The Omelas Connection
Posted on November 11, 2011 Posted by John Scalzi 27 Comments
At least a few people have pointed me in the direction of this SFGate column by Michelle Richmond, which uses “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” as a metaphor for what happened at Penn State. Ms. Richmond’s article was posted after mine and thus folks are wondering if that constitutes her taking my idea and if they should be outraged on my behalf.
Folks, thanks, but no. When asked about it in her comment thread she says she didn’t see my piece before she wrote hers, and there’s no reason I can think of to doubt her; you know, not everyone in the world reads me. Also, “Omelas” is a classic science fiction story, and it would be genuinely surprising if I was the only one to have thought of that particular story in connection to the Penn State events. It’s entirely reasonable to think two separate writers would write two separate, unconnected articles with it as a theme.
In other words: it’s a coincidence. These things do happen sometimes.
I don’t buy that it’s a coincidence.
Unless “great minds think alike” counts as a coincidence.
It’s not a coincidence in that “Omelas” is an obvious parallel, no. It’s a coincidence in that two people can come to the same conclusion independently, and write somewhat similar pieces with Omelas as a major theme.
John, that was a compliment. And kind of teasing at the same time. “This is because you are smart and so is she.”
Oh, I know. And thank you.
Thank you, John. I found your piece through the comments section on my blog after I had posted my piece about Penn State, and I like yours very much. I appreciate your coming to the defense of a fellow writer. I assure you that I didn’t see your post or hear of it before I wrote mine. As I mentioned in my response to commenters on my blog post, I’ve taught “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” many times in undergraduate literature and writing classes, and it automatically came to mind when the scandal erupted, because to me it is a very clear parallel. As you note, it’s surprising that more writers haven’t mentioned the story in connection to Penn State, not to mention another famous story, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. At least I’ve been alerted to a great blog to follow! All the best, Michelle
You’re welcome, Michelle, and likewise, a really excellent piece on your part.
Folks, if you haven’t clicked through to check it out, do so. Well worth the time.
For anyone who doesn’t buy it, here’s a sci-fi related analogy:
In 1979, Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Fountains of Paradise’ was published. A few months later, Charles Sheffield’s ‘Web Between the Worlds’ was published. Both novels centered on a space elevator, each book had as main character the world’s leading bridge-builder, and each one employed a device known as a Spider.
Coincidence? Yes, and Clarke wrote an open letter from him to the Science Fiction Writers of America stating that coincidence, not plagiarism, lay behind the fact that two books were to be published in 1979 with strikingly similar themes.
A far greater coincidence than what Mr. Scalzi relates here, I’m sure you’ll agree.
So…as was brought up on the previous thread here.
While we all can accept Scalzi and Richmond coincidentally writing on the same theme…
Can the parallels between LeGuin’s story, and the Doctor Who episode “The Beast Below” be coincidental?
It’s obvious what happened here, John had a vision of Michelle’s post, and thus inspired he wrote his own. Thus this is proof of precognition. :)
Thanks to you both.
We should all thank whatever powers have given us a talent with the ethics, humanity and wisdom of Ursula K. LeGuin. And with her extraordinary capacity to express her values.
Knitting great Elizabeth Zimmerman had a wonderful term she used for this sort of thing – ‘unvent.’ She was talking about knitting techniques she came up with (and she was fantastically creative and inventive) but the world of words and stories and ideas is probably of even older vintage than that of creating cloth.
‘One un-vents something; one unearths it; one digs it out, one runs it down in whatever recesses of the eternal consciousness it has gone to ground. I very much doubt if anything is really new when one works in the prehistoric medium of wool with needles’. – Elizabeth Zimmerman in Knitter’s Almanac
Wait, what? The proper response to coincidence on the Internet is… RRRRAGE!
Or, you know, polite acknowledgement of the coincidence. But mostly RRRRAGE!
In my view, having read both posts, it’s a coincidence in the same way that two writers use the same idea as the basis for their stories. So I agree with Jeff @10:32 11-11-11. You reference it more briefly than Michelle does, using it as an analogy and concentrating on the hierarchy of behaviours that should be used in such (horrific) circumstances as at PSU. Michelle interweaves her post much more closely with the Omelas story itself. Both posts are well and passionately written, which perhaps matters more.
