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The Lathe of Heaven: A Novel (Perennial Classics) Paperback – August 19, 2003
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George Orr is a man who discovers he has the peculiar ability to dream things into being -- for better or for worse. In desperation, he consults a psychotherapist who promises to help him -- but who, it soon becomes clear, has his own plans for George and his dreams.
The Lathe of Heaven is a dark vision and a warning -- a fable of power uncontrolled and uncontrollable. It is a truly prescient and startling view of humanity, and the consequences of playing God.
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About the Author
Ursula Kroeber Le Guin was born in 1929 in Berkeley, and lives in Portland, Oregon. As of 2014, she has published twenty-one novels, eleven volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, twelve books for children, six volumes of poetry, and four of translation, and has received many honors and awards, including the Hugo, Nebula, National Book Award, and PEN/Malamud. Her most recent publications are Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems and The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories.
- ASIN : 0060512741
- Publisher : Harper Perennial Modern Classics (August 19, 2003)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 176 pages
- ISBN-10 : 9780060512743
- ISBN-13 : 978-0060512743
- Item Weight : 7.2 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.31 x 0.4 x 8 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #3,833,851 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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About the author
Reviewed in the United States on December 8, 2020
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In 1975 Ursula K. Le Guin won both the Hugo and the Nebula for best novel for The Dispossessed. This was by no means the first time the same book had won both the Hugo and the Nebula. However, Le Guin had accomplished the same feat once before, in 1970 with The Left Hand of Darkness. As far as I knew at the time, she was the only author to have done this twice. (Arthur C. Clarke also did it, but later.) Therefore I read The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and subsequently everything by Le Guin I could get my hands on. Thus I came to read The Lathe of Heaven. It is, I believe the first novel she wrote. It was not the first novel she published -- presumably the success of Left Hand of Darkness relieved the reluctance of some publishers.
Le Guin was the apogee of a movement. At the time I read Lathe of Heaven it was still gospel among literary types that all Science Fiction was trash. Some more lenient ones only claimed that 90% of SF was trash, which led to Sturgeon's Law -- 90% of EVERYTHING is trash. (Most Fantasy, too, though The Lord of the Rings was beginning to make a dent.) Indeed, there are still an awful lot of Self-Consciously Serious Readers who believe that all SF is trash. There were F&SF authors who wanted to show that F&SF could be real literature. Le Guin was not the first of these in time (I've seen Brian Aldiss credited with that), but she was, in my opinion, the height of the movement, the author who made it difficult to dismiss all SF out of hand, and still does. (There is also, to be crass, the commercial success of F&SF in literature and on screens.)
Lathe of Heaven is not Le Guin's best, but it is still very good. Recent reviews of Lathe of Heaven have a lot to say about how prescient it was. Since I read it around 1976, that had yet to appear. I liked the way it turns the "It was all just a dream" trope on its head. The point of the trope is to deny any importance to events that happen in the dream, because they aren't real.
In Lathe of Heaven George Orr's dreams change reality. Psychiatrist William Haber tries to use Orr's gift to fix the world. He asks Orr to dream a dream in which there is no longer any racial strife. The result is a world in which everyone is gray-skinned and looks much the same. Then he asks Orr to dream a dream in which humans no longer fight. The result is an alien invasion that unites humanity. Haber is intensely frustrated by what he regards as Orr's incompetence. He ultimately develops the technology to confer Orr's gift upon himself. But when he tries to use it, he breaks reality.
The aliens ultimately turn out to be cool, and to be familiar with the ability to dream new reality. They give Orr (I think -- it could be someone else, this is after all a 46-year-old memory for me) some advice about how to do it. They quote the Beatles song "With a Little Help from my Friends" and suggest that is the key. I remember being disappointed with that. It seemed a very pedestrian insight to reach after so strange a journey.
Like the paradoxes found when granted three wishes by a genie/leprechaun/fairy.
