The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin – Book Review

This short science fiction novel takes a simple concept – what if your dreams could affect and alter reality – and spins it into a riveting and imaginative blend of psychological thriller and philosophical musings.

George Orr, the mild and passive protagonist of the novel, is not well. The dystopian future world he lives in (actually the year 2002, but then the book was first published in 1971) is an overpopulated mess, rife with food shortages and massive environmental issues thanks to global warming. Orr’s problem is however quite unique: from time to time, he has particularly vivid dreams that can transform the world around him, but in such a way that he’s the only person who is aware of the change. His dreams cover their tracks, retroactively re-writing the past history and everybody else’s memories. Afraid of his powers, Orr tries to suppress his dreams with the help of illegally obtained drugs, but is caught and ordered by court to get treatment from Dr. William Haber, a psychiatrist specialising in sleep research.

At first Haber doesn’t believe Orr’s claims, but it seems that Orr’s “effective dreams” have a sub-clause: if somebody is present while he’s having the reality-altering dream, they also retain the memories of the “old” reality along with Orr. Using the hypnotic suggestion, Haber begins to exploit Orr’s gift, first to further his own career and status, then as a tool to better the entire world. His intentions are in fact benevolent, but because the change is enacted by Orr’s subconscious rather than his rational mind, the experiments have some unintended consequences in the style of The Monkey’s Paw.

An early example is Haber’s attempt to solve the problem of overpopulation, which results in a world where a horrible plague has killed off six billion people. Without spoiling things, the later efforts to achieve world peace and end racism likewise don’t work out quite as expected.

The increasingly extreme twists and turns of the story are very entertaining, but the novel also raises endless thought-provoking questions. If you possess the means to change the world for the better, is it your responsibility to do so? Do good intentions matter? How far can you go and can you ever stop? Is activity better than passivity? Who is to decide what the perfect world looks like?

Though Orr has no choice but to be Haber’s accomplice, he finds his willingness to play God appalling, while Haber in turn is frustrated by Orr’s passive resistance. Man’s very purpose on earth, in Haber’s view, is to change things and make a better world. Orr on the other hand believes that he has no right to change the reality, and that in any case it doesn’t work:

“We’re in the world, not against it. It doesn’t work to try to stand outside things and run them, that way. It just doesn’t work, it goes against life. There is a way but you have to follow it. The world is, no matter how we think it ought to be. You have to be with it. You have to let it be.”

A third crucial character in the novel is Heather Lelache, a human rights lawyer enlisted by Orr to help him break free of Haber, who can possibly be described as a happy medium between the two, sharing Orr’s belief in being a part of the whole, but also ready to act. The budding romance between Orr and Heather injects some much-needed warmth into the story and humanises Orr, who otherwise would have come off as far too detached to get invested in.

The Lathe of Heaven perhaps doesn’t quite match the richness of The Left Hand of Darkness, but it’s an excellent read that bears a similar poetic touch and invites future re-reads. Also, even though Portland, Oregon in the book is a future dystopian Portland mixed in with the 1970s Portland from when the novel was written, I felt like I got to know the city and its geographical features – Willamette River, Mount Hood – that get to play an important part in the story.

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