Ursula Le Guin’s 1971 novel, The Lathe of Heaven, is interesting in many ways. I do feel the need to confess that I’ve not actually read a great deal of Le Guin’s other work (The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, since you ask). However, I think that (plus my reading of writing about SF) has given me a reasonable idea of what Le Guin is about.
The Lathe of Heaven features not only many of the concerns that Le Guin has (environmental damage, societal themes and an examination of story-telling) but it also has a good stab at reproducing the kind of altered consciousness and realities that her friend, Philip K. Dick had. Not only that it has Le Guin’s excellent writing.
The story itself concerns George Orr, a man whose dreams alter reality. Unfortunately, while no-one else is aware of these changes, Orr remembers things as they were. The trauma of this forces Orr to take drugs to suppress these dreams; he is, as a result of this, compelled to undergo psychiatric care. William Haber, his psychiatrist, comes to realise that Orr’s “effective” dreams are not a figment of his imagination, that his ability to alter reality is real.
An ambitious man, once he realise that using his “Augmentor,” Haber sets about altering the world – as he sees it – for the better. Of course, the alterations that Haber makes increase his influence and power, but his attempts to improve the world don’t quite have the effect that he’d desire. As his method of altering reality is through the dreams of an ordinary, but neurotic man, his attempt to bring about world peace results in the moon being invaded by aliens, forcing all people together to counter this threat.
The plot of the novel follows the consequences of Orr’s dreaming and Haber’s meddling, through a variety of familiar SF ideas, including utopian and dystopian ones (dystopian to the point that the fabric of reality is almost destroyed). More interesting, however, is the examination of our interaction with the world. Orr is essentially a man who is unable to cope with his ability to (in this case literally) alter the world around him and seeks solace with pharmaceuticals and is increasingly withdrawn from the world.
“Orr had a tendency to assume that people knew what they were doing, perhaps because he generally assumed that he did not.”
There is an obvious criticism of some types of psychological treatment (notably behaviourism) in the book. The character of Haber is not an attractive one. Though, initially anyway (he does, as he realises the power he can have through Orr, develop a God complex), Haber isn’t a bad person, he is condescending towards Orr and is dismissive of his inability to cope. Orr recognises that Haber grows increasingly drunk on the power that his use of his ability to alter the fabric of reality is often damaging – including the retroactive shrinking of the population through a plague in the past.
“The murder of six billion nonexistent people.”
This actually reminded me a little of the point that can be made about how we interpret history. For example, from a certain point of view, the plagues that swept Europe throughout the medieval period can be said, with hindsight, to have ultimately had a positive effect as they forced social change, which benefitted the poorer members of society as it increased the chances for people to be mobile. Of course, at the time, the death of whole families wouldn’t, at a personal level, be positive.
Orr also faces this problem. He remembers that before he started dreaming, there were seven billion people living on Earth. However, due to the deleterious impact that people have on the ecosystem, Haber wanted to reduce the population. Six billion were wiped out in a plague which brought the population down. This attempt by Haber to make the world better (as a less polluted, or more peaceful planet would undoubtedly be) is made without thought for the consequences. All these factors help give interest to Le Guin’s novel.
The other notable feature of the book, one that is oft remarked upon, is its similarity to much of Philip K. Dick’s work. The ability to alter reality through Orr’s mind is similar to many of Dick’s short stories and novels. Her exploration of this is, like his, examines the many alternate realities that can (in this case, literally) be derived from our minds. As Haber attempts to increase his influence on the world, things move from unintended consequences to something more warped:
“The buildings of downtown Portland, the Capital of the world, the high, new, handsome cubes of stone and glass interspersed with measured doses of green, the fortresses of Government – Research and Development, Communications, Industry, Economic Planning, Environmental Control – were melting. They were getting soggy and shaky, like jello left out in the sun. The corners had already run down the sides, leaving great creamy smears.”
Is it a Masterwork? Well, when I first read Lathe of Heaven, I have to admit that I did – almost – dismiss it in my mind as being one of the more minor novels. Yeah, it deserved to be in print, but there were other books that were more worthy bearers of the title. However, on re-reading, my opinion of it has increased a great deal. It’s not as serious as is The Dispossessed certainly, and I think that The Left Hand of Darkness might be a more important novel. However, this novel serves as an excellent introduction to Le Guin’s writing, encompassing as it does, so many of the themes that concern her. I also have a sense that writing, as she did, about how we damage our environment at our peril, she was bringing these concerns to a popular form long before environmentalism entered the mainstream.
If you’ve not read Le Guin, or if you have but not this novel, you should seek this out quickly.