When George Orr sleeps, he sometimes has “effective” dreams that alter reality. Believing that he has no right to effect such changes, George begins taking drugs to suppress the dreams. As the drugs lose their efficacy, George ups the dosage, exceeding legal limits. George is caught and ordered to choose between therapy and asylum. He chooses therapy and is sent to Dr. William Haber. When Haber realizes that George is not crazy and that these “effective” dreams indeed change reality, the psychiatrist decides to make the world a better place.
And why not? Overpopulated, polluted, radioactive, and starving – humanity’s near future is an age of terrible consequences. The world could use a dreamer, figures Haber, so he hypnotizes George to shape the future.
By the end of the first week, the weather is warm and sunny, George wakes up to discover that he owns a cottage, and Haber is the director of a prestigious research institute. When Haber tries to solve overpopulation, things don’t go as planned. Still, people are no longer malnourished, and Haber blames George for the unforeseen consequences. His conscience is clear.
However, George eventually wakes to an alien invasion.
George does not like what Haber is doing, but he does not want to be locked away in an asylum, either. He struggles to escape Haber’s influence by attempting to reason with him. Why should they change the world? Haber automatically responds that:
Isn’t that man’s very purpose on earth — to do things, change things, run things, make a better world?
George sees the world and humanity’s place within it differently:
Things don’t have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What’s the function of a galaxy? I don’t know if our life has a purpose and I don’t see that it matters. What does matter is that we’re a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass.
I enjoyed reading these exchanges. George always strikes others as meek, but he is actually deeply centered. Haber, in contrast, exudes confidence but his thinking, cloaked in bombastic psychiatric jargon, lacks substance.
Ursula K. LeGuin seems to be using Haber to critique leaders that feel they are above and separate from the larger world rather than viewing themselves with humility and as part of a larger pattern. Though The Lathe of Heaven is not overtly focused on ecology, it would not be hard to interpret the novel as advocating for greater environmental awareness. It also seems like it could be interpreted as speaking against policies that led to the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction. George, meanwhile, does not know much about Taoism but he seems to have been created with it in mind since LeGuin quotes from Lao Tzu and the novel’s title is taken from Chuang Tzu.
The Lathe of Heaven is a thought provoking work of science fiction and much of its depth comes from its allusions, which reference not only Taoist teachings but also Western literature. America apparently abandons democracy in 1984, a reference to George Orwell’s 1984, and George Orr’s name may be an allusion to Orwell, too. LeGuin’s exploration of dreams recalls many of Philip K. Dick’s works, but the alternative realities and her use of the Tao Te Ching especially recalls Dick’s use of alternate history and the I-Ching in The Man in the High Castle. The dystopian future LeGuin imagines — dreary, dominated by resource scarcity, and radioactive — also recalls Blade Runner. (And for what it’s worth, Blade Runner was originally entitled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)
Although LeGuin is often praised as a superb writer, I felt that she was too reliant on extended exposition here. The expository paragraphs are understandable since readers need to learn how George’s dreams have changed reality somehow. But there are also long passages of uninterrupted internal dialogue. Having said that, LeGuin creates many enduring images here. I first read The Lathe of Heaven as a freshman in college — more than a decade ago — and upon re-reading the novel, I was surprised by how many scenes had stayed with me.
Originally published in 1971, The Lathe of Heaven was nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula, and it won the Locus Award for Best Novel. Though many readers will categorize this novel as a very fine dystopian narrative (which it is), I appreciated it most as an imaginative and thoughtful novel about how we should interact with the world around us. LeGuin’s use of Taoist ideas is fascinating and her use of George’s dreams to produce familiar science fiction tropes like nuclear war and alien invasions were often — well, often just cool. The Lathe of Heaven offers readers a rich and intriguing story, and readers new to LeGuin’s work could certainly start here.
I love Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels from the late 1960s and early 70s. She just couldn’t go wrong during this period. Although The Lathe of Heaven may not be the first book that comes to mind as one of her masterpieces (that honor would likely go to The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, or the EARTHSEA TRILOGY), it was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Awards and won the Locus Award in 1972. It’s what I consider one of her smaller books, but still one of her best.
What makes The Lathe of Heaven great is that it can tackle some of the biggest issues of the time — overpopulation, environmental destruction, war, racism, the lost soul of the modern world, exploration of the dreaming mind, alternate realities, and the urge to shape society for the better — all in under 200 pages. I really feel that is a lost art in this day of massive doorstoppers, multi-book mega-series, and self-indulgent info-dumps.
The story is also simple in concept, with a very small cast of characters, so it could easily be a stage play and has been made into a film twice, once as a PBS production in 1980 and later as an A&E Network film in 2002. It centers on George Orr, an unremarkable man who happens to have “effective” dreams which alter reality. Horrified by this, he tries to suppress his dreams with drugs, but runs afoul of the law and is given the choice between therapy or a mental asylum. He chooses therapy, and is assigned Dr. William Haber.
The early parts of the story detail the therapy sessions of George and Dr. Haber. George is a very passive, almost timid man. He doesn’t want to be in this situation, and certainly doesn’t want to be altering reality with his unconscious dreams. Dr. Haber is the polar opposite, a confident, brash, and aggressive man who quickly recognizes the potential to harness George’s dreams to shape reality in the ways he wants. Although he makes repeated and valid arguments as to why he should utilize this unique ability to do good and improve society and the world, each time he inserts suggestions to George such as “let’s imagine a world without overpopulation, war, pollution, racism, etc.,” the outcomes invariably are not what he expected and include some serious unforeseen side-effects. Notably, with each new iteration, Dr. Haber’s status and career seem to also improve.
The middle portion of The Lathe of Heaven then explores a serious of alternate realities dreamed up by George’s unconscious with prompting from Dr. Haber. The ways in which things go wrong are quite ingenious, and it’s clear that Le Guin does not subscribe to the power fantasy that someone with the means has the right to shape society and reality to their liking without consultation, even with the best of intentions. As the worlds get stranger and more distorted, Dr. Haber hatches an idea that if he can replicate the process on himself, he can cut the reluctant George out of the equation and dream the world himself exactly to his specifications. This forms the climactic final events of the story.
What adds interest to The Lathe of Heaven and places it firmly in the late 60s & early 70s is not just the political issues of the time, but also the underlying elements of Eastern philosophy, specifically the Taoist quotes at the beginnings of chapters from Chuang Tzu, as well as Tao Te Ching, The Book of the Way and Its Virtue by Lao Tzu, along with western philosophers such as H.G. Wells, Victor Hugo, and even Lafcadio Hearn. You can see how well-read Le Guin is and how much Eastern philosophy was gaining prominence and popularity in the West as an alternative to traditional Western philosophy, especially on college campuses and in intellectual circles. This is similar to the profound influence of the I Ching, The Book of Changes, in Philip K. Dick’s dystopian masterpiece of alternate reality, The Man in the High Castle.
Taoist thinking can be found in the character of George. From many perspectives, this protagonist is very frustrating due to his passivity, reluctance to take any action to change the world around him, and instinctual distrust of authoritarian behavior. Whereas some people might seek to harness their powers to shape reality through dreams, George is repelled by this. Taoism is one of those slippery, non-dogmatic philosophies that espouses the pursuit of The Way though natural, uncontrived living. Disciples seek to discard the ills of civilization and material desires and pursue the simple, unadorned joys of a basic agrarian existence. One key concept is called Wu Wei, which is defined as “effortless action,” “non-action,” much as the planets orbit the sun without any effort, just following the natural rhythms of the universe.
So while from a Western perspective George is a spineless man, afraid and reluctant to do anything with his powers of dreaming, from a Taoist perspective he might be a very dedicated individual trying to avoid doing harm to the natural order of the world around him. Of course this becomes an interesting point of debate in the story — if Taoists look to the ancient past of a simple existence as the ideal, does this principle still apply in the dystopian future society of George and Dr. Haber, living in massive towers packed with millions of people living on minimal rations due to overpopulation, a deteriorating environment, wars throughout Europe and the Middle East, and a general spiritual malaise? Faced with such conditions, is it wrong for Dr. Haber to want to change that? And is it right for George to resist any such manipulations? As always, it is the questions that Le Guin raises that are more important than the answers. The Lathe of Heaven is a concise, though-provoking journey into multiple realities and the dreaming unconscious, but is in no way an escape from reality.