself to it, not happily, but not fighting against it either. Hyakkimaru’s brother—the one who was born to replace the child Daigo tossed out like so much trash—is absolutely horrified when he learns what his father did, but eventually comes to believe that the bargain must be maintained to protect their people.
But not everybody comes to the same conclusion. It’s worth noting, as well, that life under demonic protection is far from perfect; the demons’ ideas of protecting a place tend to mean restricting themselves to a smaller number of victims, but that number is not zero. Nor has everybody benefited from Daigo’s bargain, as it affects only one region in a time period that is literally defined by widespread war. Upon seeing the destruction caused by defeating the demons, Dororo does ask if they are doing the right thing—because Dororo is a war orphan who knows suffering intimately, and because the demon-killing quest is obviously having a terrible effect on Hyakkimaru himself. Likewise, Jukai questions Hyakkimaru’s actions not because he thinks the bargain should be preserved, but because he’s afraid that the boy he loves as a son is letting violence and anger eat him from the inside.
The one person who doesn’t entertain the question is Hyakkimaru himself.
Hyakkimaru’s quest is not a pleasant one to be on. In fact it is often horrific for him. He doesn’t feel pain until he gets his central nervous system back, after which he feels pain all the time. He suffers debilitating sensory overstimulation when he gets his ears back and can hear the world for the first time. He learns the hard way that flesh-and-blood limbs are a lot harder to replace than prosthetics when a demon bites them off. As soon as it becomes apparent what he is doing, his family—who he never had a chance to know—immediately pull out all the stops to try to kill him.
But none of that matters. Hyakkimaru doesn’t have to ask what he should do. He has never enjoyed the supposed peace and prosperity the demonic bargain provides, but he has very much endured the suffering that paid for it. To him there is no real choice at all.
I love this. I love the way it gives such strong voice to a character who doesn’t say much of anything in words, and not just because of the narrative commitment to bodily autonomy—there is no question that Daigo bargained away something that was never his to offer—but because of how Hyakkimaru’s perspective reveals how utterly empty the question is in the first place.
In Le Guin’s story, the world of Omelas is carefully constructed—via a narrator who knows we won’t believe this construction—to strip away all choices but two: stay and change nothing, or leave and change nothing. That it’s a false choice is obvious immediately, particularly when the narrator tells us about the justifications used to maintain the status quo. The people of Omelas, you see, convince themselves that this one cruelty is not only necessary, but is in fact the reason they can be such good and happy people. Misery and suffering are ennobling—so long as it’s not their misery and suffering, but somebody else’s. Not only that, but they convince themselves that there’s no point in freeing the child:
But as time goes on they begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom: a little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no doubt, but little more. It is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear.
While the choice between staying and walking away gets the most attention, it is this justification has always struck me as the true rotten core of Omelas’s social bargain. And it really is rotten, as well as uncomfortably familiar in how closely it echoes political and social rhetoric we hear in real life: why give the poor money if they’ll only waste it on drugs, why give the unemployed jobs or the homeless houses if they won’t be grateful, why gives kids an education if they’ll only grow up to question us? Why give any vulnerable person what the rest of us already have if we’ve determined that they don’t deserve it and won’t appreciate it?
The people of Omelas, living their full and joyous lives, can decide if that’s something they want to ask. The narrator can ask it of the visitors. The people who choose to stay or walk away can ask it of themselves and each other. The readers can ask it of themselves.
The only person who doesn’t get any sort of say in the matter is the child.
Because when you do ask the child, all of the cruel, flimsy excuses propping up the city’s happiness crumble to dust. Letting the child have a say reveals that everybody who benefits from this system and lets it stand is a version of Hyakkimaru’s terrible father, who both subjects his son to the torment and convinces himself there is no other way. Nobody wants to cast themselves as the terrible father who sacrificed his son to demons, just as nobody wants to cast themselves as the festival-goers of Omelas who dance and sing while a child trembles in a damp cellar beneath their feet. But the deeply uncomfortable truth is that it doesn’t matter if we want to see ourselves that way or not.
Even Daigo comes to understand the choice he’s made, in the end. Even he eventually admits that maybe he shouldn’t have outsourced his duties to a bunch of demons. Maybe he ought to have instead chosen to be a good father and a good leader, to raise both of his sons well and take care of his people himself, to put the work into finding solutions to hard problems.
As soon as you let the child speak, you have to admit that there was never a real choice between staying to do nothing and leaving to do nothing. The third choice has always been the only real choice: find a better way.
Kali Wallace studied geology and earned a PhD in geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. She is the author of science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels for children, teens, and adults. Her most recent novel is the science fiction thriller Dead Space. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Asimov’s, Tor.com, and other speculative fiction magazines.