The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin, 1971
“George Orr is a man who discovers he has the peculiar ability to dream things into being — for better or for worse. In desperation, he consults a psychotherapist who promises to help him — but who, it soon becomes clear, has his own plans for George and his dreams.
The Lathe of Heaven is a dark vision and a warning — a fable of power uncontrolled and uncontrollable. It is a truly prescient and startling view of humanity, and the consequences of playing God.” from Goodreads
I don’t really want this to be a review. I just want to talk about this book I love. I first read The Lathe of Heaven for a general lit class (that I hated) during my freshman year of college. I don’t actually remember any of the discussion of this book, but I remember falling in love. My copy had been in storage for a few years,and my mom brought it home recently, and I felt the need to revisit it!
So, the Goodreads summary is kind of misleading. I’m going to talk a little about what happens in the book.
George Orr is just an ordinary guy. He works at a simple job. He has no illusions of grandeur. What he does have are dreams. George’s dreams are not usual. George dreams and the world changes. They don’t spur him to action or anything, but his dreams somehow change the makeup of the world itself. They change the physical world. It’s almost like a parallel world or an alternate universe, but instead it’s an altered reality. George doesn’t want to dream and change things. He doesn’t believe anyone should have that ability. He takes a lot of drugs to keep him awake then he changes it up and takes some to knock him out where he doesn’t dream. Then he takes too many, and he gets sent to therapy.
Dr. Haber seems well-meaning. Once he learns what George can do and experiences it for himself, Haber wants to use this power. He tries to improve the world and his own life. However, George’s mind doesn’t interpret instructions rationally. While trying to make the world perfect, Haber’s use of George’s dreams cause a lot of problems.
George dislikes what his doctor is doing and seeks help from a lawyer named Heather. She doesn’t necessarily believe what George tells her, but she believes the doctor might be doing something wrong. She sets up an observation session and experiences the dream event and Haber’s mistreatment for herself. The world changes around her and she has memories of two different lives. She knows she has to help George find a way out of Haber’s control. She also starts to like George as a person and they make a great connection. They work together to try to find a solution to the Haber problem.
It’s difficult to explain how George’s dreams work in a post, but it’s awesome, in a science fiction-y way, of course. It would be horrible to live with, and it is horrible for George. He’s so stressed out all the time because he has a ridiculous ability that he can’t control. He is guilty of the things his mind does. He has guilt from lives he’s changed that don’t exist anymore. He wants to find a way to stop the madness and drugs are the only way he’s found succesful.
He thinks Haber might be able to help him, but Haber is greedy. I think that Haber believes he wants what is best, but he doesn’t understand the limits and the consequences of what actually happens. He sees that when he makes one positive change several negative changes happen with it, but he keeps trying to make changes one person shouldn’t be allowed to make. He’s trying to be the authority of all existence and it just doesn’t work, even though he has good intentions. He also likes improving his own life in huge, selfish ways.
This book addresses race issues, war, overpopulation, climate issues and more. It was written in 71 and the story takes place around 2000, and a lot of the issues are relevant today and will probably always be relevant. Haber tries to find answers for situations that don’t have easy fixes. The situations take hard work and cooperation, not one man deciding what’s right. George understands that, and he’s never wanted to harness the dreams. He can see the adverse effects of Haber’s will, but it isn’t an easy thing to stop. He isn’t passive though, he definitely tries to find answers and help himself.
It’s not just an issue book though, it’s entertaining. George and Heather are both characters I found myself pulling for and wanting to know better. Heather has walls and walls. She’s the daughter of a white hippie and a “militant Black Power type.” She is angry and strong and this is how she thinks of George when she meets him: “A born victim. Hair like a little girl’s, brown and fine, little blond beard; soft white skin like a fish’s belly; meek, mild, stuttering. Shit! If she stepped on him he wouldn’t even crunch.” I love that, I love how harsh she is. She still believes in her job and wants to help people, but she is formidable. She thinks George is weak (at first), but he isn’t at all. He’s exhausted and has a huge burden. He’s weighed down by so much guilt and stress. I love George a lot, he wants to be happy. He doesn’t want to harm anyone and he wants to just not have to worry anymore.
Sometimes I have issues formatting quotes on WordPress, especially when line breaks and indentions are involved, so sorry if things look weird!
Le Guin’s writing is fantastic. I can’t really find words to write about her writing. It’s engaging and it’s lovely. She writes George’s distress and all of his emotion so well. There’s a scene dealing with Haber’s solution to race issues and it’s so beautiful and painful. I teared up and I wanted to hug George, but then again I wanted to hug him a lot, poor guy.
“Orr was where he had been for months—alone; knowing he was insane and knowing he was not insane, simultaneously and intensely. It was enough to drive him insane.”
This is Heather later in the book, about George again:
“It was more than dignity. Integrity? Wholeness? Like a block of wood not carved.
The infinite possibility, the unlimited and unqualified wholeness of being of the uncommitted, the nonacting, the uncarved: the being who, being nothing but himself, is everything.”
I love this quote so, so much. It was my favorite quote when I read it the first time and I extracted the bolded part and put it on my Facebook and other quote sections.
“In bed, they made love. Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; re-made all the time, made new. When it was made, they lay in each other’s arms, holding love, asleep.”
I should have grabbed more quotes to share how lovely I think the writing is. I don’t have much more to say, but I just love this book. It’s just one of those books that makes me get that good hurt feeling in my chest (I hope other people know that feeling or that will sound stupid).
While it definitely has science fiction aspects, the base of it is something anyone can understand. The dreams, the emotions, the issues and the battle are all things I think anyone would be able to get. I’m sure the book isn’t for everyone and it might be dull to some people. But if it sounds like anything you might like, I really recommend giving it a try! You might just fall in love, like I did.
Ursula K. Le Guin website
From Goodreads: As of 2013, Ursula K. Le Guin has published twenty-two novels, eleven volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, twelve books for children, six volumes of poetry and four of translation, and has received many awards: Hugo, Nebula, National Book Award, PEN-Malamud, etc.
I’ve only read The Lathe of Heaven and The Telling by Le Guin, but I plan on reading a lot more! I know a lot of people love the Earthsea books and I definitely want to read them.
So, dear reader friends, have you read any of Le Guin’s work? Have you read The Lathe of Heaven? Thoughts? Feelings? Is there a book that gives you good hurt feelings that you want to tell me about? Go for it!