The Lathe of Heaven
The Lathe of Heaven is a science fiction book by Ursula K. Le Guin. It was first published as a serial in Amazing Stories throughout 1971, and then published as a novel later that year. The book has been adapted to film twice, once in 1980, and again in 2002, though I haven't seen either.
The story is about a man named George Orr who sees a psychologist because of a strange problem, everything he dreams becomes a reality and nobody knows that reality changed except for him. William Haber, the psychologist, doesn't believe him at first, but uses hypnosis to cause Orr to dream, and, because he caused the dream, recognizes the alternate reality. Haber, wanting to use Orr's power for good, begins forcing Orr to dream the world into a better place, but nothing goes as planned, and Orr hates being used as a tool by another man playing god.
I read this book because I wanted to increase my familiarity with female science fiction authors. I had heard of Le Guin's name from her Earthsea series which caused me to pickup Very Far Away From Anywhere Else, which I enjoyed. I tried to read another one of her famous books, The Left Hand of Darkness, but couldn't get into it. Not wanting to give up on Le Guin, I tried this book, but I wasn't very impressed.
I don't own this book, but I've listened to an audio book recording. I finished on 2019-06-08.
— This section contains spoilers! —
- The theme of the book, dreams becoming reality, but not being able to control them, is pretty great.
- The first couple dreams are unimpressive and kind of dull, but, when George Orr inadvertently dreams six billion people into nothingness as a means of solving over-population, you really get a sense of just how powerful and dangerous his ability really is.
- I appreciate the book's primary message, that you shouldn't try to solve a problem when you don't understand it, but I don't think the book made the best argument for it. Rather than side with the hero, I mostly agreed with William Haber's general outlook, that people should strive to make the world a better place for everyone, even if they don't want you to. Granted, Haber botches his attempt, but his attitude of helping people over Orr's "just let things be even if they're horrible" attitude.
- I like the explanation Haber gives for the alternate time lines, that Orr is shifting himself (and those near him) into alternate universes. This is why nobody remembers the shift except the dreamers.
- I like that the aliens were able to identify Orr's abilities, I just wish something would have come out of it.
- The origin of Orr's ability is never explained. Was Orr having "effective" dreams as a child? If not, when did they start? When did Orr notice them? What caused them to start to happening?
- The book has a strong Eastern philosophy meets Western philosophy, and I think Le Guin was trying to extol the value of Eastern philosophy, or, at the very least, try to show the benefit of harmonizing the two, but I think she did a bad job. In a speech to Haber, Orr says that he doesn't think life has a purpose, and that it wouldn't matter either way, which raises the question, "then why are you so opposed to altering it?" By the end, Orr even accepts that saving the world from destroying itself, even if it wasn't the "proper" thing to do, was the moral thing to do.
- At one point, a lawyer describes a homosexual as attempting to rape a 12-year-old boy in public, but LeGuin has confused homosexual men (who are attracted to adult men) with pedophiles (who are attracted to children). I can't entirely blame her, as many people in the 1970s had the same misunderstanding, but by 2002 (when the book takes place) most people had been disabused of this bigotry.
- The future prediction is way off. LeGuin predicted highly effective and accurate hypnosis and dream control by 2002, but, even when I read this book in 2019, there was little progress in the field. Much the opposite in fact, hypnosis has been shown to be even weaker than it was believed to be in the 1970s. It took a fair amount of suspension of disbelief in order to accept this part of the book.
- While I enjoyed the book's general idea, I don't think it was executed very well, and I was bored for a lot of it.
- I think Le Guin took a turn for the magical near the end. Orr's ability to shift through dimensions shouldn't be possible by sheer brain power alone, it should need a device capable of altering spacetime in some way. Also, when Haber steals the ability to dream effectively, it doesn't make any sense that everyone else in the world would notice what was going on, no matter how bad he botched the process based on the idea of shifting dimensions. Finally, Orr should not have been able to resist the universal shift no matter how much he "willed" himself to be immune to it.
- "The end justifies the means. But what if there never is an end? All we have is means."
- "To be God you have to know what you're doing. And to do any good at all, just believing you're right and your motives are good isn't enough."