"In a future world racked by violence and environmental catastrophes, George Orr wakes up one day to discover that his dreams have the ability to alter reality. He seeks help from Dr. William Haber, a psychiatrist who immediately grasps the power George wields. Soon George must preserve reality itself as Dr. Haber becomes adept at manipulating George's dreams for his own purposes."--Publisher description.
Le Guin is an excellent writer, and keeps the story clean, not bringing in all sorts of additional characters or subplots, but at the same time, making us think about the human condition. There are elements of environmentalism, eastern philosophy, and man’s nature on display here. I love how we feel the angst of the world when the book was written, the fear of overpopulation, pollution, and clear references to the immorality of the Vietnam war (“He had grown up in a country run by politicians who sent the pilots to man the bombers to kill the babies to make the world safe for children to grow up in”) - yet at the same time, the book is ahead of its time, and timeless. As a lot of the best science fiction authors are, Le Guin is remarkably prescient about the future; to be warning of global warming because of greenhouse gasses in 1971 was impressive to me. She also envisages battery powered cars (‘batcars’), the inevitable uprising to end apartheid in South Africa, and a multitude of nations all armed with nuclear weapons.
Le Guin also occasionally injects little one-liner barbs into her prose, almost as if in her stream of consciousness, and they’re wonderful (“Look out for this woman. She is dangerous.” then later “…and so now she’d have heartburn. On top of pique, umbrage, and ennui. Oh, the French diseases of the soul.”). When the doctor is frowning and standing over his patient she injects “Your God is a jealous God”, which delivers on many levels, including a criticism of the doctor and a religion.
I loved how the book was set in Portland, and had a strong African-American woman character in the lawyer he enlists to help him. Most of all, I loved the blend of reality with dreams, self with universe, and the virtues of action vs. letting things be. Oh, and the turtle aliens too.
On dreams vs. reality, reminding me of Chuang-Tzu’s butterfly dream:
“George Orr, pale in the flickering fluorescent glare of the train car in the infrafluvial dark, swayed as he stood holding a swaying steel handle on a strap among a thousand other souls. He felt the heaviness upon him, the weight bearing down endlessly. He thought, I am living in a nightmare, from which from time to time I wake in sleep.”
On the meaning of life:
“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 grass-blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass.”
“She went to the door and stood half inside, half outside for a while, listening to the creek shouting and hollering eternal praise! eternal praise! It was incredible that it had kept up that tremendous noise for hundreds of years before she was even born, and would go on doing it until the mountains moved. And the strangest thing about it, now very late at night in the absolute silence of the woods, was a distant note in it, far away upstream it seemed, like the voices of children singing – very sweet, very strange.”
On oneness, it reminded me a lot of Alan Watts’ writings on Buddhism:
“…I’m a part of it. Not separate from it. I walk on the ground and the ground’s walked on by me, I breathe the air and change it, I am entirely interconnected with the world.”
On sex, interesting comment during the ‘sexual revolution’:
“The insistent permissiveness of the late twentieth century had produced fully as much sex-guilt and sex-fear in its heirs as had the insistent repressiveness of the late nineteenth century.”
And this one, on attraction:
“An irrelevant and poignant sensation of pleasure rose in him, like a tree that grew up and flowered all in one moment with its roots in his loins and its flowers in his mind.”
On the Taoist principle of wu wei, and the uncarved block.
“The infinite possibility, the unlimited and unqualified wholeness of being of the uncommitted, the nonacting, the uncarved: the being who, being nothing but himself, is everything.”
I loved this one too:
“Are there really people without resentment, without hate? she wondered. People who never go cross-grained to the universe? Who recognize evil, and resist evil, and yet are utterly unaffected by it?”
In The Lathe of Heaven I find myself agreeing with, and empathizing with, both Orr and Haber. As a scientist, Haber's desire to make the world a better place is more than understandable to me - it is my life's purpose. His reasoning is mostly sound, though a bit soulless, and I can see where critique of the character arises.
