Short Story Saturday: “The Ones Who Stay And Fight”

Well, folks, last week I said I’d talk to a story written as a response to Le Guin’s “Those Who Walk Away From Omelas,” and that time has now come. Today, I’m going to talk about N. K. Jemisin’s story, “The Ones Who Stay And Fight,” published in the collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?

“The Ones Who Stay And Fight” starts out fairly similarly to “Omelas”: a city, this one called Um-Helat, is preparing for a festival called the Day of Good Birds. It largely seems to involve people wearing wings and feathers, or not, if they don’t want to. It goes on to describe a society that seems to be perfect. Like Omelas, there is no want, racism, sexism, greed, or other issues that plague our current existence.

The story, however, maintains that this was not always the case, and that children are educated on this at a certain age. Basically, there are a number of ruins and artifacts that indicate a war at some point in the distant past, particularly old missles and silos. So the idea here is that people have actually learned from their past and have moved away from all this.

Um-Helat, however, does have one thing that Omelas does not: a link to our world. Not through travel, but rather from Um-Helat receiving broadcasts and such. And intercepting and listening to our broadcasts is highly illegal, because it might cause certain ideas like capitalism and racism, etc., to take root and that would ruin basically everything.

And it’s here we get to the meat of the story. A small group that the story calls “social workers” is called to a house where a man has listened and started to spread those ideas. As this is a capital crime, they put him to death. Quickly and painlessly, but death nonetheless.

It turns out, however, that they did this in front of his daughter, who is none too pleased and vows revenge upon them. You might think that this would lead to the child’s death, but Um-Helat doesn’t roll that way. Instead, the social workers take her into custody, and plan on explaining to her why this happened, as well as why the ideology her father was telling her is wrong, in the hopes that she understands.

The story then ends with a call to not walk away from injustice, but to actually work to end it.

“The Ones Who Stay And Fight” seems to be the paradox of tolerance in action; in fact the idea is mentioned in the story by name. This concept, which was coined by philosopher Karl Popper in 1945, basically states that in order for a society to be truly tolerant, it cannot tolerate intolerance, since the intolerant would then have an in to fuck it all up for everyone else. It’s related to the old adage that if you have a table with ten people, and one of them is a Nazi, then you have ten Nazis.

This seems to be how Um-Helat has solved this problem, albeit in a rather extreme fashion. Now, I don’t think Jemisin is advocating for killing people who hold hateful ideologies, but that the killing of the father is a metaphor for stamping those ideologies out.

Now, to compare this with “Omelas,” one of the first major differences you’ll notice upon reading is the length. “The Ones Who Stay And Fight” is over 1000 words longer, and I think this is largely because we get a little bit more detail about Um-Helat than Omelas. “Fight” also seems to be a bit more hopeful than “Omelas.” The latter seems to suggest that there’s no real way to build a utopia (or at least something close) because there must be suffering somewhere. The former, however, suggests that such a society is attainable, we just have to put in the work.

Which, honestly, is an idea that I find a lot more comforting.

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