Since its publication, much has been made of the connection between Schuyler Hernstrom's new post apocalyptic sci-fi novella and Ursula Le Guin's Hugo-winning short, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas."
I'll touch on that connection in a bit, but if you're still on the fence about reading this, let me help you out.
Do you like barbarians? How about motorcycles? Settings that feel like a combination of Vance's Dying Earth and Mad Max? Enjoy witty banter between two likable heroes? Do you like TALKING MONKEYS?
Then stop reading this review right now. Go to Amazon immediately, and buy a copy of "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City."
If I could describe this book using only one sentence, it's like somebody spilled Jack Daniels on a stack of old Heavy Metal magazines with Motorhead blaring in the background. It's random pages from Gary Gygax's Appendix N, screamed out loud over the analog hiss of a bootleg Manowar tape. It's D20s rolling across the cover of the Player's Handbook, with a blacklight illuminating the Led Zeppelin poster on the wall and Black Sabbath's Sabotage playing on the hi-fi stereo.
It's the sort of gonzo, kitchen sink science-fantasy mashup that made old school D&D so balls-to-the-wall awesome.
Bottom line, this story flat-out fucking rocks.
And if none of that convinces you to buy this book, then gentle reader, I don't think I can help you.
Like all of Hernstrom's work so far, "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City" is actually easy to summarize. Northern barbarian Mortu and his companion Kyrus—a human priest trapped in the body of a monkey—encounter a swarm of desert nomads attacking a caravan. Mortu swings into action, saving the caravan and its precious cargo. The pair are then invited back to the White City, the mysterious, ancient ruin the travelers have taken for their own. The barbarian and the small monk accept, grateful for the rest. But the seemingly utopian society the travelers have built in the White City holds a dark secret.
If you're familiar with Le Guin's famous short, you can already guess at the nature of that secret. If not, well...
I'm about to go into it, so from here on out the review will CONTAIN MAJOR SPOILERS, both for "Mortu and Kyrus" and for "Omelas."
"The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" is more of a parable than a story. Wikipedia calls it a work of "philosophical fiction," which I guess is a good enough description. There are no characters, no conflicts, little else except the setting, and even that's kept deliberately vague.
In it, an omniscient narrator describes the city of Omelas as a perfect society, one in which everyone is happy except for one small child. That child is kept in a basement, abused, half starved, and suffering. The suffering of the child is somehow tied to the happiness of everyone else. If the child is ever shown kindness, ever taken out of the basement, ever so much as washed to clean his or her own excrement off, then everyone else in the society will be unhappy. The narrator describes how the citizens of Omelas find various ways of justifying the child's suffering as "necessary." The exceptions, of course, are the titular "Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," those who learn of the child's suffering, cannot abide it, and leave the city forever.
Quite honestly, I never understood the appeal of Le Guin's piece. It struck me as a half-assed attempt at presenting an ethical thought experiment, like the trolley problem. And when I say half-assed, I don't mean the writing. Le Guin is pretty much beyond reproach in terms of prose.
I mean it's half-assed in the construction of the ethical problem.
The moral dilemma presented in "Omelas" is simple and straightforward: preserve utopia by permitting the unspeakable suffering of one, or relieve that suffering and destroy utopia?
The problem I always had with "Omelas" is that those two things are in no way equal, at least not in the way the story lays them out. No indication is given that the citizens of Omelas will suffer genuine consequences if someone helps the child. No one will die. No one else will be tortured. The only consequence is that their idyllic perfection will vanish, and they'll somehow be "unhappy."
I could honestly never see the moral dilemma there, even as a teenager. Choose between vaguely defined happiness and torture? What the hell is there to think about? Torturing the kid is wrong. Full stop. End of discussion. Jesus, how is this even a question!?
Well, Hernstrom plays with a similar set-up in "Mortu and Kyrus." But in my opinion, he does something infinitely more interesting with Le Guin's premise.
Scratch that. He does two things:
The first is that he gives a reason for the citizens of the White City to engage in the horrific torture of the child, as well as real consequences for them should the torture ever stop.
As Mortu and Kyrus learn, the ancient architects of the city left behind advanced technology. Chief among the relics is a machine capable of rendering those within the city immortal, but it does so by painfully draining the life force of one person over the course of several years. The citizens of the White City purchase orphans from nearby settlements to feed the machine, rationalizing that the life of one unwanted child is a small price to pay for their own god-like existence. If the machine ever stops, their immortality ends, the centuries will catch up with them, and they'll die.
It's an important change. With something more on the line than "happiness," the torture and brutality take on a more realistic, believable dimension.
The second interesting thing Hernstrom does is that he actually answers the moral question Le Guin never really got around to presenting.
See, the trolley problem forces the subject to choose between two unspeakable wrongs. It's a true ethical dilemma: which of these equally awful things is the "right" choice? "Omelas," on the other hand, presents us with a clear right and a clear wrong, and then pretends its asking a deep question by rigging the answer.
What do I mean by that?
Le Guin only ever tells us about two groups of people: Those who stay in Omelas, giving tacit consent to the torture, and "the ones who walk away." The sight of the child shakes them to the core, they cannot live in such an awful place, so they leave.
But the ones that walk away are just as guilty as those who don't. They're still allowing the torture of the child to continue, only they can partly absolve themselves of responsibility since they're not enjoying any of the benefits.
Even so, given the choice between "vaguely-defined happiness for the many" and "objectively measurable torture and child abuse," literally everyone in the story chooses child abuse.
This is another reason I've never gotten what people see in this story. For all that "Omelas" is touted as some deeply philosophical think-piece, it's really not much more than a nihilistic statement about human nature.
Sorry, but I already get enough of that outside my fiction.
Fortunately, there's absolutely none of that nihilism on display during the climax of Hernstrom's tale. Instead, the author gives the only answer to Le Guin's question that I ever really believed in. Not only does Mortu save the child and ensure the destruction of utopia, he gives that destruction a head start, taking up his shield and his battle axe, and killing anyone who comes within reach.
Just prior to writing this review, I re-read "Omelas" to reacquaint myself with it. This quote particularly stuck out:
"They did not use swords, or keep slaves. They were not barbarians."
Contrast that quote against Robert E. Howard, one of Hernstrom's biggest cited influences. Howard's main recurring theme was civilization's corruption and decadence, as opposed to the savage but straightforward barbarians on the fringes.
On this re-reading, Omelas struck me as the ultimate expression of the decadent, corrupt civilizations Howard's barbarian heroes rail against. A perfect and peaceful veneer, hiding a rotten core. But if Omelas is the ultimate expression of decadent civilization, the bloody path Mortu carves through the White City is the ultimate refutation of it.
Schuyler Hernstrom sees our Ursula Le Guin. And he raises us a Robert E. Howard.
"Mortu and Kyrus in the White City" is available on kindle for $0.99.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.