Thus our sympathies naturally turn to Orr and his philosophies. I must admit that it is difficult for me to attain empathy with such a passive personality. Orr is strong, as Le Guin remarks, but he is very passive, content to flow along in life, no matter how horrible, until there is no life left. He is afraid of change. In contrast, Heather serves as the healthy balance of action and thought, straddling the divide created by Orr and Haber. In fact, the climax of the book rests not only on Orr's shoulders, but Heather's aid in his endeavor.
Le Guin's greatest achievement in The Lathe of Heaven, however, is that it all just feels so real (and this in a book with continuum-shifting dreaming and an invasion of extraterrestial turtles). The characters, and the protagonist George Orr in particular, are believably portrayed and psychologically complex. The characters' actions and the turns of the plot follow naturally though not entirely predictably upon one another. And the world itself is immersive and detailed, in spite of its frequent oneiric rearrangings.
It is this visceral reality of Le Guin's impossible fiction that gives The Lathe of Heaven its this-worldly literary impact. The near-novella hits on countless issues in its less-than-two-hundred pages (everything from geo- and global politics to Taoist spirituality), but more than anything else it is an exploration of moral responsibility. Through its imaginative set-up, Le Guin creates a mutually opposed protagonist-and-antagonist pair, neither of which is straightforwardly blameworthy for his actions, or straightforwardly innocent, either. In this moral morass Le Guin asks us to contemplate what a concerned agent can and should do.
It is a powerful and thought-provoking question, and The Lathe of Heaven poses it in a powerful and thought-provoking way which is also eminently readable and thoroughly enjoyable.
I found the exposition slightly overwritten in this short novel, which otherwise had some fantastic dreamy prose, but the story within is fascinating, as is the relationship and differences between Huber and Orr.
The best kind of book is the book where you have to stop every few pages just to think about all the implications of what you've just read. This is that kind of book.
By chance, the psychiatrist he's assigned to is Dr. Haber.
This isn't the beginning of George's nightmare. George was using the drugs to suppress his dreams, and this is vital because some small percentage of George's dreams are what he calls "effective dreams." They change the world, and not just for him. He's the only one who even remembers that the world was ever different.
He tells Dr. Haber the truth, and manages to convince him. Haber promises to help, but instead begins manipulating George's dreams, in pursuit of his own ideas of a "better" world.
What follows is a strange, often dark, and fascinating adventure through alternating timelines, none of which work out exactly the way Haber intended. Haber grows increasingly frustrated; George grows increasingly alarmed--even as, along the way some positive and encouraging changes do happen. Yet even the good changes are often the result of horrific events that killed millions, and George feels responsible for those deaths.
He needs friends, help, a way out of the trap.
George is a very good man, with seemingly great power, who wants to do as little damage as possible. Haber is not really a bad man, and he is genuinely trying to make things better--but he does have a large ego and great personal ambition, too.
They and the whole world are on a roller coaster ride through an unpredictably changing world.
It's a fantastic, wonderful story. Highly recommended.
I bought this audiobook.
The book takes place in a climate-change affected world, where overpopulation has led to a scarcity of resources. At least, until Orr dreams up a new reality...
The story raises questions about "the greater good" and whether the ends justify the means, and what sacrifices humans are willing to make for safety and security.
It's a very compelling read - I couldn't put it down. In the end, Le Guin doesn't really say anything new about the question of whether the ends justify the means, but it was still an interesting thought experiment.
I've read this book twice, and as with most of this author's books, it bore up very well to that test.
Touching on many of the big questions such as the nature of humanity and with social and political themes abounding even touching on environmental concerns and over-population which, for 1971 when this work was first published, is quite something. The story never meanders though and stays fixed within its main tenets which means it's a fairly quick read weighing in at under 200 pages. In lesser hands this story could get terribly confusing but I'm glad to say that wasn't the case here. It's a really enjoyable read and I'll certainly be looking for more of her work having only read some of the Earthsea stories previously.
