Book Review: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

This book made me nostalgic, not because Ursula Le Guin was one of my teachers at Clarion West in 1973 (although she was) but rather because it carries an ambiance of the seventies. It fits right in with the so-called New Wave of speculative fiction that appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s by such writers as Le Guin, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree, Jr., Samuel Delaney, Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, and others. During that time, writers attempted to break out of the genre tradition of mere entertainment and write literature that was relevant to contemporary issues. There was also a considerable upturn in prose quality and stylistic experimentation.

The Lathe of Heaven is a fairly short and simple story with just three main characters. It deals with the nature of reality. George Orr is a man who discovers that when he enters a state of effective dreaming, his dreams change the reality around him. His psychologist, a man named Haber, creates a device to manipulate the dream state, and he sets about to hypnotize Orr and control his dreams. His aim is ostensibly to make the world a better place for humanity, but every change he causes Orr to bring about makes things worse. He eventually refines his machine with the intention of bypassing Orr and taking over the dreaming himself.

Every time Orr dreams and the world changes it gets more and more bizarre. What makes this novel somewhat anachronistic is that it was first published in 1971 and the supposedly future dates that it postulates have long since passed. It doesn’t really diminish the fun, but it’s part of the background that readers have to keep in mind. The best thing is to enjoy the ride and consider it a trip into an alternate universe that keeps evolving as Orr dreams and as Haber fails miserably in his attempts to control the messy results.

In the hands of a lesser writer this all might not work, but Le Guin was an excellent writer throughout her career, and the quality of her prose eases the journey into one skewed reality after another. What begins as a fairly straightforward tale on the nature of dreams and attempts to manipulate them turns into a profound speculation on what is real, what is imagined, and how dreams fit into the metaphysical mix. Le Guin alludes to this when she touches on aboriginal beliefs concerning the relationship between dreams and reality. As Orr’s dreams progress and the changes get wilder, Le Guin also introduces a race of aliens that seems to understand his cosmos-altering dreams and treat them as, if not commonplace, at least recognizable and acceptable phenomena.

It makes you wonder about this reality that we wake up to every morning. We take for granted that the universe around us has remained unchanged as we sleep, but we have no way of knowing if that is really the case. The universe might change drastically from day to day, but we would never realize it because our memories adjust to compensate for the changes. There is no way to prove such a far-out worldview, but no way to refute it either. We don’t really know what is going on for sure, do we? It brings to mind the movie The Matrix, in which almost everyone in the world is living in a computer-induced delusion, but they wouldn’t believe you if you told them about it. One thing that The Lathe of Heaven does well is cause readers to question the reality that they take for granted. Are you sure it is what you think it is?

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