The Lathe Of Heaven: A Novel Paperback – April 15, 2008
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"A rare and powerful synthesis of poetry and science, reason and emotion." -- The New York Times
"Gracefully developed...extremely inventive.... What science fiction is supposed to do." -- Newsweek
"Profound. Beautifully wrought... [Le Guin's] perceptions of such matters as geopolitics, race, socialized medicine, and the patient-shrink relationship are razor sharp and more than a little cutting." -- National Review
"A very good book... A writer's writer, Ursula Le Guin brings reality itself to the proving ground." -- Theodore Sturgeon
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And, man, am I glad I checked it out. Often viewed as Le Guin's tribute to the works of Philip K. Dick, The Lathe of Heaven undeniably feels a lot like a Dick novel, with a surreal hook used to explore philosophical questions about reality and who we really are. But as you'd expect from Le Guin, there's no shortage of more social questions raised here, from the nature of peace to the dangers of global warming, all done within a great narrative that twists and turns underneath you.
The hook is simple enough: there's a man named George Orr (yes, the half allusion is probably intentional) who is scared to dream, because his dreams become real. But what makes this hard to prove is that his dreams don't just create reality; they rewrite it, making whatever he dreams not only true, but making it always have been true, so that no one remembers the change but him. That's true until George goes to court-mandated therapy, where his therapist seems to be aware of the change - and his ability to possibly control George's ability.
Like she did in The Dispossessed, Le Guin explores any number of ideas about utopias, the role of the individual in society, the question of the greater good, and her concerns about utilitarianism. At what point should the individual give way for society? Where is the cutoff between acceptable sacrifice for the greater good and too much? And what is the responsibility of one person to give it all for the world? But whereas The Dispossessed engaged with these ideas in the forms of detailed discussions, The Lathe of Heaven lets them remain more subtextual, unfolding as a battle of wills between George, his therapist, and a lawyer George brings in to help him. More than that, The Lathe of Heaven unfolds as a bizarre thriller of sorts, with reality constantly bending and shifting underneath us, and Le Guin able to explore the ramifications of so many changes, and what it would take to fix some of the problems in our world.
It all adds up to a great book, one that I really enjoyed. And if it's a bit derivative of PKD, well, that's okay, because Le Guin makes it her own, following the political and social ramifications of her conceit, not just the philosophical ones. It's a book I really enjoyed and absolutely couldn't put down, and has me eager to dive into more of an author I don't feel like I ever properly appreciated in her lifetime.
Orr gets assigned to voluntary therapy with a psychologist who specializes in sleep disorders. Orr tells Dr. William Haber about his unique condition, but, once the doctor recognizes Orr is telling the truth, Haber draws the opposite conclusion from Orr. Haber thinks that Orr should be using his “power” to make the world a better place, rather than being scared of it and trying to avoid it. Haber presents the classic example of good intentions gone awry. While the doctor does use the hypnotically-induced sessions to improve his own career situation, the worst outcomes result from the doctor’s attempts to help Orr (without Orr’s approval or prior knowledge) to improve the world. The law of unintended consequences is ever-present, and the dreams guided by Haber often result in “out of the frying pan and into the fire” situations.
This is an interesting premise in a highly readable book. The contrast between Orr and Haber reflects a broader societal tension between those who think they can engineer a utopian future and those who think that one’s attempts will always blow up in ways that one can’t anticipate. It should be noted that the title comes from “The Book of Chuang Tzu” and the virtue of “wu-wei” or “actionless action” in contrast to the corresponding vice of trying to manhandle the world into a desired state is central to the story.
I enjoyed this book. It’s a short novel with a clear theme that is thought-provoking. I’d recommend the book for fiction readers, and highly recommend it for readers of sci-fi and speculative fiction.
Top international reviews
Good kindle copy.
The 'if' world scenarios are a favourite of Science Fiction writiers. Some other classics are Philip K. Dick's 'The Man in the High Castle' and 'the Zap Gun', the Asimov and Arthur C Clarke short stories of people going back to the past and changing the future, and more recently Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy. In film there's 'Twelve Monkeys' and for TV there's the much underrated early Dr Who classic 'Inferno'.
The Lathe of Heaven, however, is a completely different take and a very original and compelling solution. In this story, the man's dreams are bizarrely transmitted into new realities. This is just a disturbing personal experience, until he falls into the hands of an unscrupulous psychotherapist.
The ensuing catalogue of disastrous choices — similar to genie-wish stories — opens the door for LeGuin to explore philosophical themes with much greater depth and precision than her Ekumen scenarios do. For example, a dream aspiring to end race hatred results in everyone having the same grey skin colour.
I enjoyed this book immensely. Even if you aren't a fan of LeGuin, the Lathe of Heaven should be a cracking good read.