The Lathe of Heaven

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Cover image

Publisher: Avon
Copyright: 1971
Printing: April 1973
Format: Mass market
Pages: 175

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George Orr's dreams come true. This might sound like a wonderful ability, but he has no conscious control over it. Nightmares, petty vengeance, or just surreality from his subconscious change the world while he sleeps. And worse, it's changed retroactively, for everyone, and he's the only person who knows that the world used to be different. When The Lathe of Heaven opens, he's halucinating, staggering down the hall of his apartment, after overdosing on drugs to keep himself from dreaming.

Orr is assigned to Voluntary Therapeutic Treatment (which isn't exactly voluntary) for borrowing Pharm Cards from other people to get drugs. He's sent to see a psychiatrist who's also a dream researcher, an overbearing man with a high opinion of himself. At first, Haber doesn't believe him, but after duplicating one of Orr's effective dreams in his office, he sees a huge personal and professional opportunity.

Orr's first appointment with Haber is the start of the action of the book, and there The Lathe of Heaven threw me, since Haber launches immediately into paragraphs of exposition. He explains sleep, he explains dreams, he describes his dream augmentor machine, he talks through hyponosis, and on initial impact he derails the flow of the narrative. This continues for the first few visits and left me surprised, since this sort of apparent clunkiness isn't what I expect from Le Guin.

Getting farther into this book, though, my whole perception of it changed. The story revolves around Haber's aggressive, self-assured, constantly explained, supposedly scientific, and increasingly domineering control of Orr's ability. Haber uses hyponotic suggestion to manipulate Orr's dreams, in the name (initially) of treating him, and starts "fixing" the world with increasingly disasterous results. Superficially, this can come across as an attack on science, since Haber presents himself as a scientist who wants to exploit Orr's ability while Orr simply wants it to end. But I don't think that's quite what's happening here. I found it increasingly fascinating to read The Lathe of Heaven as a broadside against a traditional mode of science fiction.

Haber is, in all his aggressive, infodumping confidence, akin to the traditional engineer with a wrench. He's invented his own machine to augment dreams, building it himself in his office. His goals are scientific analysis and understanding and he approaches Orr through experimentation, but also with a goal of using technology to fix the world. Several of the ideas he tries are classic SF utopian ideas, such as uniting the world and eliminating race (one of the best-handled and most thoughtful segments). He's the expansive, capable crusading scientist who will fix the world; I detected a certain wiff of Kimball Kinnison.

Set against him is Orr, a rather passive character for much of the book whose goal is primarily negative against Haber's expansive, confident positive action. He's afraid of his power, he wants it to stop, and as the book continues, his philosophy develops into something that reminded me a bit of Taoism. He has some sense of the flow of the world and what it means to live in it, which Haber is using him to disrupt, and he grows stronger and more solid as the world's history and nature becomes more fluid and starts to shred. The message I think The Lathe of Heaven sends is that changing the world is not as easy as it looks, that one should attempt change from a position of understanding, and that consequences in complex systems are difficult to forsee. It is in some ways the exact opposite of the human-centric, science-uber-alles message of Campbellian science fiction.

If this were all that The Lathe of Heaven offered, it would be an interesting curiosity but a weak book in Le Guin's oeuvre. But for me it's the third main character, a civil rights lawyer named Heather Lelache who Orr turns to in desperation to stop Haber's use of his abilities, who makes the book. Neither Orr nor Haber change appreciably through the whirlwind of changes to the world, but Lelache is outside and caught in it. She and Orr also form a complex, and changing, bond that creates the central emotional climax of the end of the novel. It's through Lelache, a black woman, that Le Guin makes her most memorable point on the effect of race and more generally human complexity on identity.

This is an odd story, with some unusual slogging required at the start and a resolution that lives more in the realm of philosophy than the typical SF novel. But it's full of sharply-drawn detail and worlds sketched in a few scenes or vistas, including a rather intriguing concluding reality. As a native Oregonian, it's also a delight to read for its grounding in Oregon geography, scenery, and politics. (The comment that Oregon had no military bases for protection in one of the alternate worlds because the historic role of an Oregon Senator is to drive all the other Senators mad had me laughing out-loud in recognition.) Read as a broadside against the "fix the world" attitude of classic SF, it provides a thought-provoking commentary on the perils and difficulties of changing the world, although it's a bit short to fully develop the theme.

Written in the early 1970s, The Lathe of Heaven now feels a bit dated (although I hope those who think that environmental thinking about global warming has reversed will take note of the universal concern here about rising world temperatures). Hypnosis plays a central role that one never sees in SF these days, the machinery is clunky in that pre-computer sort of way, and the world feels, in numerous but hard-to-describe ways, like a 1970s world. But I think to a long-time SF reader that dated feeling will highlight the degree to which Haber serves as a symbol of the of even earlier SF, strengthening the degree to which The Lathe of Heaven functions as a critique. Le Guin has written better books, even better examinations of the problems of utopia, but the application of the unforseen consequences of wishes to the systematic improvement of the world rang true for me.

Recommended in part because it's a classic, but also because Le Guin has a knack for characterization that shines through even in a book where the characters have sharply-defined story roles.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-01-31

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