A review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven

The City I Dream, Victor Brauner

George Orr is not well. The meek protagonist of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven abuses prescription drugs in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to stop himself from falling asleep. Orr doesn’t want to sleep because he believes that his dreams come true—that they literally alter reality—but in such a way that no one but Orr realizes that the world has changed. Orr gets caught using a “Pharmacy Card” that doesn’t belong to him, and is court-ordered to begin treatment with a sleep research psychiatrist, Dr. William Haber. Although Haber initially doesn’t believe Orr’s claim to be cursed with “effective dreams” that transform reality, he soon realizes that Orr’s dreams somehow do come true. Then, via hypnotic suggestion (and an “Augmentor” device), Haber begins wielding Orr’s gift/curse as a clumsy tool to “better” the world.

The world of The Lathe of Heaven is grim, gray, dystopian. Published in 1971 and set in Portland in the palindromic year of 2002, Le Guin’s novel is depressingly prescient. Not only does she capture the onset of seventies malaise (the ashes of hope that burned out in the sixties), she also points to a future of environmental catastrophe:

Very little light and air got down to street level; what there was was warm and full of fine rain. Rain was an old Portland tradition, but the warmth—70° F on the second of March—was modern, a result of air pollution. Urban and industrial effluvia had not been controlled soon enough to reverse the cumulative trends already at work in the mid-twentieth century; it would take several centuries for the CO2 to clear out of the air, if it ever did. New York was going to be one of the larger casualties of the Greenhouse Effect, as the polar ice kept melting and the sea kept rising…

This is also a world of urban sprawl, overpopulation, malnutrition, and total war (a clusterfuck in the Middle East, wouldn’t you know). The government is a vague and menacing presence here—vaguely totalitarian, vaguely Big Brotheresque. We learn of the “New Federal Constitution of 1984,” one of many references to Orwell’s book. (The most obvious is our passive hero’s name).

So it’s no wonder that Haber sets about to create a utopia, right? Wouldn’t you, like, try to make the world a better place if you could? Haber is repeatedly described as a “benevolent man”—Le Guin withholds the word dictator—but the central theme comes through repeatedly: Is it possible to alter reality for the greater good? Or do we simply exist in nature, a part of everything around us?

Haber’s experiments with Orr’s mind have unintended consequences. How might we, say, cure overpopulation? How about an awful plague. Orr’s “effective dreams” revise history, rewrite reality, remap consciousness. But he’s never quite able to pull off the massive tasks Haber sets for him—end racism, end war, cure the damaged ecosystem (Le Guin is extremely pessimistic on this last front). Orr is burdened with the consciousness of multiple realities, and feels deep guilt for his role in uncreation. He starts to go crazy:

“I am cracking,” he said. “You must see that. You’re a psychiatrist. Don’t you see that I’m going to pieces? Aliens from outer space attacking Earth! Look: if you ask me to dream again, what will you get? Maybe a totally insane world, the product of an insane mind. Monsters, ghosts, witches, dragons, transformations—all the stuff we carry around in us, all the horrors of childhood, the night fears, the nightmares. How can you keep all that from getting loose? I can’t stop it. I’m not in control!”

The language here points to a fascinating feature of The Lathe of Heaven—as more “transformations” unfold from that “stuff we carry around in us,” the novel becomes richer, more vivid, more alive. The early chapters are spare, gray—there’s a scraped-out feeling about them. They feel small. As Haber pushes Orr into bigger dreams, things get weirder—and, uh, bigger. And while The Lathe of Heaven never quite reaches the rich, full territory of The Left Hand of DarknessThe Dispossessed and the Earthsea books, it’s important to note that that’s not what Le Guin’s trying to do here. The Lathe of Heaven is ultimately about philosophy, not anthropology.

Perhaps the signal character of The Lathe of Heaven’s philosophy is Heather Lelache, who somehow synthesizes Haber’s agency with Orr’s passiveness. A lawyer (in one reality…), she tries to help Orr become free from Haber, hypnotizing him to implant a counter-suggestion, but also realizing what “unimaginable responsibility [she had] undertaken”:

A person who believes, as she did, that things fit: that there is a whole of which one is a part, and that in being a part one is whole; such a person has no desire whatsoever, at any time, to play God. Only those who have denied their being yearn to play at it.

If Orr’s name echoes Orwell, then perhaps Lelache echoes Le Guin. Haber’s name may allude to Fritz Haber, the German chemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1918 for inventing the Haber-Bosch process. Fritz Haber’s invention essentially allowed societies to create much larger quantities of food fertilizers, literally saving billions of people from starving. (Fritz Haber’s Wikipedia page notes that the “food base of half of the current world population is based on the Haber–Bosch process”). But: Fritz Haber also invented chemical fucking warfare, going so far as to enlist in the German Army in World War I, where, as a captain, he oversaw the implementation of weaponized chlorine gas he invented. He probably thought he was, uh, making the world a better place. Later, the Nazis would modify Fritz Haber’s invention, the pesticide Zyklon A, removing an odor humans could sense. They used it in their death camps to murder people. Fritz Haber was Jewish.

Did I get off track here, riffing on Fritz Haber? (I happened to hear a Radiolab story on the man around the time I was finishing up The Lathe of Heaven). I think his real-life story illustrates, in its condensed form, so many of the problems that Le Guin plays with in her novel: How do we bear our choices? How much can we really affect the world? Is our agency authentic? Do our good intentions matter? How do our decisions ripple out into new realities—and cut off other realities?

As a way of perhaps offering a range of (oblique) answers to these questions, Le Guin opens each chapter in the novel with an epigraph. We get citations from Chuang Tse, Lao Tse, Lafcadio Hearn, H.G. Wells—there’s a particularly beautiful passage from Victor Hugo on dream and reality that somehow poetically summarizes The Lathe of Heaven better than anything I can do here. 

As if to rival the poetry of the epigraphs she’s chosen, Le Guin opens her novel with three imagistic paragraphs which outline her novel’s themes. She gives us the image of a passive jellyfish, “most vulnerable and insubstantial creature [which] has for its defense the violence and power of the whole ocean, to which it has entrusted its being, its going, and its will.” The image is echoed later in Heather Lelache’s notion “that there is a whole of which one is a part, and that in being a part one is whole.” But ultimately, the jellyfish is suggestive of consciousness in dream:

What will the creature made all of seadrift do on the dry sand of daylight; what will the mind do, each morning, waking?

Yes. What will the waking mind do?

The Lathe of Heaven is a propulsive and intriguing read. I can’t believe I hadn’t read it before now. Great stuff.

5 thoughts on “A review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven”

Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.