Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Lathe of Heaven - Ursula K. Le Guin

The Lathe of Heaven, first published in 1971, is one of Le Guin's better known novels. It was nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo awards and there have been quite a few reissues over the years. My copy is part of the Gollancz SF Masterworks series, number 44 to be precise. It is one of three works by Le Guin that are currently part of their selection. I read The Dispossessed a while ago. There's also a hardcover edition of The Left Hand of Darkness but that one appears to be out of print. The Lathe of Heaven is not part of Le Guin's Hainish cycle, as far as I can tell it is a standalone. There are two adaptations for television of this novel. I've seen neither but it's pretty hard to imagine how they could possibly live up to the standard of the book.

The mild mannered, unremarkable man George Orr has a frightening talent. Once in a while he wakes up after a particularly vivid dream and finds the world changed according to his dream. Frightened by the changes he makes to reality and his lack of control over them, Orr tries drugs to suppress the dream. Soon he is caught for exceeding his allotment and forced to undergo therapy for substance abuse. His psychiatrist is Dr. William Haber, a man specialized in dreams and well known for his research in the field. When George is sent to him, Haber is working on a machine that makes it possible to help a patient achieve the phase in which he or she dreams quicker than waiting for the natural cycle to take it's course. Haber is sceptical of George's claims but when he sees the differences George causes during a therapy session he begins to see the possibilities. Both for his personal advancement and improving the sorry state the world is in.

Describing the future (well, back then anyway, as near as I can figure out the story is set in 2002) the novel is set in is a bit of a problem. It keeps changing on the reader. One of the constants however is an extremely rapid warming of the earth due to the greenhouse effect. When we first meet George, he lives in a world he shares with seven billion other people. Not too far from the real figure in 2002, I think we had just over six billion that year. It suffers from severe shortages. Just about all resources the collapsed ecosystem can provide go into food production and it is not enough to properly feed everybody. Le Guin was obviously not optimistic about the effects humans were having on the planet. It's always a little odd to read science fiction that features a collapse at a point we've already passed. Still, looking form a 1970 point of view, the rapid rise of dependency on automobiles, worsening of the air quality and the huge expansion of the US highway network did provide valid reasons for concern. Le Guin's timing might have been off but we might still be heading in the direction she describes.

In essence, The Lathe of Heaven is a novel of two conflicting world views. While Haber feels that the world can be drastically improved and that since he has the means to do so, it is perfectly all right to change it according to his own wishes, George feels he is being used and that it is not for him to decide what the world should look like. Haber feels the world can be perfected, turned into utopia, George would accept it as it is. I guess George's view is mostly based on the Taoistic teachings that clearly influenced the novel. The title for instance, is taken from the Tao Te Ching. It turns out the be an incorrect translation but Le Guin didn't know that at the time. Haber's stance is a bit harder to pin down, Wikipedia suggests it is a positivist position he takes. I will take their word for it.

It is easy to think of Haber as a power hungry megalomaniac, and while he does develop some dangerous traits of the course of the novel, George would be the first to tell you he isn't. He's extrovert, confident in his abilities and even more confident that he sees right though his patients. In George's case at least, he doesn't. He thinks of George as someone who lacks initiative, who can be easily persuaded to go along with whatever Haber thinks best. It's a great contrast with the George the reader gets to see. A man who is perhaps not very quick in making up his mind about things, but does have a good sense of right and wrong. He also has the backbone to do something about it despite the fact that he is forced to undergo Haber's treatment. Le Guin provides ample food for thought with these two contrasting characters and the motivations that drive them.

As the novel progresses and more changes are made to the world, it atmosphere becomes more dreamlike. Without the context it is hard to tell of George is awake or dreaming in some passages. The world becomes less desperate, more controlled but also surreal to an extend. You can't deny that some of the world's problems are taken care of, but there is also a sense of loss and wrongness about the whole situation that keeps building towards the end of the novel. It definitely makes you think twice about wanting to change the world, consequences of actions and illusions of control and, for that matter, about whether or not George actually needs treatment.

Like previous books by Le Guin I've read, I found The Lathe of Heaven a thought-provoking read. Like with The Dispossessed I needed some time to process what I'd just read. Its a short work by today's standards but a pretty intense read. One than made me wonder why on earth I hadn't read more by this author long ago. This book is rightfully considered a classic of the genre. It's forty years old by now but it aged more gracefully than many of its contemporaries. To me, it feels like a book that will continue to find new readers. In fact, I recommend you give it a try.

Book details
Title: The Lathe of Heaven
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 184
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-85798-951-9
First published: 1971

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