It's been quite a few years since I revisited this one. I have to admit, it's not my favorite book by LeGuin - so I nearly gave it 4 stars just because I do think most of her work is better. However, in the grand scheme of all-the-books-out-there, and considering its place in the history of science fiction - it really does deserve 5.
It's very much an 'idea' book.
The premise: George Orr, an unexceptional man in other ways, has come to believe that his dreams come true. This isn't as good as it sounds: it's not like he has control over what he dreams. And not all dreams are pleasant... or moral.
In search of a cure, he goes to a psychologist. As one might expect, the sleep specialist is skeptical at first - but soon becomes a believer. Rather than attempting to cure Orr, he seeks to use Orr's ability to both aggrandize himself and improve the world.
Disturbed that his therapist is using him as a tool against his will, Orr next seeks out a lawyer. She's not sure if there's anything she can do to help - but she's willing to try. Orr gradually develops a relationship with her, through a shifting series of realities...
The characters of Orr, Dr. Haber, and the lawyer Heather LeLache are complex and believable, even though they are somewhat representative of 'types.' The dystopic visions of possible futures, somewhat eerily, barely feel dated at all. Our concerns haven't changed much (or rather, LeGuin was quite prescient about what our real problems would be.)
The main theme of the book is the ethics of the use of power. It discusses and shows various arguments and aspects of the topic, without giving any quick and easy answers. Thought-provoking and worthwhile.
Diversion Books has just released this book in e-book format for the first time; and NetGalley provided me with a copy. Time to update from that old paperback!
A masterwork of ontological possibilities. . .
The Left Hand of Darkness presents a world whose inhabitants may choose their gender, allowing the author to challenge our views of male/female roles. The Dispossessed shows how a colony of people, living for generations on the moon in a harsh and resource-constrained environment develop a society where everyone contributes and personal possessions are minimal. The author then shows the clash of cultures when one of the moon’s inhabitants comes in contact with a society more like our own. Both books are fascinating reads, although they share a touch of the author’s political soapbox that occasionally intrudes on the story (though not as overtly as Margaret Atwood’s books).
The Lathe of Heaven is different. The what-if centers on the very nature of reality. What if our dreams could alter reality itself? This is a fascinating and occasionally disturbing story. It’s probably not for those who prefer a well-grounded story that logically proceeds from start to finish. But it’s a wonderfully written, complex read that left me dwelling on it long after I finished, far and away the best of the three.
Would you like to shape the world to your liking? Maybe to rid it of war, overpopulation, hunger, racial prejudice, decease? To make it into your own idea of Heaven?
Well, the two main characters of The Lathe of Heaven have different opinions on this subject. 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. His doctor, William Haber, thinks it is his responsibility to make this world a better place. He is adamant he will achieve his goal of a perfect society! And he will use Orr's ability as a means to his megalomaniac ends. Does it matter that people in his utopia are all of a battleship gray color? That sick people are euthanized? Not to Haber, as long as it is for the common good.
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. This story would make a visually stunning movie a la Inception, only a million times better, because Le Guin explores much cooler ideas of fatalism, equanimity, and God complex.
4 stars because it took so long to come up with the idea how to fix Orr's dream problem. I had the solution the moment I knew what his complaint was and I don't understand why Orr himself never thought of it. A bit of a weak plotting there.
Besides this minor issue, the novel is just immensely exciting and imaginative.
A few notes:
* Until the end of the book, George is a draftsman. Someone who acts as an interface between someone's idea and the realisation of the idea.
* With his median psychometric scoring George is the ultimate "Everyman".
* Dreams as reality.
* Absolute power, even if it is for the greater good, corrupts, absolutely.
* There is Nietzschean subtext throughout. Will to power. The destruction of god by Haber trying to become an Übermensch. The void, "The eyes looked straight forward into the dark, into the void, into the unbeing at the centre of William Haber".
I was expecting another book as dense and difficult as The Left Hand of Darkness, but Lathe of Heaven was both shorter and much easier to read. That doesn't mean it was less powerful or fascinating, however.