Thursday, December 24, 2015

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

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
Published: Amazing Stories/Scribner (1971), Gollancz (2001)
Awards Won: Locus SF Award
Awards Nominated: Hugo and Nebula Awards

The Book: 

“George Orr discovers that his dreams sometimes have the power to alter reality, and the knowledge fills him with terror of his own mind and dreams.  His actions lead him to psychiatric therapy, where he consults with a dream expert that he hopes can help to cure him.  

His well-meaning therapist, Haber, sees other possibilities in George’s power, and begins to see him more as a powerful tool than a patient.  Playing God is a dangerous game, though, and dreams are a difficult tool to control with precision.”  ~Allie

This was my next commute audio book. Reviews of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work have not shown up on this blog for the same reason as Asimov’s; I enjoyed her work immensely as a child, and had read the majority of her novels-to-date before I began this blog.  There are a few that slipped through the cracks, like The Lathe of Heaven, and I’m sure I’ll review them here eventually!  

This is also my first science fiction review for Stainless Steel Droppings Sci-Fi Experience, which runs from December 2015 to January 2016.  The review site for all participants can be found here.  I haven't managed an intro post for this, but I am planning to put up some reviews of science fiction books, television shows, and (maybe) movies in the weeks to come. Thanks to Chris Goff for the cool banner!

My Thoughts:

The Lathe of Heaven is a short book set in Portland, Oregon, and it is tightly focused on a few characters and the single central premise of dreams altering reality. The main conflict is between the dreamer George and his therapist Haber, who have very different personalities, ideologies and places in society.  Since Haber is a respected therapist and George is labeled as a mentally ill patient who is legally obliged to seek help, Haber is able to directly exert power over George. Haber is also an overbearing and paternalistic man, confident in his own beliefs, while George is passive, uncertain, and believes that Haber means well. Haber believes the correct path is to use George’s ability to improve the world, while George wants to rid himself of the ability and to live in harmony with a stable reality. They both had pretty reasonable arguments to support their goals, though I’m not sure I completely agreed with either of them.

The interplay between them was compelling, even while it was frustrating and infuriating to see how Haber attempted to undermine and control George.  I think I believe George, though, that Haber was not acting out of malice, but out of the misguided sense that he was in a position to know what was best for everyone. The third major character, a dark-skinned lawyer named Heather Lelache, is the one who eventually acts as a catalyst for change in George’s hopeless situation. I enjoyed Heather’s temperament—it was nice to see her described as prickly and aggressive, and then to realize that this was not a negative characterization.  As things begin to spiral out of control, it was interesting to see what constants survived between shifts in reality, within each of these characters and in relation to one another.

The shifts in reality from George’s dreams also allowed for some creative world-building.  Though the changes originated within George’s dreams, they did not manifest with dream-like illogic.  Instead, reality changed retroactively in such a way that the new reality would make coherent sense.  Therefore, after each shift, the reader is presented with an internally consistent world that takes into account, in past and present, the causes and effects of the change.  Early on, when the dreams are directed by Haber’s certainty about how to fix the world, the effects often demonstrate his lack of perspective.  For instance, at one point he ‘fixes’ racism by eliminating race.  This might superficially solve the problem, but it also greatly diminishes humanity, a fact that is obvious to everyone except Haber.  It was fascinating to watch each planned improvement for the world progress from intention, through interpretation and to incorporation into reality, and to consider what the effects said about the people involved.  The Lathe of Heaven was written 45 years ago, but the characters, social issues, and view of human nature are still relevant for today’s audiences.

My Rating: 5/5

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven is an excellent short novel that does not feel especially dated, despite being written near half a century ago. The interactions between George, whose dreams affect reality, his misguided therapist Haber, and the outsider Heather feel authentic despite how dramatically reality changes.  It was interesting to see how each alteration of reality changed the history and present of George’s world, as well as how each alteration reflected the characters’ perception of humanity and its problems.  I think this one is rightly considered a classic of science fiction, and I hope it finds a readership for many years to come.

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