Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. Le Guin

A man with the power to reify reality really needs a new shrink.

The Lathe of Heaven

Scribner, 1971, 184 pages

A classic science fiction novel by one of the greatest writers of the genre, set in a future world where one man's dreams control the fate of humanity.

In a future world racked by violence and environmental catastrophes, George Orr wakes up one day to discover that his dreams have the ability to alter reality. He seeks help from Dr. William Haber, a psychiatrist who immediately grasps the power George wields. Soon George must preserve reality itself as Dr. Haber becomes adept at manipulating George's dreams for his own purposes.

The Lathe of Heaven is an eerily prescient novel from award-winning author Ursula K. Le Guin that masterfully addresses the dangers of power and humanity's self-destructiveness, questioning the nature of reality itself. It is a classic of the science fiction genre.

"We're in the world, not against it. It doesn't work to try to stand outside things and run them, that way. It just doesn't work, it goes against life. There is a way but you have to follow it. The world is, no matter how we think it ought to be. You have to be with it. You have to let it be."

Not adoring a seminal classic by Ursula Le Guin seems like a crime against SF, but I did not adore this book.

Le Guin's style is slow, thoughtful, and introspective. I like that in multi-generational family epics, but less so in science fiction novels. There are exceptions, which is why I did adore The Dispossessed. But generally speaking, I find Le Guin's writing dull even if her stories are thought-provoking. I just did not find The Lathe of Heaven's ruminations about psychology and power as affecting as the much more compelling philosophical clash of cultures presented in The Dispossessed.

The Lathe of Heaven is about a fellow named George Orr who can literally change reality by dreaming. When he has a dream, he wakes up to find that the entire universe (or at least, the part of it that he can see) has changed to reflect his dream. The entire history of the world can be retroactively rewritten to make it compliant with the new reality he dreamed. Mount Hood has never existed. Food riots never happened. Everything has always been the way George just dreamed it last night. George remembers the old reality, but no one else does unless they are present while he's dreaming, in which case, they simultaneously remember the old and the new reality.

For fear of remaking the world, Orr has been trying to avoid sleep. He lives in a vaguely dystopian, socialist society, so he's made to go see a psychiatrist, Dr. Haber. He tells Dr. Haber about his problem. The shrink obviously believes him delusional until he actually witnesses one of these "effective dreams." And then the shrink begins to "help" him. And by "help" I mean "Control and use him."

What makes this an interesting story is that Dr. Haber isn't an evil or megalomaniacal man. He doesn't see poor George as a way to make himself God-Emperor of the world. No, he's a genuinely benevolent (in his own mind) psychiatrist, and he sees George's limitless potential to make the world a better place. Eliminate starvation and wars, solve overpopulation, put an end (retroactively) to racism. The problem is that every time George does this, it has unintended consequences. To eliminate overpopulation, George dreams a plague that wipes out most of the world's population. To solve food shortages, George dreams an even more dystopian society that performs euthanasia on anyone with a fatal illness. To end war and bring about peace on Earth, George dreams an alien invasion. To end ethnic conflict, George dreams that all humans have always been gray-skinned.

Bit by bit, all the world's problems are "solved," but the world is also dramatically changed from the one George and Dr. Haber were born into. When George starts to resist, Dr. Haber points out how much has improved; they just need a little refinement. And Dr. Haber is very close to being able to have his own "effective dreams."

It's an interesting moral conflict, but because the story approaches it as a philosophy problem, it lacks any of the wonder or tension you'd expect from a book about someone who can literally change reality with his dreams. It's classic SF in the best sense, but it was also, well, unexciting. I will not say boring; the book held my interest. But only to unwind the thought experiment and see where it would go. And George is such a meek, passive, undynamic character. This was obviously a deliberate authorial choice; Dr. Haber even comments on it himself, in the same tone of suppressed derision that I suspect Le Guin rightly expected the reader to feel. But it did make Orr annoying and uncompelling as the protagonist.

Another deep, well-written gem that just fell a little flat for me.

Also by Ursula K. Le Guin: My reviews of The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, reviews, science fiction, ursula k le guin

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