The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K Le Guin

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K Le Guin (1971)latheofheaven
Review by Megan AM

One of the most radical, yet unradical, ways of thinking.

Fundamentally paradoxical, yet still, fundamental.

Both the thesis and antithesis for change.

(One of most difficult concepts to teach to a classroom of 9th graders scratching themselves in their uniforms on that one day of the year when state-mandated teaching objectives cross into the territory of “Eastern Philosophy.”)

The Tao. The Way.

George Orr is the embodiment of The Way.

In The Lathe of Heaven, George Orr visits a therapist to deal with his lifelong problem of affecting reality with his dreams, what he calls “effective dreaming”. But when the landscape of reality starts changing, steady Orr is not sure he can trust the ambitious Dr. Haber with his powerful mind. Can a passive, compliant person like Orr take back control of his dreams, and reset the world?

The dualism of personality, symbolized in the style of a PKD novel.

But, really, a celebration of a particular personality.

At first, it may seem like a tale about two undesirable opposites, vain wit versus witless passivity. Le Guin pulls no punches with her quarry, the arrogant therapist Dr. Haber, who was “no being, only layers” [81], and who “was not… really sure that anyone else existed, and wanted to prove they did by helping them” (p 28)

(Ouch, says the woman who practices the same profession.)

But Le Guin also drops a few judgmental remarks on her protagonist Orr, who is “unaggressive, placid, milquetoast…” (p 7), and “meek, mild, stuttering” (p 42). George Orr is “like a block of wood not carved” (p 96).

But it turns out Le Guin likes blocks of wood. And so does Lao Tzu:

The way goes on forever nameless.
Uncut wood, nothing important,
yet nobody under heaven
dare try to carve it.

[“Sacred Power,” Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way by Ursula Le Guin, p. 48]

In the notes of her demystified translation of the Tao Te Ching (2009), Le Guin expounds on that “block of wood”:

Uncut wood – here likened to the human soul—the uncut, unearned, unshaped, unpolished, native, natural stuff is better than anything that can be made out of it. Anything done to it deforms and lessens it. Its potentiality is infinite. Its uses are trivial. (p 83)

Not an attack on the passive personality. This is the celebration, perhaps exploration, of one. A personification of The Tao.

There’s other good stuff, too. Le Guin, as always, is funny, with “enhuging” and “enreddenhuged” being only two examples of hilarious attempts at short and concise, Tao-like humor. She also addresses vainglorious ambition, the expert pretense of therapy, Orwellian dystopia, PKD-style wibble-wobble of dreaming, interracial relationships, the gray tedium of an ethnic melting pot, among other things.

But The Lathe of Heaven also arouses curiosity about Le Guin’s lifelong relationship to Taoism. A woman who tells it like it is, who dissects books with an unforgiving blade, who unleashes snappy comebacks at fellow authors, and who turns humble acceptance speeches into defiant criticism. Ursula Le Guin is no George Orr.

But The Lathe of Heaven is a lot like The Tao.

Simple. Short. Sweet. Funny.

Mystical and whole.

Like the stanzas of a Tao verse.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

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The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K Le Guin

latheofheavenThe Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K Le Guin (1976)
Review by M Fenn

Ursula K Le Guin‘s The Lathe of Heaven is the story of George Orr, a man whose dreams can change reality. He tries to prevent this by drugging himself dreamless, but that doesn’t work and he ends up in “voluntary” therapy. His therapist, Dr Haber, is at first suspicious of Orr’s claims, but when he experiences what Orr’s dreams can do first hand, he chooses to use George instead of help him, claiming he’s working for the greater good of humankind. We all know how that kind of thing usually plays out, don’t we?

Concerned about how Dr Haber is treating him, George seeks out the assistance of an attorney, Heather LeLache, who then becomes involved in his life and his dreams.

What do I love about this book? Not sure where to begin. I fell in love part way through the first paragraph and was sad when it ended. Now, I just want to start over and read the book again and again until I memorize it.

There isn’t just one thing that stands out. Le Guin’s prose is delicious: heartwrenching, beautiful, and sharply funny.I love the way she plays with language, the words she makes up, the ones she borrows from other works, and the humour she finds in language itself. (Oh, the French diseases of the soul.)

The story itself is strong: dark and creepy, a mix of George Orwell and Philip K Dick (I know I’m not the first person to come up with that combination). The characters Le Guin creates are wonderful and stick with me, the two I adore and the one I detest, as well. Orr himself is such a strong person for all his quiet fear and insecurity. At one point in the novel, LeLache describes him as such:

It was more than dignity. Integrity? Wholeness? Like a block of wood not carved.

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.

…He was the strongest person she had ever known, because he could not be moved away from the center.

And then there are the turtles. I won’t say anything more of them, but they are a special part of the book.

I do wonder at the changes that happen to one character’s persona as the book progresses, and Le Guin even brings this up at the end of the story. Why does George change this one person in his dreams and not the other person who’s truly hurting him, and what do those choices mean, if they are his choices?

So much to think about. One of the many reasons I need to reread The Lathe of Heaven. Brilliant book. I love it.

This review originally appeared on Skinnier Than It Is Wide.

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K Le Guin

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K Le Guin (1976)
Review by Admiral Ironbombs

To go under a river: there’s a strange thing to do, a really weird idea.

