To sleep, perchance to change the world? Ursula Le Guin plumbs the depths of subconsciousness to little effect in ‘The Lathe of Heaven’

April 30, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 30, 2019

In 2002, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America designated Ursula K. Le Guin as a grand master. The American was the 20th author to win the honor but only the second woman, after Andre Norton in 1983. Despite her prestige and influence — Le Guin, who died last year at age 87, was named a living legend by the U.S. Library of Congress two years before she was honored by SFWA — I’ve only read a handful of her tales, mostly in the form of short fiction included in anthologies.

Le Guin’s sixth novel was The Lathe of Heaven. Unlike the preceding volumes, four of which established the Hainish or League of All Worlds universe and one of which launched the Earthsea saga, this 1971 narrative is a stand-alone story about one George Orr. This mild-mannered draftsman from Portland, Ore., seems thoroughly average in every way but one: He’s afraid of his own dreams.

Orr’s fear comes through in this early passage:

His eyelids had been burned away, so that he could not close his eyes, and the light entered his brain, searing. He could not turn his head, for blocks of fallen concrete pinned him down and the steel rods projecting from their cores held his head in a vise. When these were gone he could move again; he sat up. He was on the cement steps; a dandelion flowered by his hand, growing from a little cracked place in the steps. After a while he stood up, but as soon as he was on his feet he felt deathly sick, and knew it was the radiation sickness. The door was only two feet from him, for the balloonbed when inflated half filled his room. He got to the door and opened it and went through it. There stretched the endless linoleum corridor, heaving slightly up and down for miles, and far down it, very far, the men’s room. He started out toward it, trying to hold on to the wall, but there was nothing to hold on to, and the wall turned into the floor. 

“Easy now. Easy there.” 

The elevator guard’s face was hanging above him like a paper lantern, pallid, fringed with graying hair. 

“It’s the radiation,” he said, but Mannie didn’t seem to understand, saying only, “Take it easy.” 

He was back on his bed in his room. 

“You drunk?” 

“No.” 

“High on something?” 

“Sick. 

“What you been taking?” 

“Couldn’t find the fit,” he said, meaning that he had been trying to lock the door through which the dreams came, but none of the keys had fit the lock. 

“Medic’s coming up from the fifteenth floor,” Mannie said faintly through the roar of breaking seas. 

This episode was induced by a self-administered cocktail of sedatives and speed; it results in Orr being sent to a psychiatrist named William Haber for mandatory counseling. Orr hesitantly explains that his dreams have a nasty habit of coming true, something he and Haber come to call effective dreaming.

Some of the changes are small, such as when, during their initial session in Haber’s office, Orr substitutes a photograph of a racehorse for one of Mount Hood, the dormant volcano that rises off Portland’s eastern flank. But other changes are much more significant; for example, as a teenager, Orr dreamed that his aunt had been killed in a car crash.

Usually, Orr is the only person who’s aware that reality has changed. But Haber, who begins hypnotizing Orr and planting suggestions, is also aware of the alterations. As Orr’s suspicions toward Haber grow, he recruits the aid of an attorney named Heather Lelache.

Orr is in a tricky spot. On the one hand, Haber holds out the promise of finding a way to end his patient’s effective dreams. On the other hand, the doctor’s interventions are increasingly heavy-handed, and Orr finds himself not knowing who, if anyone, he can trust.

‘The Lathe of Heaven’ (1971) by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Lathe of Heaven questions whether humanity’s perennial challenges — warfare, environmental depredation, racial strife — are amenable to permanent and positive resolution. Certainly Orr and Haber’s efforts (exacerbated at one crucial moment by an outside suggestion) tend to do almost as much harm as good.

Le Guin also plays with the notion of what makes for an interesting character. The two personalities who are center-stage are thoroughly average white bread types. One develops into a kind of monster, but it seems to happen almost by chance; if not for Orr’s never-explained dream powers, he and Haber would seem entirely ordinary, if not boring.

Ultimately, I felt that The Lathe of Heaven strands an incredibly interesting premise in a rather pedestrian story. I’ll certainly be reading more of Le Guin’s work, but I wouldn’t recommend this work to people who aren’t already fans of hers.

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