In high school, I stumbled upon an extracurricular group called Truth Seekers, billing itself as a philosophy club. I was immediately interested in any group built on discussion and debate, mostly because I had come to love the sound of my own voice (an embittered love I cling to often times today). It was run by a very educated man named Robert Wimer, though most of us merely called him Bob. He had a sincere love for thought experiments, especially ones brought upon by popular culture. Through those four years of Truth Seekers, it became an annual tradition to read and analyze a short story by Ursula K. Le Guin called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”.
Omelas, as the story says, was an idyllic town with a Utopian manner, a paradise of suburban happiness with minimal crime, discontent, or depression. The residents performed their jobs with a sincere sense of duty and few questioned the sense of delight their lives brought them. However, this happiness, as it often does, came with a severe price. As any resident of Omelas came of age, they were brought to a bunker below a remote building within Omelas. They were shown a child living in a closed-in basement. The child is weeping in agony, rolling in their own filth and visibly ill and malnourished. They are given meager rations to keep them alive, but otherwise their existence is one of turmoil, pain, and isolation. After being shown the child, the young Omelans are told the very existence of such a perfect land as Omelas is dependent upon this child’s suffering. If a new child were not offered up or the present one was stolen away, the town would become a barren wasteland of crime, death, and universal angst. While many residents successfully dilute their memory enough to go on with their daily lives — knowing full well they benefit from the tragedy of an innocent child — there are the few who choose to leave Omelas, preferring not to have their lives depend on such a horrid purpose.
I hadn’t much cause to remember this story until this past weekend, when my girlfriend and I took her 11-year-old son, a video game addict, to see Disney’s new CGI film Wreck-It Ralph. For the unfamiliar, the film follows the adventures of the titular Ralph, an 8-bit video game villain bent on proving his innate goodness and worth by fighting through other arcade games to earn a medal, something his disparate video game co-workers have assured him will give him self-worth. Along the way, he finds himself in a candy-themed racing game called Sugar Rush, a near-knock off of Mario Kart. While stuck there, he meets the acerbic and childish Vanellope (pronounced to rhyme with Penelope), a glitch in the game who merely wishes to prove her own worth by competing in a race but troubles with some graphical skips which she adorably entitles “pixelexia”. Sadly, the other residents of the kingdom of Sugar Rush push her aside and do all they can to refuse her entry. And while other characters can move about the arcade as they please, a glitch such as Vanellope is stuck solely within her world, unable to escape. Vanellope spends her days hiding in Diet Cola Mountain, living in trash with little sustenance or companionship but with the full knowledge all within her world find her existence a mistake at best and a pestilence at worst.
Chief amongst these residents is King Candy, a flamboyant regent who rules over a land filled with anthropomorphic taffy, chewing gum, Oreo cookies, and doughnuts. After Ralph has helped Vanellope build her own kart with which to race (as well as tighten her driving skills), the King confronts Ralph with a reality of being a sweetened ruler. If Vanellope were to enter a race, the King proposes, she would immediately become a playable character. After players found her glitching as they surely would, the arcade machine they reside in would be labeled “Out Of Order” and unplugged. While the other subjects of Candy’s kingdom would be forced to live in Game Central Station (a surge protector treated like a train station for characters within the arcade and where we see a displaced Qbert panhandling) and beg for food, Vanellope’s status as a glitch means she could not escape the machine and, once it were unplugged, she would be erased from existence.
While Ralph debates within himself what King Candy has told him, I could not help but be brought back to those conversations of Omelas. Were Ralph to help Vanellope become a playable character, it would mean the death of her and the desolace of thousands of hard candies and chocolate drops, each with their own desires of happiness, as well as the death of Vanellope herself. Helping her to escape her torrid existence would mean millions of lives ruined along with her own life lost. Should Ralph stop Vanellope, crushing her newly-made kart along with her dreams? Or should he take the inherent risks and allow this one child to achieve a life without the pain she’s always known? Ursula K. Le Guin said she was inspired by a quote from 19th-century philosopher William Blake about Moore’s Utopia and whether “millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture…how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?” Should Ralph leave Sugar Rush and achieve his meaning elsewhere or stay and help this one lonely child?
Now is the time I should put a bright and blatant Spoiler Alert.
Ralph buys the King’s speech, destroying the kart he helped Vanellope create to save both her and the residence of Sugar Rush. However, he soon finds out the King has fooled with the very code of the game (accessed by the legendary Konami code) to make Vanellope, once a Princess who ruled over the kingdom, a pariah so he himself could take over and become a main character. Ralph then helps Vanellope against great odds to rebuild her kart and win the trial race, allowing her to join the game, abandon her status as a glitch and reclaim her rightful thrown.
Both Wreck-It Ralph and “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” tackle some very large societal issues. Is the suffering of a miniscule minority worth the happiness of the vast majority? If, as any self-styled enlightened person might say, the moral thing would be to walk away at least and save the child at most, what does that say for our own society, one originally built on the backs of minority slave labor and now fostered by the labor and low wages of workers at Foxconn or countless textile plants across Latin America? Do we not all benefit from the squalor of a minority? Should we be the ones who walk away, buying locally-made products — with the knowledge it merely puts those low-wage workers out of a job (no matter how meager) and making their overall lives worst? Or should we be on the side of Ralph, who nearly ends his life to make happy an innocent youth?