To cross a river, ford it, wade it, swim it, use boat, ferry, bridge, airplane, to go upriver, to go downriver in the ceaseless renewal and beginning of current: all that makes sense. But in going under a river, something is involved which is, in the central meaning of the word, perverse.

File under “authors I should have more of by now, but haven’t.” Ursula K Le Guin is often touted as one of SF’s true geniuses; she rode in with the New Wave of science fiction in the mid-1960s, and was one of the primary voices expanding SF’s scope. Her earlier novels combine fantasy and science fiction to create a framework for Le Guin’s examinations within the social sciences. The daughter of a writer and anthropologist, the social sciences are a recurring focus in Le Guin’s works. Her best known (and later) works are The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, two powerful philosophical treatises that snagged Hugo and Nebula awards. The Lathe of Heaven was an Amazing Stories serial that was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards, but pulled in just the 1972 Locus award; I got it in a box of paperbacks gifted from my parents, and it sounded interesting enough to read first.

George Orr is a man with a very unique problem: what happens in his dreams will change reality when he wakes, retroactively altering the past, leaving him the sole person aware of the changes. After he has a near-fatal overdose on drugs trying to prevent himself from sleeping, he’s assigned a behavioral psychologist specializing in sleep and dreams—the jovial and enthusiastic Dr William Haber. Of course, Haber is skeptical at first. But after discovering the fantastic truth to Orr’s claims, he uses this power to change the world for the better—something Orr doesn’t want to attempt, given that his dream-altering is wild and unpredictable, and each minor change is a butterfly-effect storm moving farther and farther from the way things should be. But Haber is dead set on righting the world’s wrongs, and if that involves using Orr to play God, so be it.

Le Guin’s world is a fantastic construct, one with a lot of depth and texture, and plenty of verisimilitude. Compared to most of the other SF novels I read this year, this is the first one to have its backdrop come alive. Le Guin comments on pollution and environmentalism, overpopulation and the cyclical rise and fall of urban centers, ongoing war in the Near East, race issues, even changing social mores—issues of the 1970s, surprisingly still relevant in the 2010s—without interfering with the gradual progression of the plot. Orr’s reality-shaping dreams are the focus, but the setting is how we see the alterations; we see the backdrop changing as Orr’s dreams affect it, without needing details spelled out or reiterated. The string of changes Orr’s forced to make are gradual at first, allowing the reader to see the setting change in small steps, before see-sawing back and forth between a grim overpopulated dystopia, Haber’s breed of hopeful utopia, and apocalyptic visions: volcano eruptions, cancerous plague, alien invasion.

Ursula Le Guin has an esteemed reputation as a science-fiction writer, and The Lathe of Heaven – one of her lesser works, if she can have such a thing – is a delight to read; her writing is strong and smooth. The prose is both poetic and gripping; the concepts big, the characters sympathetic and humane, the pacing splendid. Le Guin managed to grab my attention and hold it, in the same way a good thriller dominates the reader’s focus and emotions, keeping the plot’s progression interesting enough that I didn’t want to let go. Reading the novel is a treat, as each shocking, surprising, or emotional moment is worth arriving at. Masterful writing, with strong, deep characters, wonderful atmosphere and an amazing setting.

I found a few things to complain about, problems ranging from annoying to glaring. The first chapter dives straight into the narrative without explanation, and starting with drugged-up Orr in-media-res is unclear. And between chapter breaks the plot jumps forward days or weeks at a time, which caught me off guard. George is a hard protagonist to empathize with because of how passive and… well, wimpy he is. (Granted, that passivity was the point of his character.) I’m more impressed by the book’s ability to hook me and demand my full attention, since Haber leans on the psycho-/techno-babble crutch to sway opinion. No, it’s not a perfect book, with flaws that detracted from the reading experience, but didn’t tarnish a masterful book with beautiful prose.

Above all else, The Lathe of Heaven is complex. Accessible, and readable, but complex. A deep look will reveal bitter condemnations of John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, behaviorism, eugenics, a battle between Orr’s subdued and passive Taoist composure and Haber’s outward confidence in working for the greater good. The inherent perils of playing God, against the belief in letting fate run its course. Its questioning of reality can be read as a sort of homage to Philip K Dick, as the book’s concepts are entrenched in the surreal. This thought-provoking treatise is richly layered, and the interested, astute reader can no doubt find plenty to analyze within its pages.

At its best, science fiction has something important to say, and does so in a unique and exciting way. This is a genre of limitless potential, after all, but works that are both thought-provoking and gripping are less common than you’d think. That definition fits The Lathe of Heaven well: it’s one of those few SF books that’s intellectually stimulating and emotionally compelling at the same time. I could feel my mind exploding from the concepts presented, making me want to step aside and process the sheer cerebral brilliance I’d just experienced, but I couldn’t, wouldn’t, and didn’t want to put down because then I’d delay seeing what happened next: it’s an intense ride where the destruction of the protagonists – and Earth – rears its head more than once.

I’ve had a streak of great SF reads this year. And The Lathe of Heaven is close to the top of the list. No matter what part of science fiction you’re interested in, this book has something for you. If this is indicative of Le Guin’s less-famous works, I’m going to buy a lot more Le Guin. I give it the highest accolades and a vigorous recommendation.

This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased.