Our Omelas

NOTE: Bit of a ramble here. Basically I had to get my thoughts out following the tragedy. Hopefully they make sense.

Speculative fiction has some strange ways of impacting real life. Sometimes it’s an immediate identification with a character, or a setting invoking wonder beyond anything we as readers have imagined.

Sometimes it takes a tragedy for us to understand what it meant.

In the wake of the Christchurch shootings, there is so much that leaves me numb and bewildered as to how this could happen. As I type, the count is at 49 people. All dead because the peacefully attended to their faith.

Full disclaimer: I’m not a New Zealander, and have never been, though I would very much like to visit. I’m not Muslim either. I shouldn’t have to explain why I still care for these people, but for the benefit of the few, I will explain.

Those who died are people. I don’t like it when people die. Even when terrorists are shot or killed, I’d rather mourn the necessity of the kill than the deaths. Call me delusional if you like, but I’d rather wish the situation leading to the conflict never arose than celebrate a victory that involves killing.

But I digress. The people who died today, their deaths were completely unnecessary. Their deaths came directly from the actions of a terrorist. An Australian terrorist. Which leads me to the second reason I care.

I am Australian. I served, I vote, and I partake in the flux that is society.

I live work and breathe in the same culture that grew and nurtured this terrorist.

That is where Omelas comes in.

For those who haven’t read Ursula K Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, here’s the condensed version.

  1. There is no plot or protagonist. It is entirely setting and theme.
  2. Omelas is a wonderous place of health, happiness and sunshine.
  3. The cost of this is a child, tied in a cell that no-one speaks to or has anything to do with, bar feeding and watering (it’s much worse than this, but this is the short version)
  4. The child is innocent. It is not a punishment, it is a sacrifice. They scream, they cry, they hurt.
  5. Every person in Omelas knows this sacrifice.
  6. Everyone who stays in Omelas ignores this sacrifice.
  7. The Narrator walks away.

I thought I knew Omelas when I had a good job that provided for my family and had me lined up for promotion in minimum time. Provided I went along with some things I was not at all comfortable with.

I walked away, head held high, ego intact, washing my hands of all they did.

But after today, I’m not so sure I’ve left Omelas. We have a Senator blaming the victims for their own murder. We have a video and manifesto that people keep sharing. We still live in the same culture, the same world we did yesterday, and tomorrow many people will keep living their lives and slowly forget because it doesn’t directly impact them.

I don’t think Christchurch will be able to do that, and if we ever considered our relationship with New Zealand to mean anything, then we shouldn’t either. There needs to be something. I don’t know what, but something that changes or these types of terrorist will continue to breed their hate.

Anything else is reinforcing our own Omelas – a place we can live and breathe in peace and prosperity, as long as someone else pays the cost, regardless of however innocent they are.

I think, and dare I critique a legend of literature, this is the only thing Le Guin got wrong.

The narrator walked away, and that was enough for them.

But Omelas still existed. It still stood on the suffering of the innocent and exploitation of a the Other.

We can’t walk away and expect our Omelas to disappear.

What we need to do is change. Fight Omelas in a way that might lower our standard of living, or make our lives a little less comfortable. Maybe its confronting a group, or maybe it’s simply reaching out those suffering for it and offering a kindness. I don’t know.

The important bit is that we do what we can to change our culture as a place that allows people like this to grow. That allows them to represent us in the Senate (or anywhere else, for that matter).

In my opinion (and another disclaimer: I nearly failed my History degree, so I apologise in advance if I get some details wrong), there is a great example of how to change this from 4th Century Rome. The Emperor, Julian I, wanted to turn the empire back to Paganism. His biggest frustration was that Christians maintained popular support because gave charitably with no expectation of return.

I know there are plenty of opinions on modern Christianity, and some reading this aren’t in the slightest bit Christian, but the main point is that their weapon was in eliminating the concept of the Other. They served everyone. They helped everyone. They build a community around looking after each other and for a time.

Again, maybe I’m delusional, but I can’t help but think this might be decent way forward. Look after each other. Helping where we can, and making the Other feel safe and cared for. To make them ‘us’ not by changing them, but by expanding our own concept of who we are as a culture.

I doubt it will be that easy, and no matter what we do, nothing will eliminate what has happened today. It’s made even harder by the fact that sometimes, being a decent human being is synonymous with making ourselves a target for terrorists, and honestly I don’t know how to deal with those people from a cultural perspective. Some of them would rather be an Other than be part of a functional society.

But they are individuals. We need to fight our Omelas, and eventually these individuals will become fewer and fewer as their support dwindles to nothing.

It might take years, generations, or ideally overnight. But it won’t start unless we change how we interact in and outside our own cultures.

We can’t just show some sympathy and move on. The victims, their families, and those still at risk deserve better than that.

We need to fight our Omelas for their sake, and for our own.

My deepest sympathies to New Zealand, to Muslims, and anyone else impacted by the tragedy. I promise I will fight our Omelas to make us better, and you safer. I hope I am not alone.





