I’m starting off my Vintage Science Fiction Month with Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven (1971). It is one of the most thrilling books I’ve read but also one of the most philosophical and poetic. It achieves an amazing balance in the confrontation between two opposing characters: George Orr, whose “effective” dreams change the world, and his psychotherapist, Dr. Haber, who seeks power for himself through manipulating the mind of his patient.
There are titanic forces at work in The Lathe of Heaven, suggested by this early passage as we meet Orr trying to awaken from one of his powerful dreams.
“But here rise the stubborn continents. The shelves of gravel and the cliffs of rock break from water baldly into air, that dry, terrible outerspace of radiance and instability, where there is no support for life. And now, now the currents mislead and the waves betray, breaking their endless circle, to leap up in loud foam against rock and air, breaking… What will the creature made all of seadrift do on the dry sand of daylight; what will the mind do, each morning, waking?”The Lathe of Heaven, Kindle edition, page 1
This dream logic may be hard to follow, but I think these elements of Orr’s dreaming foreshadow the earthshaking and life changing scale of what his mind can do. Yet Orr himself does not do anything. He certainly doesn’t want to change the world through his unique power. He wants only to be free of it.
He is repeatedly described as simple or normal or finely balanced on all the scales of psychological measurement. He accepts being as it is, yet his dreams can vastly alter the whole context in which he lives. Not because he wants to. He is intensely afraid of the effect of his dreaming and tries to stop it with drugs.
It’s the drugs that lead him to seek Haber’s help. George Orr is content to be and to do, yet his therapist turns out to be someone vacant at his core who uses words and his skills of hypnosis and a strange machine called the Augmentor to force change upon the world.
Unlike Orr, he is never satisfied with what is, yet never wants to stop the change unleashed by Orr’s dreaming under his direction because he uses it to accumulate his own power. All under the pretext of making the world a better place.
The contrast is captured in this Taoist chapter heading quotation:
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. — CHUANG TSE : XXIIIThe Lathe of Heaven, Kindle edition, page 26
While Orr is hoping that the psychologist will help him stop dreaming, Haber uses his machine to ensure that he will keep on changing the world. And under Haber’s guidance, Orr brings about cataclysmic change.
The overpopulated world is reduced by plague to a fraction of its former burden. Furthermore, the consciousness of everyone living in this new world remembers only its altered history and their own experiences of loss and survival. The dreaming moves on to end a dangerous war by uniting the world against an alien invasion. He eliminates racial strife through turning everyone grey and introducing a drab sameness to the world.
Each change leads to an enhancement of Haber’s position in the world until he rises from the obscurity of his humble therapy practice to being head of a scientific empire consulted by world leaders. He doesn’t want to stop, even to the point of eliminating from existence all people who have any kind of genetic “defect”.
In the midst of interacting with Haber, Orr turns to a lawyer, Heather Lelache to serve as an impartial witness to his therapy/dreaming sessions. She too is transformed each time the world changes, terrified when she observes the first impact of Orr’s dreaming but ultimately gaining in humanity and insight. She finally comes to see Orr in his true self as a figure of strength whose visions lead her into a different understanding of the natural world. In one of the worlds dreamed into being, George and Heather are lovers, but it is a relationship that becomes imperiled when Haber tries to take over the dreaming.
We see Heather transformed from a tough minded lawyer who presents a glittering hard-edged surface to the world to someone who can see through Haber because she achieves her own kind of centeredness:
A person who believes, as she did, that things fit: that there is a whole of which one is a part, and that in being a part one is whole; such a person has no desire whatever, at any time, to play God. Only those who have denied their being yearn to play at it.The Lathe of Heaven, Kindle edition, page 108
And Haber very much wants to play God. He finally perfects his machine so that his own dreams can also change the world. But he only precipitates a nightmare which Orr struggles to end in a terrifying climactic scene.
The emptiness of Haber’s being, the effective nightmare, radiating outward from the dreaming brain, had undone connections. The continuity that had always held between the worlds or timelines of Orr’s dreaming had now been broken. Chaos had entered in.The Lathe of Heaven, Kindle edition, page 174
The richness and depth of this story make it my favorite of all Le Guin’s many remarkable novels. I haven’t even mentioned how much of the settings of The Lathe of Heaven revolve around climate change. The world we first see is not only overpopulated, it is suffering under the effects of the Greenhouse Effect. George Orr walks in Portland, Oregon, under rains that are the melted ice of the polar regions.
It is a world teetering on destruction of many kinds. There is no simple path to salvation in this story, only a kind of fable about accepting the complexity of life, ranging from the dreamtimes of rocks through the efforts of humans to live to the intrusions of alien beings who have achieved their own form of equanimity.
The Lathe of Heaven is a powerful reading experience that I recommend to all. Maybe it qualifies as vintage science fiction, but it is really timeless.
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