Though not necessarily a malevolent gift, what if it was applied to an "Average Joe" ... not a genius in poli-sci, genetics, sociology, or other knowledge needed to make those choices intelligently... even if it were not during dreams control by the subconscious mind which cannot be truly directed.
Excellent, classic story, also released as a television film in 1980, filmed in Dallas/Ft Worth/Highland Park, Texas.
When George Orr dreams "effectively", the world changes to align with George's dream and only George notices that there has been a change. George lives in an overcrowded, humid, desolate Portland. It's the future humankind deserves, not having paid attention to The Greenhouse Effect. Depressed citizens like George live cheek by jowl on poor food and overdose on drugs from auto-dispensaries (until they die from pollutant cancer). George admits himself, not entirely voluntarily, for Voluntary Therapeutic Treatment and reports to psychiatrist Dr William Haber's Efficiency Suite which is (take note) dominated by a mural of Mount Hood. Although George cannot control his dreams, the not so subtle Dr Haber can, and does - sort of. Dr Haber can improve humankind's lot, even if George is a bit lily-livered, so he gives it his best shot. Of course George is not the cipher he seems to be and things just won't go the way Dr Haber wants.
Le Guin can be preachy and less than subtle. Climate change bad. Communism bad. Being nice to each other good. This book was published in 1971 and at times it shows-
"Are there really people without resentment, without hate? she wondered. People who never go cross-grained to the universe? Who recognise evil, and resist evil, and yet are utterly unaffected by it?
Of course there are. Countless, the living and the dead. Those who have returned in pure compassion to the wheel, those who follow the way that cannot be followed without knowing they follow it, the sharecropper's wife in Alabama and the lama in Tibet and the entomologist in Peru and the millworker in Odessa and the greengrocer in London and the goatherd in Nigeria and the old, old man sharpening a stick by a dry streambed somewhere in Australia, and all the others. There is not one of us who has not known them There are enough of them, enough to keep us going. Perhaps."
But when she is on form - as she is at the climax of the book, we see why she maintains her reputation as a great of science fiction -
"Up on the top story, the floor was ice. It was about a finger's width thick, and quite clear. Through it could be seen the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. Orr stepped out onto it and all the stars rang loud and false, like cracked bells. The foul smell was much worse, making him gag. He went forward, holding out his hand. The panel of the door of Haber's outer office was there to meet it; he could not see it but he touched it. A wolf howled. The lava moved toward the city."
The turtle-like Aliens who are gentle and wise (in at least one verson of Orr's world), speak in a charming formal manner laced with quotes from Shakespeare. They call George "Jor Jor" and one of them even runs an antiques store in a forgotten slum area under a broken freeway. Familiar? The explanation for their change from antagonistic to friendly (it was all a misunderstanding) is humorously dealt with and far more effective than the same trope in Card's Ender's Game.
The sub-conscious, sleep, race, mismatched couples are all blocks to Le Guin's lathe. This is a slight book but resonant. The beginning needs to be rethought when the last page is read and that is always a good thing.
Top reviews from other countries
However it is not time travel that is the mechanism here but designer dreams, and the dream mechanism isn’t just used as a cop out one for one replacement for time travel. The dynamics are different and engaging, and the actual motivation of, and the impact of events on, the main characters is intriguing.
Even more intriguing are the aliens that pop up. Would those aliens even be in existence if it wasn’t for the dreams? Do they have the same dream powers as they seem to hint at? If so do they refrain from using them or have they used them?
I would have given it 3.5 if I could. 3 wouldn't be fair. I don't usually go for the classics because the ideas often read so twee. In this, they did but not quite as much as I feared.
The story is still well paced even if the characters are a bit poorly built and the dialogue slightly wooden (but I think that was the hard sci-fi style in vogue back then; a sort of austere Blade-Runner voice-over tone). The 'futurism' was more or less in line with recent scifi, even if the social commentary lagged a bit; even so, definitely not to the point of ridiculousness. And even where it did diverge, it was interesting to see what the
author thought the future might hold for society back when she wrote the book.
Not a bad read. Would recommend.