Why Speculative Fiction Matters

You know that person who once they start talking about a topic, they don’t shut up? That’s me when it comes to speculative fiction. I love it. New worlds, situations impossible in our current existence, imaginative exploitations of tech – it’s fantastic (no pun intended).

But it is essentially a lie.

That’s not to say it’s inherently dishonest, but as fiction authors we are telling a story that never really happened. Tyrion Lannister, the Halfman, is not a real person, Isengard doesn’t exist, and kids that run into train station columns don’t get transported to a magical platform – they get a concussion.

As writers of the genre, we tell of things that never happened. We tell lies, and that’s ok.

Now a bit about me.


As a history grad, a published author in the field of intelligence and ethics, and formally employed as a fraud investigator and military officer, my tolerance for such lies might seem counter-intuitive.

However one of the other things I love about speculative fiction is that good spec fic uses those lies to distil and examine a single truth. By framing it in a world of lies – creative, imaginative, and wonderful lies – works of fiction can focus themselves on a distinct and simple truth, and if done well, can show the debate leading to such a truth from both sides.


artists use lies
Image: http://www.picturequotes.com/


Take Tracy M. Joyce’s Altaica and Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor for example. Both imagined worlds, imagined threats, and imagined cultures. How then, using characters that still are not real people, can such novels connect with its audience?

The only way it can do this is by representing something that resonates with readers. In this case, the experience of the outsider, of the refugee, of defining their uniqueness, and how they are treated even in the most dire of situations.

That, along with a few other thematic concepts, are the truths that Joyce and Townsend begin with. By framing it all in fictional worlds, the authors can mould theme places and situations to emphasise these truths. In the end, it is not the fictional components of the characters, or a mysteries of a newly created world that hook us as readers, though they certainly help. To get a reader hooked properly, there needs to be a connection that the reader relates to. That can only be done is through a concept from our own world, through a thematic truth.

Plenty of readers would have experienced what it’s like to be seen as different, and known something of the effort and journey to be accepted or to get to the point at which acceptance no longer matters. That journey towards finding your tribe, so to speak.

Had these stories been set in Sydney, and about a similar struggle brought on by the Global Financial Crisis, aside from being a very different story.

Don’t get me wrong, these stories have their place and in the end many readers will prefer such stories. After all, reader enjoyment trumps all. But for me, the ability to manipulate an entire universe to inform and focus on the thematic truth is an amazing and powerful way to shine a light on something that may otherwise get glossed over. For me, it makes that truth more powerful and makes the novel far more meaningful. When the protagonists’ worlds – relationships, culture, and magics – are all geared to make them an outsider, this is what I connect with.

I think part of this comes from my own worldview as well. We are in a highly politicised era at the moment. This means that no matter what side people are on, there is often a focus on not being wrong, rather than being right. That means pointing out the other person’s mistake rather than admitting our own, reconciling our position with the facts, and moving on.

We are also in a time in which the media, our public fact presentation and checking engine, are focussed on being first rather than being accurate.  This is not an attack on the media either, as they are under immense pressures to produce articles and content with fewer resources and tighter time frames. There are some very good journalists out there, but a simple check of the spelling in news articles these days will show that pressure. The ‘need it now’ push means less fact-checking and editing. Mistakes are made, not just in spelling (which really doesn’t matter as much as the story), but also in the very ‘facts’ presented.

Add to this the information glut we live in, where there is so much information available to us, there is usually enough ‘evidence’ to support multiple, contradictory options.


abe lincoln
Image: http://www.dontgetcaught.biz/


To use the needle in a haystack metaphor, if digging to the truth a few decades ago used to be just like that – finding a needle in a haystack – then now it is searching a thousand haystacks for a thousand needles. Except it isn’t a matter of one needle per haystack. And there are located in a thousand different locations. And there are fake needles among them too. And the haystacks are on fire.

What fiction does, particularly speculative fiction, is basically cut out the crap. When the plot, characters, and setting are all fake, the only thing left to connect to the readers is to get some sort of truth in the themes. Even better, by knowing that most of it is a lie, the only question the reader really gets to ponder at the deeper philosophical level is that truth. Get rid of the haystacks, essentially, and instead of looking for the needle, have it presented to you.

It might be pushing the metaphor a little to discuss it any further as a needle, but the beauty of great fiction, be it speculative or otherwise, is that it will present the truth to you. Not as an absolute believe-or-you-burn kind of way, but as a debate, consistently showing the virtues and weaknesses of all sides, and leaving it up to the reader to decide which is the best interpretation.

Plenty of people will still enjoy non-fiction and other forms of fiction, and in the entertainment industry of which we are a part, this is paramount. But for me, I enjoy the exploration of concepts and distilling of truth that is critical to the spec fic world. It challenges us by throwing a truth directly in your face and creating a world and story specifically designed to challenge the reader. I have a passion for learning, and for distilling truth. So these ‘lies’ used to emphasise a truth? That is why I love spec fic. That is why it matters to me.

~ Nathan