Many people are writing just now about Ursula Le Guin, who died on Monday, and her many works. As my own small tribute I will say that she was the author of two of the best short stories I’ve ever read, not just in SF, but in any genre, each in its own way as near perfect as a story can be, yet very different from each other. One of them is ‘Semley’s Necklace’ (aka ‘The Dowry of the Angyar’), the other is ‘The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas.’ (If you don’t like spoilers of any kind, best not to read the following, although I’ve tried not to be too specific.)
‘Semley’s Necklace’ draws on the Norse myth of the Brisingamen necklace, which belonged to the goddess Freyja (itself a favourite of mine). But Le Guin transposes it to an interplanetary setting and gives it an entirely science fictional twist based on the extreme time dilation that is predicted by the theory of relativity when a starship travels at near light speed. Although she herself comes from an aristocratic background, Semley feels inadequate by comparison with her husband’s people, who are wealthier than her own, and sets out to recover an heirloom that belonged to her own family and will, she believes, put things on a more equal footing. She succeeds in her mission, but tragically fails to understand the implications when told she can reach it in a journey that will only last a single long night. The story is very human, genuinely tragic, and at the same time utterly science fictional in the best possible way, melding its very different elements perfectly. And the plot, the structure, the pacing: well, it simply doesn’t get any better.
As to ‘The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas’: it’s sometimes said (and I agree) that, in SF, the world functions as an additional character, but in this story, the world is the main character with the only other real character being the narrator. There is no dialogue, and no one is introduced by name. The story is simply the description of Omelas, a wonderful city, a beautiful and tranquil place, which is introduced to us as its citizens are celebrating the first day of summer. Indeed the narrator, in a way that reminds me of a move made by Jane Austen once or twice, at one point invites the reader to add details of their own to make the world as much to their liking as possible. Of course, it does feel too good to be true. The narrator acknowledges this but then adds a devasting twist which suddenly makes Omelas seem all too real. It’s an extraordinarily original and very disturbing piece of writing.