There's an unscrupulous psychiatrist who wants to exploit George's gift, a love story, some interesting aliens, and a good ending. Le Guin is also interested in the arbitrary nature of reality, but she is above all a moral writer, and it's easiest to explain why I think The Lathe of Heaven is a great novel if I compare it with some of her other books. In The Dispossessed, Shevek is a scientist who manages to control his dream. The Lathe of Heaven, published three years before The Dispossessed, is a kind of rehearsal for the later novel, but with a myth-like treatment more reminiscent of A Wizard of Earthsea. If you're interested in that kind of thing, you should consider reading The Lathe of Heaven. Like all her books, it's beautifully written.
I also loved the descriptive terms she used to describe Miss LeLache the lawyer, with words and phrases that made her appear menacing and bug like. LeGuins protagonist is George Orr and he is another Shevik (from The Dispossessed) like character: minimalistic, with inner peace, calm, unaffected by outside forces but enmeshed and swallowed whole by his own inner problems to solve. I dont always cast the characters in a book like a film, but this time I did, I imagined Dr. Haber as a bearded, fast talking George Clooney even though LeGuins description of him was more larger than life and like a huge bear.
But it's not right to play God with masses of people. A guy with the power to change the ugly dystopian world but is unwilling to do so? Or a guy who actively tries to harvest this power to change the world for better? Are we responsible for changing the world if we have the means? What are the consequences of playing God? He is afraid indeed - of his unexplained ability to change reality via his "effective" dreams in an unpredictable way, while retaining the memories of the previous realities. Dr. Haber is an extroverted proactive sweet-talking dream specialist who wants to harvest Orr's power to make the world a better place (and get himself a bit of power in the meantime). He is frustrated with Orr's passive resistance. After all, "isn't that man's very purpose on earth - to do things, change things, run things, make a better world?" . What means are used to change the world? Seems that the world may be better the way it is, imperfect as it may be. Haber: Life - evolution - the whole universe of space/time, matter/ energy - existence itself - is essentially change. The other is stillness." It's a short read, but the one that is bound to stay with the reader for quite a while as we ponder over the questions it raises.
The book started brightly and the first chapter promised much, a nice run of assonance feeding proceedings: jellyfish, abyss. Doctor Haber asks Orr to don a trancap which is wired to a dream machine that monitors his sleeping thoughts and right off the bat this seemingly unremarkable patient ruffles the psychiatrist's clinical countenance by effecting an outlandish happenstance. Orr is the underdog we are all rooting for; his innate goodness is in sharp contrast to Habers artfulness and so the story becomes somewhat parabolic. "THAT was STUPENDOUS!" In due course, Orr's God-like powers run amok and all manner of crazy things start to occur, notably the introduction of dreamt-to-life aliens whose tentacles 'retract like a carpenter's flexible rule'. I loved the graceful, esoteric ending but, because Le Guin kept ploughing the same doctor/patient furrow throughout, and because of the tedious science bits, Ive deducted one star.
The story is set set in Portland, Oregon, and George Orr is sent to psychiatrist Dr. Haber for his abuse of drugs. The story quickly takes a dark turn when Dr. Haber witnesses George change the world with his dreams, and the doctor decides to try and take control and fix reality to his liking. For example, when Dr. Haber tells George to dream about the problem of overpopulation, George imagines a horrible plague that wipes out millions of people. When Dr. Haber tells George to dream of "peace on earth," George conjures up aliens that are attacking mankind, and now there is a war in space. When Dr. Haber wants George to solve the problem of racism, George dreams that everyone is the same color grey. Eventually there is a climactic scene in which Dr. Haber has figured out a way to make his own dreams alter reality, but it causes chaos, and George has to try and save the world. Not only did it show that there are no easy solutions to world problems like war and racism and overpopulation, but it demonstrated that even people with good intentions could never imagine all of the consequences to a radical change in society. The book was also smart about the details of the different worlds each dream could cause significant alterations, and George was forced to remembered them all.
The Lathe of Heaven is the story of George Orr an insignificant little man who dreams big!. Reality reshapes in accordance with his effective dreams and even changes retroactively to ensure consistency and avoid paradoxes. Orr gives a great example of this during a session with his dastardly psychiatrist William Haber: if he dreams effectively of a pink dog when he wakes up there will be a pink dog, but it would not surprise anybody as there will have always been pink dogs in the world, and one has wandered into the room. It would be a crime for me to elaborate on the numerous changes wrought by Orrs effective dreams, I really recommend that you find out for yourself. Here is an example: And since then Haber had at least been candid with Orr about his manipulations. That peeling off of one layer was the only real change "Wobbly reality" cover Add her prose prowess to her massive imagination and her legendary status within the SF/F genres is not at all surprising. During the last few chapters Le Guins imagination goes into overdrive and I felt totally immersed in her dream like shifting reality.
Some of his dreams become truenot in the prescient sense, but in the reality-is-reordered sense, and George is haunted by the changes. As the political world, environment and history change around them, George and the psychologist struggle with reality, responsibility and consequences.
That's what I was asking Le Guin (or, rather, myself) as I read the first half of this book. I'm sure Le Guin could have thought up some more marginally-plausible mechanism by which one individual could unintentionally and uncontrollably alter reality for the entire universe, but then the readers would have spent half the book thinking about how this worked and whether it was internally consistent, and she didn't want that. Is it possibly for a human being to really understand what the greater good is? Again, I understand why and that Le Guin was raising issues of free will, gender norms, etc, but I think it was heavy-handed. Really a lot of the didactic purpose of the story seemed heavy-handed, and I wish the hard work involved had been me thinking instead of the struggle to persevere in reading it.
George Orr, who possesses a unique ability to change the world by dreaming about, seemingly, the most mundane things, wants this power to be gone, he is sure the events should take their natural course, no matter how dire the consequences are to the humanity. The Lathe of Heaven was the first Le Guin's book that tickled my visualization "powers," which are very modest, to put it lightly. My imagination went in overdrive picturing our planet changing - billions of people disappearing, landscapes transforming, climate adjusting - all retroactive results of Orr's unconscious dreaming.
The end justifies the means. It doesn't work to try to stand outside things and run them, that way. I think the last bit kinda rolled away from her, but like any good PKD or Vonnegut novel, the imperfections of this novel are small enough to let it float and be read far into the future.
Le Guin published twenty-two 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 awards: Hugo, Nebula, National Book Award, PEN-Malamud, etc.