The Lathe of Heaven

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My first reaction after reading The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin was a need for intense reflection. The novel, written in 1971, seems more like a warning guide than science fiction.The main character, George Orr, is afflicted with the ability to dream “effectively” as he calls it. Effective dreaming is, in the simplest form, having your dreams come true. The first example is when George is a teenager and his aunt is staying with his family. He is bothered by his aunt’s presence and unintentionally has a dream that his aunt died in a car accident six weeks prior. He wakes to discover that is the reality, and he is recalling two different realities, one where she died in the car accident and one where she disappeared after his dream. Orr realizes his ability, and responsibility, and tries to retreat from it by abusing sleep and “pep” pills, a behavior that lands him in mandatory therapy with a doctor who specializes in dreams. This doctor, Dr. Haber, quickly understands that George is truly powerful and manipulates George’s dreams using “The Augmentor” a tool Haber developed that stabilizes the dream state.

While Haber’s manipulations start small, George dreams that Haber has a corner office with a view of Mt. Hood, they quickly escalate as Haber gains more power and tries to remedy the worlds problems. Haber attempts to use George’s abilities to solve war, overpopulation, and racism among other things, but every time a problem is solved there are devastating consequences. Throughout the novel, Haber moves from just manipulating George’s dreams to manipulating George, denying his requests for the therapy to help him stop dreaming effectively, Haber has his own agenda in which George plays a crucial part.

The clearest message that shines through Le Guin’s brilliantly intricate plot is the message that we are living in a fragile system, both environmentally and otherwise, and quick-fixes will only be detrimental, as Dr. Haber proves. George is wracked with worry about the different problems that plague his reality, and Dr. Haber manipulates his dreams in an attempt to solve these problems by making simple suggestions, like “dream there is peace on earth.” Unfortunately, when Dr. Haber attempts to solve the world problems in such a simple way, greater complications are created. When Dr. Haber suggests George dream of peace on earth, George dreams the world has united to fight intergalactic enemies. When Dr. Haber suggests George dream of a world less distraught by overpopulation, George dreams of a plague that kills off the majority of the worlds population. These situations continue throughout the novel, heavily suggesting that the world problems we are facing are issues that are going to take serious time and commitment to solve.

Another huge theme is the theme of power. George Orr is thought to be considerably weak by Dr. Haber and by himself, submitting to the doctors orders for the majority of the book until he finds liberation through a strong-minded lawyer. Dr. Haber starts out quite powerless, working in a dingy office, earning little respect for himself. By manipulating George’s dreams, Dr. Haber gains immeasurable power, making himself the director of the government operated Human Utility: Research and Development, or HURAD for short.  When he goes too far in his manipulations (SPOILER) and attempts to gain George’s power for himself, he tries to change the world to the way that he believes it should be and ultimately he is met with immense failure, creating a problem that only George is able to solve, finally channeling his desire to do good into recognizing and asserting his own power. Additionally, throughout all of the different realities that George creates, the president remains consistent, another glimpse of power, and the unwavering people who achieve it. This is certainly related to the events of 1971, where between the Weather Underground, Charles Manson, and the Vietnam War, there were obviously many different people fighting for power and vying for social and political change through their own means. The world that Le Guin was observing and the world she created are similar in that they demonstrate that no one person can decide what’s best for the world, a communal agreement and effort is required for significant, positive change.

Something that is certainly relevant, and wonderful, is the influence of women in this novel. There is only one notable female character, but she is extremely important to the plot. Prior to meeting Heather Lelache, George Orr believes himself to be, and therefore is, weak. He allows Dr. Haber to do whatever he wants with George’s mind, and while George is upset, he is compliant. Only when George decides to consult a lawyer does he meet Heather, and in that instance he starts to gain some strength and stand up for himself. They develop feelings for each other, and Heather encourages George to take matters into his own hands. While she is not consistent in his realities, the motivation to see her again inspires George to keep trying rather than fully submitting to Dr. Haber, and it is only with her support that George does recognize his power and stand up to Dr. Haber in the end.

Reading the novel today, it’s impossible to ignore the parallels between Le Guin’s predicted future and today. One of the most notable similarities between the ravaged world of Lathe, set in 2002, and real-world 2013, is the population. In the novel, the world population has reached a startling 7 billion people, a number we ourselves hit only recently. Because of this massive population there is incredible overcrowding, the main character lives in an SRO, and food has to be rationed, all things that could happen in our near future. As I said earlier, reading the novel today, it’s easy to interpret The Lathe of Heaven as a guide for what not to do, as well as a warning to what our world could become.

Le Guin predicts countless terrors that will befall the dystopian future, but the truly unsettling aspect of her novel is the fact that her future is now and we are living in her prophecy. The disturbing occurrences outlined in the novel are only a short cry from our own reality, and the worst things that befall her sci fi story are things that could certainly happen within our lifetimes.

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3 responses to “The Lathe of Heaven

  • Naomi Wright

    Food for thought: in her 1976 introduction to “The Left Hand of Darkness,” Le Guin states, “science fiction is not predictive; its descriptive.” I wonder if she would accept designation as prophetic?

    P.S. Awesome review, good on you for going so early!

    • haileychamberlain

      I think that because I’m making an observation relating her novel to present day rather than making assumptions about her intent while writing 40 years ago, and because I’m stating that she was prophetic based on actual current events, it’s the right word to use, but thanks for the question!

  • cstabile

    To echo Naomi, thanks to Hailey for being the first to write a review and for setting the bar so high. One thing to consider (and for others to think about as they read, review, and blog) is Le Guin’s use of language. A crucial element of reading these stories and novels involves paying close attention not only to plot, but also to the making of meaning within the texts.

    What does the title of the book mean, for example? What is the meaning of the epigram by Chuang Tse at the beginning of Chapter 3: “Those whom heaven helps we call the sons of heaven. They do not learn this by learning. They do not work it by working. They do not reason it by using reason. To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven”?

    Those interested in themes of rationality and objectivity will be very interested in the figure of Haber, the pompous, ursine, officious scientist who thinks to make Orr his lathe.

    And for those interested in feminist science fiction and environmentalism, listen to this passage from early in the novel: “The Greenhouse Effect had been quite gradual, and Haber, born in 1962, could clearly remember the blue skies of his childhood. Nowadays the eternal snows were gone from all the world’s mountains, even Everest, even Erebus, fiery-throated on the waste Antarctic shore” (7).

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