“The end justifies the means. But what if there never is an end? All we have is means.” — Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven
‘What if?’ It’s a question that lies at the heart of almost all SF.
‘What if’ the world’s population were spiraling out of control? ‘What if’ there was no racial division or war? ‘What if’ hostile aliens landed on the moon? ‘What if’ a sleeping man had the power to change the world with his dreams? The genre of science fiction has made a name for itself by taking such impossible concepts and running with their implications. It highlights aspects of the human condition that might otherwise remain hidden. It helps us explore issues that are often too large or complex to examine through any other means.
The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1971 Hugo-nominated SF classic, is unique however, in that it doesn’t just present us with one ‘what if’ scenario to chew over but a veritable smorgasbord of them with the very concept of the ‘what if’ itself being put under the microscope.
At its core, the Lathe of Heaven is a retelling of that classic fantasy trope of someone wishing for a thing only to discover that it isn’t as good as expected.
In this case, the tool for that wishing is George Orr, a seemingly ordinary man who has somehow gained the ability to alter reality with his dreams. Sometimes these changes are small, such as changing a picture on a wall from a photograph of a mountain into one of a horse. Other times they are world changing. No matter the change, however, George Orr is always the only person aware of the changes once he wakes up. As far as everyone else is concerned, things have always been this way and George is a madman for thinking otherwise. It leads to some interesting philosophical questions on the nature of reality and our place within it.
“If [you were to tell me] under hypnosis to dream that there was a pink dog in the room, I’d do it; but the dog couldn’t be there so long as pink dogs aren’t in the order of nature. […] What would happen is, either I’d get a white poodle dyed pink, and some plausible reason for its being there, or, if [you] insisted that it be a genuine pink dog, then my dream would have to change the order of nature to include pink dogs. Everywhere. Since the Pleistocene or whenever dogs first appeared. They would always have come black, brown, yellow, white, and pink. And one of the pink ones would have wandered in from the hall, or would be [your] collie, or [your] receptionist’s Pekinese, or something. Nothing miraculous. Nothing unnatural. Each dream covers its tracks completely.”
As you might expect, these abilities to change the world on such a fundamental level have left George Orr terrified of his powers and doubting the truth of the world he is living in
To be fair, I’d be terrified if I dreamt this was natural too
In an attempt to curb his abilities, Orr volunteers for therapy with Dr. Haber, a dream psychologist who has developed a machine that can monitor and control brain waves. At first, Dr. Haber is understandably dubious of Orr’s claims to be able to alter reality but pretty soon he not only believes his patient but actively starts using his powers to change reality for the better. At first his manipulations are small, consisting of little more than promotions for himself and changes in living quarters. But later, he sets his sights on much bigger prizes.
So, as an example, at first the world is over-populated*. So Dr. Haber asks George Orr to dream that there is no longer an issue with overpopulation.
Instantly, most of humanity gets wiped out by a global plague which sets the economy into downfall and sparks off a series of brutal wars. Overpopulation is no longer an issue, but it has come at a terrible cost.
So then Dr. Haber asks George Orr to dream about humanity being at peace with itself.
Instantly George Orr dreams of hostile aliens arriving and landing on the moon. The human race unites together against this external threat. World peace is gained but, again, at a terrible cost.
So then Orr is asked to dream that the aliens are gone from the moon… and they leave, only to head straight for the Earth…
Each ‘what if’ leads inexorably to another, worse one. It isn’t long before what starts out as a plausible but hellish world for our heroes to live in turns into a nightmarish dystopian world of multiple ‘what ifs’ piled on top of each other that only becomes dream-like and transient as the novel goes on.
“You’re trying to reach progressive, humanitarian goals with a tool that isn’t suited to the job. Who has humanitarian dreams?”
