The Lathe of Heaven

Mt Hood, Portland, USA, in a good world

(by Ursula K. Le Guin)

In his Aegypt cycle, John Crowley asks; what if the world was different once, but we don’t remember?  What if it changed again, and we thought the new world was the way it had always been? In The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. Le Guin asks the same questions but adds –  what if you could control that change?  If you could have whatever you wished for, how carefully would you have to word those wishes?

When George Orr dreams “effectively”, the world changes to align with George’s dream and only George notices that there has been a change.  George lives in an overcrowded, humid, desolate Portland.  It’s the future humankind deserves, not having paid attention to The Greenhouse Effect.  Depressed citizens like George live cheek by jowl on poor food and overdose on drugs from auto-dispensaries (until they die from pollutant cancer). George admits himself, not entirely voluntarily, for Voluntary Therapeutic Treatment and reports to psychiatrist Dr William Haber’s Efficiency Suite which is (take note) dominated by a mural of Mount Hood.  Although George cannot control his dreams, the not so subtle Dr Haber can, and does – sort of.  Dr Haber can improve humankind’s lot,  even if George is a bit lily-livered, so he gives it his best shot.  Of course George is not the cipher he seems to be and things just won’t go the way Dr Haber wants.

Le Guin can be preachy and less than subtle.  Climate change bad. Communism bad.  Being nice to each other good. This book was published in 1971 and at times it shows-

“Are there really people without resentment, without hate? she wondered.   People who never go cross-grained to the universe?  Who recognise evil, and resist evil, and yet are utterly unaffected by it?
Of course there are.  Countless, the living and the dead.  Those who have returned in pure compassion to the wheel, those who follow the way that cannot be followed without knowing they follow it, the sharecropper’s wife in Alabama and the lama in Tibet and the entomologist in Peru and the millworker in Odessa and the greengrocer in London and the goatherd in Nigeria and the old, old man sharpening a stick by a dry streambed somewhere in Australia, and all the others.  There is not one of us who has not known them  There are enough of them, enough to  keep us going.  Perhaps.”

But when she is on form – as she is at the climax of the book, we see why she maintains her reputation as a great of science fiction –

“Up on the top story, the floor was ice.  It was about a finger’s width thick, and quite clear.  Through it could be seen the stars of the Southern Hemisphere.  Orr stepped out onto it and all the stars rang loud and false, like cracked bells.  The foul smell was much worse, making him gag.  He went forward, holding out his hand.  The panel of the door of Haber’s outer office was there to meet it; he could not see it but he touched it.  A wolf howled.  The lava moved toward the city.”

The turtle-like Aliens who are gentle and wise (in at least one verson of Orr’s world), speak in a charming formal manner laced with quotes from Shakespeare.  They call George “Jor Jor” and one of them even runs an antiques store in a forgotten slum area under a broken freeway. Familiar? The explanation for their change from antagonistic to friendly (it was all a misunderstanding) is humorously dealt with and far more effective than the same trope in Card’s Ender’s Game.

The sub-conscious, sleep, race, mismatched couples are all blocks to Le Guin’s lathe.  This is a slight book but resonant.  The beginning needs to be rethought when the last page is read and that is always a good thing.



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