36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
Power without control, and morality in a man without judgement
, March 12, 2007
This review is from: The Lathe of Heaven: A Novel (Perennial Classics) (Paperback)
Warning - I talk about some minor plot points below.
This is a novel whose premise is so outlandish that it begs for a dramatic opening line. Something that catapults the reader into the story and sets a frantic pace. A line like "Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time". Instead we get this: "Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss." With that opening, and throughout the book, Ursula K. Le Guin refuses to cater to readers who want the focus of the story to be fantastic power and unlimited possibilities. Instead she gives us a man, George Orr, who is relentlessly in balance. He is hard to upset, difficult to anger, but easy to coerce. And through some unknown power of the mind, his uncontrolled dreams change the very fabric of reality.
When a well meaning psychiatrist discovers this power and begins to use it to improve the lot of the human race, Orr must struggle to decide how much change is too much. Although he is curiously without judgment in most things, he feels deeply that the integrity of what is should be respected. Nonetheless, he is such a passive man that he bends to the will of his doctor almost until it is too late.
Because Orr believes so deeply in reality and in humans being what we are, his subconscious cannot help but balance each improvement in humanity with a correspondingly harsh but in hindsight perfectly logical setback. When asked to imagine perfect peace on Earth, his subconscious assumes that there is something else to fight against, in this case aliens. When asked to imagine a world without racial strife, he does not imagine good will breaking out across the planet, but a human race where everyone looks the same. These setbacks infuriate the doctor who uses Orr. But it may be that Orr is only capable of one leap of imagination, the original one that he made to dream that the human race might not destroy itself. Almost unnoticed towards the end of the novel, Orr remembers our original reality, the world that held before he began to dream new ones. And in that reality humankind had befouled the planet and dealt it a death blow with war. So even though he is unable to imagine the paradises wished for by his doctor, Orr still finds himself imagining that the whole world is a dream simply because it still exists.
This is a powerful and thought provoking book, and a quick read to boot. I imagine that different readers could draw different lessons from it, but for me the thing that stood out the most was the desire of the doctor to do good with the power he had found, despite the evilness of his outcomes. It was a potent reminder that those who do the greatest harm are often seeking to do the greatest good.
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