A little confession here, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of parallel universes and alternate histories. The reason I started reading this book in the first place is because I was hoping for a little mental titillation along these lines. I love reading about reality being changed on a fundamental level and then watching the fall-out from these changes. It’s one of the reasons why I loved the show Sliders as a kid. It’s one of the reasons why the Star Trek: TNG episode ‘Parallels’ has always been one of my favourites.
Sliders. Man I loved this show. They should so bring it back
I was hoping for more of the same here. But what struck me while reading was how quickly these ‘what if’ scenarios fall into the background of the novel. These are hugely unsettling dystopians that Le Guin is creating for us here, each one of which is fuel for multiple novels in its own right, and yet the book never lingers on its changes. As the book continues and these fundamental changes such as pink dogs and grey people, aliens attacking and global plague pile up on top of each other, they somehow start to fall into the background, becoming almost inconsequential to the novel. Both main characters know that the world they are living in is subject to change and is therefore only temporary and so the central conceit of the novel shifts from being about the changes themselves to the very reason for the changing.
This is where the book finds its voice.
The crux of the novel hangs on the psychological struggle between the characters of George Orr and Dr. Haber. The book is surprisingly stingy when it comes to giving us characters. We are only ever presented with three distinct personalities and one of those, the lawyer and love interest Heather, only exists to highlight the changes happening in the world as well as act as a motivating factor for Orr. With so few characters to focus on, this book turns into what can only be described as a work of theatre. Long, dialogue-heavy chapters are the order of the day with the focus on characterization and philosophy rather than action. Small wonder then that this book is said to be the only one of Le Guin’s works to ever successfully transition to the big screen.
I haven’t actually seen the movie adaptation of this book but I’ve heard good things about it
On one side of this philosophical struggle, we have Orr. Orr is an idealist. Literally a dreamer.
“Orr had a tendency to assume that people knew what they were doing, perhaps because he generally assumed that he did not.”
“He arrived at ideas the slow way, never skating over the clear, hard ice of logic, nor soaring on the slipstreams of imagination, but slogging, plodding along on the heavy ground of existence. He did not see the connections, which is said to be the hallmark of intellect. He felt connections – like a plumber.”
Haber, on the other hand, is a stern pragmatist. He wants to change the world for the better and in Orr he has found the perfect means to do it.
“When things don’t change any longer, that’s the end result of entropy, the heat-death of the universe. The more things go on moving, interrelating, conflicting, changing, the less balance there is—and the more life. I’m pro-life, George. Life itself is a huge gamble against the odds, against all odds! […] What you’re afraid to accept, here, is that we’re engaged in a really great experiment, you and I. We’re on the brink of discovering and controlling, for the good of all mankind, a whole new force, an entire new field of antientropic energy, of the life-force, of the will to act, to do, to change!”
Some of the best moments of this book come when the two main characters are debating the morality of their actions with each other. Both come out with valid reasons for their position and while we are of course led to side with Orr (since he is our POV character), neither is essentially right on the issue. Both characters are believable and likeable in their own way.
Overall the Lathe of Heaven is a fascinating read and while things do get a little convoluted and bogged down by their own conceits towards the end (the climax in particular came way too far out of the left field for my liking), it’s a book that’s well worth your attention despite how laughable some of its ‘what ifs’ might seem to modern eyes.
I’ll leave with one final quote from the novel, perhaps the most famous quote in the book. It is a beautiful piece of writing and poignant too, both of which are words I would use to describe the Lathe of Heaven as a whole. Not perfect by any means but worthy of your time. A sweet, dream-like book which wears its ‘what ifs’ firmly on its sleeve and yet for the most part chooses to ignore them in favour of much larger goals.
“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.”
* Six billion people if you can believe such an impossibly over-inflated number, with America suffering from extreme malnutrition, the destruction of almost all forest and parkland and the extinction of every large mammal, including the horse. I love how wrong SF writers can be sometimes when they are imagining the future. This is practically Jules Verne all over again with people walking to the centre of the Earth by foot and astronauts being fired into space out of a giant gun. Well okay, perhaps not that bad.