Synopsis: The people of Um-Helat live in a Africanfuturism utopia – everyone is happy, people fly around with their wings, everyone is equally valued, life is full of you.
But dystopia is near, as that world is connected to ours, and curious people can eavesdrop, listen to our social media, watch our TV. This infects them, they turn away from their happy state and spread the bad ways like a virus.
People notice this, but they don’t ignore it or walk away – they stay and fight.
The story is a parallel to Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and a response or even rebuttal to it at the same time. Where people in Omelas ignored the scapegoat or walked away, Jemisin elaborated a third way.
The story structure, its narrative voice, and philosphical richness follows Le Guin’s one-to-one, and Jemisin adapted it where needed to express her own voice. Where Le Guin’s original was extrapolated from a U.S. point of view, Jemisin added her typical Africanfuturism flavor, first of all expressed in the city’s name “Um-Helat” which is just a variant of Omelas. Where Le Guin talked about religion and sex, Jemisin’s topic is diversity, including Karl Popper’s “Paradox of tolerance” to the discussion (the term is in fact directly addressed in the story):
This is the paradox of tolerance, the treason of free speech: we hesitate to admit that some people are just fucking evil and need to be stopped.
Jemisin’s story adds yet another take to the long tradition of teaching Le Guin’s story – I’m pretty sure that her solution has been found several times by a multitude of students. But I found it nice and entertaining to read her voice in the Omelas conversation.
There is also this interview with the author at Paris Review about her motivation to write that counter story in an endless stream of “Omelian” stories to fix that third way in a separate narration.
While hitting the original story’s topic askew, it inherited the deficits: it isn’t a story, has no plot, no protagonist. It is concept-driven per excellence. I’d be happy as can be, if it were authentic and original. But it is just an answer standing on the shoulder of a giant and doesn’t look much further. While Jemisin perfectly mimicked Le Guin, I’d rather read her own style.
In summary, we have a valid contribution to Omelas. Just do yourself a favour and read Le Guin’s story first.