Review: The Lathe of Heaven

The Lathe of Heaven is my first Ursula le Guin novel, which, I know! is ridiculous! I am a terrible SFF reader.

It’s the story of George Orr, a man whose dreams change reality. When the authorities in his overcrowded world find out that he’s been abusing drugs to stop himself dreaming, they send him to  a psychiatrist, William Haber, who quickly discovers George’s secret, and starts manipulating his dreams through hypnosis as a shortcut to making the world a better place.

It goes, of course, horribly wrong; because the unconscious mind is a secret and subtle thing, and George’s insists on misinterpreting Haber’s instructions. So, for instance, when told to dream of a less crowded world, it creates a plague that wipes out billions of people.

It’s an interesting novel, though I can see why it’s not one that gets talked about a lot. I struggled with thinking about it: I read it as (partly) a novel about the folly of trying to change the world from the top down, as Haber tries to; of trying to change it without doing the work of including everyone in it. There’s a particularly telling scene in which George, instructed to dream a world without racism, creates a world in which everyone’s skin is a uniform shade of grey. This is a world without racism; but it’s also a world without George’s love interest, a mixed-race woman called Heather Lelache, who’s delightfully abrasive. The point being: erasure does no-one any favours. (Le Guin leaves the question of why it’s Heather who disappears, rather than, say, any white people, unanswered; a redemptive reading could see this as a reflection of Haber’s world-building biases, but given that it’s George’s unconscious that’s dreamed this world up, this seems unlikely.)

This is where I run into trouble: if Haber’s top-down approach to changing the world is wrong (and, to be clear, I agree with le Guin on this point), then what’s the alternative? George is explicitly a passive character, almost a cipher – he’s average on every personality test, and he seems to have very few ambitions of his own. And he’s the only one who can right the wrong Haber’s caused – by escaping the abusive relationship he has with the psychiatrist. Le Guin seems to be saying that George is fit to wield the power of his dreams because he can accept the world as it is; because he understands that the world as it is, despite its imperfections, is better than a false utopia.

Which is all well and good, and, as far as it goes, true. But this feels like an argument for not trying. For not even doing the work to make the world better from the bottom up. There is nothing in The Lathe of Heaven that challenges Haber’s way of going about things.

I accept that I’m being unfairly and overly reductive here – I read this about two months ago, and I don’t remember the nuances of the text. And I’d stress that I enjoyed The Lathe of Heaven more than I was expecting to: it’s thoughtful in a way that SF often isn’t, using its speculative elements to think about non-speculative issues like power, the subconscious and identity. It feels like a minor work of le Guin’s, but it’s still better than a lot of things I’ve read this year.

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