One of my friends has gone through a deeply unpleasant divorce and continues to struggle with custody, and an unfortunate thing that I keep observing is that it’s almost impossible to write civil law around people whose main interest is making other people miserable. Almost every piece of family law assumes that people will act in their own interest or, if they are parents, ideally at least somewhat in their child’s interest. Structuring a law that will protect the vulnerable and allow for people in the structurally identical role who are purely destructive forces to not act destructively is incredibly difficult.
Which, given what I do for work, makes me think of dystopias. And specifically it makes me think of what I do and do not find interesting in structuring them.
There’s a certain school of writing, of teaching writing, that claims that we’re all the hero of our own story, and sure, I buy that, but that doesn’t mean that we’re all heroes with great or even good motivations–even internally. Not all of us even bother to lie to ourselves about our motivations. There are people in the world like my friend’s ex who will be very up-front about their desire to hurt. They are, however–and let me be very clear about this–quite boring. They are boring in real life. They are not particularly more interesting in books.
So if you choose them as your core dystopian power structure–if the heart of your dystopia is that some genuinely mean jerks have come to power, not because of an ideology or a clear set of concrete goals beyond themselves but just to screw with people in ways that aren’t even all that effective compared to what they could do if they were more rational–well. I can’t tell you that never happens, can I. But for me–for me personally as a reader–the fact that it’s real doesn’t give it a lot to grab onto. Especially if there’s a speculative element to the meanness.
Here’s where “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” contrasts for me with N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season–where they’re not doing the same thing and not trying to. The children in torment in the former are in torment for the sake of the point being made. (Perhaps that point is walking away from utopia in fiction writing. There are worse points, if so.) But it is not, I think, intended to be practical; it is metaphorical, poetic, nonlinear. You are not supposed to be able to draw a line between the single child’s suffering–and the next one when it dies, and the next–and what, exactly, about that suffering makes Omelas a supposed paradise. It Just Does. In The Fifth Season, on the other hand, it is very explicit, very extremely clear, how the suffering creates–not a paradise–but a livable society–what the consequences would be for ending it. What is being purchased and at what price.
There is value in making a general, stirring point, in rallying people to the cause of Goodness And Truth In The Larger Sense. But it’s also pretty easy. Not…not as easy as we would have hoped, is it? “How do you feel about Nazis?” is supposed to be the canonical easy question: I AM AGAINST THEM. Still. Still, even with people failing easy mode, this is easy mode. Pushing a bit harder on people, handing them a decision that’s made for heartbreaking reasons instead of dreadful ones, giving them characters who are trying to figure out where their compromises become counterproductive instead of characters who never had any morals to compromise…that’s not the only reason to write dystopia. But it’s a pretty solid one.
Last week one of my friends was saying on Twitter that he wants more of basically everything, more variations at every scale, so that there are more chances for it to lead to something cool, and I’m with him on that. And I think this is where the mechanism of Omelas comes in: I, personally, tend to default to thinking that it matters how and why your dystopia exists and is maintained. I tend to think that’s relevant to its stories and its downfall–on average. But there are going to be times when you have a particular story that is just not accounted for in the laws of people behaving according to their own interests. Or when that just can’t show up in the story, when the story is very short or very distracted into something else quite specific. It’s worth asking yourself about the mechanism of Omelas–you can wind up with a geologic masterwork like The Fifth Season. But occasionally the answer to that question is nope, nope we’re not answering the mechanism, the thing I’m doing is worth doing without poking at how. And that’s okay too. Some people will–yes, sorry–walk away from it. But–variety, more, more. Humanity is impossible to account for under one set of “I’d like to see more of” or “I really prefer it when.” So is its fiction.