Oddly, on all these posts, I’ve been subconsciously replacing the word “Omelas” with “Omerta”. Which, sadly, still fits.
As for the previous threads: 600+ posts and WordPress Pro is choking? Screw ’em. Back to work on scaling the backend, boys…
That this kind of coincidence of genius can and does happen is one of the roots of a whole lot of trademark and copyright stupidity; namely, the “What’s mine is mine, what looks kind of like mine is also mine and you can’t have it,” flavor of rights grabbing associated with a particular large software corporation about 10-15 years ago (and which is widespread.) It’s a systemic weakness in our (particularly but not exclusively US) current notions of intellectual property and the laws and customs around that.
This space is probably not the right context for me to go into a big dissection of that (and I’ve got to go set up for a church fair today anyway, so I don’t have time to write one right now), but that was the first thing that came to mind.
This is what happens when people are literate.
Clearly, something must be done!
“When it’s steam engine time, everyone invents steam engines.”
“Most depressing Muppet song EVER.”
If this happens a third time, it means enemy action is afoot.
I was a little disappointed by the number of passive-agressive comments left on Ms Richmond’s article.
Scalzi-fans: I’m sure we think of ourselves on the whole as one of the smarter and more sensibly behaving communities on the internet. Border-line accusing somebody of plagiarising one of our host’s pieces when there’s no evidence they did makes you look bad, and by reflection makes us all look a little worse. Please don’t do it.
[Deleted because posting the same comment on multiple threads irritates me. Troy, you must be new to this whole commenting thing. Comment once, comment on the appropriate thread, and if there is not an appropriate thread, or if that thread is closed, consider e-mail — JS]
My first thought after hearing about Penn State was “Of course they didn’t report anything…” I’ve known for a long time that the ivory tower has a blood-soaked interior. So when I read your header “Omelas State University” I knew immediately you were writing about Penn State, even though I’d forgotten I’d ever read “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (I was in grade school when I did, so the slip isn’t as bad as it could be when it’s been 30 years or more.)
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and “The Lottery” are both stories that I read as a child that were formative. They’re also the reasons that I came in swinging when faced with a similar, but not nearly as horrifying, situation.
Hey John, you gonna post an update with the latest revelations from McQueary?
You know, the one where he claims to have stopped the rape and called the police?
I told you you were possibly jumping the gun. If what he is now saying is true my “appalling” argument (which was presented as a thought exercise rather than a defense) actually didn’t go far enough in exculpating the AD.
The fact is you went off on the guy working from incomplete information. He may well still deserve it, but neither I nor you really have a god damned clue about it.
“If what he is now saying is true my “appalling” argument (which was presented as a thought exercise rather than a defense) actually didn’t go far enough in exculpating the AD.”
Actually, no. Your appalling argument over in the other thread still remains appalling, although your retroactive “I presented it as a thought exercise” ass-covering here cranks its appalling aspects up to eleven, so thanks for that.
The e-mail in fact suggests McQueary had no doubt what he saw, and also appears to confirm that what he did not do is intervene to physically remove the child from a harmful situation. And thus we’re back in the same boat we were before.
Your desire to re-write what your argument was, and to revive it after the other thread was closed, suggests that you’re more interested to scoring rhetorical points to make yourself feel better after being rightfully thumped for your bad argument, than understanding that your argument was, in fact, bad (appalling, actually).
It’s still appalling, and now you look silly, and as I think you’re interested in arguing to win rather than having a discussion, you’re off this thread now. If you respond, it’ll get deleted.
I’d just like to ask this: what’s more likely, that McQueary lied to the GJ when that could get him charged with a felony, or that he’s lying now, when it can get at least some people thinking better of him, and have no legal consequences whatsoever?
Has to be one or the other, since his testimony to the GJ and his statements now are in essential conflict. And either way, he’s a lying sack of shit. But I’m more inclined to believe his statements under threat of prosecution than his statements under threat of basically nothing.
John, please do not hesitate to delete this if it’s a conversation you don’t want to have here.
I in fact don’t want to have this conversation here; it’s not on topic to the entry (which to be specific is about me denying someone else plagiarized me in any way). So let’s not have any follow-ups, please.
[Deleted — JS]