A friend gave me a copy of Ursula LeGuin’s “The Unreal and the Real,” selected stories, Volume Two, “Outer Space, Inner Lands.” So far I’ve read (actually reread, since I read them when they first appeared) three stories. The first is “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” It’s an excellent example -- in fact, quite a well-known one -- of philosophical sci-fi in which a theoretical concept is made vivid by making it “real.” The idea of this tale is something like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” That is, social scapegoating. Punishing or depriving a minority for the sake of a majority.
In this version the little town of Omelas is happy, pretty, healthy, prosperous and all the other things that little towns try to be. But this is only because confined to a dungeon is a miserable little being who suffers on behalf of everyone else. The story was written twice, once in 1976 and then revised in 2001. The revision adds the “ones who walk away,” adolescents who -- with the awakening of their moral consciousness and realizing that a child is suffering -- simply walk away from the guaranteed happy town and never return because they cannot accept the arrangement. I feel confident that LeGuin rewrote this story in response to protests from her readers, many of them probably adolescents.
The second one is “Semley’s Necklace” which a paraphrase meditation on the kind of empire established in the great sea-going time when the European countries, desperately greedy for riches, sent wind ships out across the oceans -- some of them never to return and some of them to return years later after their families had died, their sponsors had been deposed, and everything had changed. All they had was gold and silver. It’s a template as old as Odysseus.
The third one is the most subtle, “Nine Lives.” At first it seems to be about a couple of those explorer anthropologists who went out to strange places in the 19th century, except that the classes that so obsess the English are now separated into biological species. One man is black and the other is an English type, as LeGuin puts it, products of cultural fairness which yields different results than simple evolution: sort of eccentric. Two of these equivalents to the Hudson’s Bay factors of the fur trade have been lonely fellow workers for a long time and are getting replacements. The new people, ten of them (five male, five female), are counted as one because they are clones. Except for the gender differences and slight variation in their training, they are identical and as splendid as the person Hitler wanted to be -- tall, blonde, beautiful, athletic. The story slides the reader into realizing that they are not content -- they are bored silly with each other because of their sameness. But the odd couple, who are so individually unique that they “spent seven hours out of ten misunderstanding each other,” in fact loved each other for their differentness, their “otherness.” And the clones came to love them, too.
So I think I’ll write an Ursula LeGuin story with a social lesson something like these. This one will be about a creature I’ll call the “Empathizer.”
She was a grayish, rather shadowy person who had the ability to slip inside people and feel whatever they were feeling. We’re always so curious about each other, but she could actually act on her curiosity and “be” them for a while. It was quite interesting but she learned to choose her “host” rather carefully. In fact, this could be considered a horror story -- from several points of view. But then, many sci-fi stories are ways to talk about horrifying things and even make them humorous.
One day she saw an old woman on a porch swing reading with her cat beside her. Obviously an intriguing identity to visit, so she slipped inside her mind and body, only to find that the woman was in chronic pain. But the Empathizer was curious about pain, so she stayed. In a while the old woman went into the house, took a handful of pills, had a simple supper, and took a nap. The woman went back out to the porch with the cat, but by then it was too dark to read. Shadows gathered in the woods near the yard and one by one they came to visit the woman, speaking quietly with her.
They were pariahs, all young. They were feral, not very mannerly and often snarling with rage. They demanded, they wept, they stormed, and sometimes the woman held them. In the end she would take paper from her big apron pocket and write (without any light) something she gave to them. Then the shadow would slip away and another would come. It didn’t even seem as though they walked -- more like they were on wheels but somehow able to glide across the spongy grass.
Inside the woman, feeling her intense empathy for these youngsters and feeling the writing -- though the words weren’t quite perceptible -- the “Empathizer” slowly realized that she had gotten inside a Writer. She should have known -- reading and writing are so intertwined that she ought to have known. Writers are empathizers so the “Empathizer” was feeling THROUGH the Writer to the insides of the visitors. They were in turmoil, almost too confused and unfocused to feel the pain from their obvious damage. But when they thrust that page of writing into their pockets, they seemed to be a little relieved. Finally she figured out that what was on each page was each one’s own story. The story recognized the suffering, gave it names, pointed out that they deserved to have relief, and suggested that they seek ways to join with others like them.
This was the kind of enlightenment the Empathizer appreciated but she thought that as soon as the Writer went to sleep, she’d just leave and go on to the next person. People are like books, she thought, and reading one made you want to read more. But she couldn’t get out of the Writer, even with the Writer sleeping. The cat felt the Empathizer struggling because it slept right up against the Writer. It sat up and watched and mewed a little, but didn’t intervene. In a while the Empathizer realized this was something she had never experienced before. Maybe she would stay.
In the next weeks the Writer felt a surge of energy and had many more ideas than usual, things she hadn’t ever thought about. She got a book about creative daemons. Then for a while she had Writer’s Block and couldn’t think of anything. She thought it was flu and then she thought depression, but it was really the Empathizer trying to get out again. In the end, because the Writer wasn’t going out to the porch to talk to the shadows, the Empathizer gave up and melded her identity into that of the Writer, for the sake of all of them: the suffering, the story-makers, and slow deep understanding that would one day change the world.