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Farewell, Ursula Le Guin, who taught us to walk away from Omelas

Commentary: The popular science fiction and fantasy author leaves behind thought-provoking works that will be read for years to come.

Ursula Le Guin
Ursula Le Guin, shown at her Portland, Oregon, home in 2005, died Monday at age 88. 
Dan Tuffs/Getty Images

Ursula Le Guin died on Monday at age 88, the New York Times reports, and the beloved science fiction and fantasy author's fans were quick to mourn her loss online. 

Le Guin wrote novels, poetry, essays, children's books and short stories, including the Earthsea series and the Hugo- and Nebula-Award winning novel "The Left Hand of Darkness." In 2000, she was honored as a US Living Legend by the Library of Congress.

Born in Berkeley, California, just a week before the stock-market crash of 1929, Le Guin was the daughter of an anthropologist and a writer. The combination came together in her work, which blended the fantastical and the universal. 

The Times quotes her as scorning science fiction early on because the genre "seemed to be all about hardware and soldiers: White men go forth and conquer the universe." Her own aim was different from the start. "As an anthropologist's daughter, you look more from the point of view of the conquered," she said.

Her characters were never the straight-from-central-casting heroes. In "The Left Hand of Darkness," people are neither male nor female. "I eliminated gender to find out what was left," she wrote

And they were diverse in other ways. "White is not the norm for me, or equivalent to being human, as in so much of the fantasy I read," she once said. "I made a conscious choice to make most of my characters people of color."

Le Guin didn't write down to children, and when they discovered her books, often as much-loved paperbacks on  library shelves, they developed a loyalty to the author with the impressive and unusual name, and never forgot her.

One of Le Guin's works taught in many schools is her 1973 story, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas." (Omelas, reportedly, was a twist on Oregon's capital city of Salem, spelled backward and with an O added.)

So short it can be read in 15 minutes, the story is both so clear it can be understood by a 9-year-old and so deep and wrenching entire college papers are written on it.

In the story, the breathtaking seaside city of Omelas is celebrating its summer festival. There is music, there is joy, everywhere there is happiness. "Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time," Le Guin writes.

But there is one catch: Omelas exists as it does because one child is locked up in a basement room, suffering. It is not loved, it is barely fed, it is afraid of the dirty mops in its nasty room, it is occasionally kicked. 

"The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes," Le Guin sketches out bleakly.

It's a deal, she explains, that all the people of the city understand. They live so well because this child does not, and they will not trade their privilege to relieve this child's torture. This is the deal they have made, and mostly, they choose not to think about it, to enjoy their own benefits and sweep their minds free of the suffering.

It is not hard to make the leap to a reader's own life, however privileged or deprived it feels. This is doubtless why it makes for such fiery debate in college classes. We all could do more for the poor, we all know that there are mental bargains we make in this complex world. But without a writer like Le Guin, we rarely have to confront them in such unblinking terms. The trip to Omelas, once a sunny city of fantasy, has slowly turned dark.

In true Le Guin fashion, the story has no easy ending. The child is not rescued. The people of Omelas are not forced to face their devil's bargain. 

But here Le Guin winds up her story with the simple power of a master. Sometimes, some people, once they have seen the child, do not stay in the town that holds it prisoner. Her story, like all good science fiction, creates a world that is like ours but not, and then forces us to confront how similar the two worlds are. There are different paths we can walk, and we have the choice.

"They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back," she writes. "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."