When I finally got round to reading Ursula Le Guin’s classic 1971 science fiction novel The Lathe of Heaven a little while ago, I was amazed (and a little sad) that I’d never read it before, though I had seen the 2002 tv film without realizing it was based on a novel. I had read Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy (now expanded to more books) and a few of her short stories. I tended to think of Ursula Le Guin in terms of thoughtful and thought-provoking fantasy. The kind of futuristic, climate change and weirdness, philosophical science fiction evidenced in The Lathe of Heaven was more what I was used to from Philip K Dick. Except Ursula Le Guin gives it to us with more well-rounded characters and less misogyny.
George Orr is a quiet, unassuming but ultimately courageous man living in Portland, Oregon who starts to realize his dreams are altering reality. Consequently, he is afraid to sleep. Although everyone else is seemingly unaware that the world has ever had a different history, George can remember multiple histories – multiple realities – which, understandably enough, upsets him. He is referred for psychiatric help and attends a series of controlled dreaming sessions to overcome his fear, but his apparently friendly therapist, Dr. Haber, is almost immediately revealed as unethical. He lies about noticing a change in the world after one of George’s effective (reality-altering) dreams, in order that George still feels completely alone and like he’s losing his mind. Haber then tries to control George and manipulate his dreams, changing the world to suit Haber and his ambitions and beliefs, until George finally learns to resist.
The opening chapter is suitably disorientating, full of poetic language and mesmerizing images, mirroring George’s disorientation nicely. The chapters are written from one of three different viewpoints: George Orr, Dr. Haber, and Heather Lelache, the lawyer George hires at one point to help him against Haber. It’s these different views of similar events that confirm the change in reality is genuine, not just in George’s head. As changes occur, we notice similarities or even constants, which leads us to ponder the nature of reality. What persists in all George’s different realities? What constitutes the essence of a person’s existence?
The Lathe of Heaven also gives us an interesting (and fairly pessimistic) 1970s view of the turn of the 21st century. The Greenhouse Effect means there is no permanent snow on any mountains, there are ultra-high-rise buildings, food shortages, extinctions, overcrowding, and constant warm rain in Portland, and there’s a war in the Middle East. Meddling – even for the best intentions – is shown to have unforeseen consequences, but while George cares about what’s happening to other people and worries about causing problems, Dr. Haber thinks he knows best. However, as anyone who’s ever read alternate history will know, stopping the bad stuff might just cause an even worse alternatives to spring into being, and in any case one man’s paradise is another man’s hell.