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The Lathe of Heaven is one of those books for which the term mind-bending was invented. Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1971 novel about a man whose dreams can alter the very nature of reality is a masterful examination of the mind’s ability to shape our perception of the world around us and our powerful need to change that to fit our desires. While it shares thematic similarities to a lot of Philip K. Dick’s work in its discussion of alternate realities and the untrustworthy nature of our perceptions, Le Guin makes it uniquely her own by imagining how an effort to manipulate reality (even with the best of intentions) can have disastrous consequences. At turns contemplative, moody, exhilarating and terrifying, The Lathe of Heaven is one of my favorite science fiction novels of all time and an absolute must-read.
The Lathe of Heaven Summary: The book takes place in Portland, Oregon in an impoverished near future in which rain is constant and an unspecified war rages in the Middle East. George Orr is a man who is sentenced to “voluntary” psychiatric care for abusing drugs; drugs that he’s been using as self-medication in order to avoid having “effective” dreams. These dreams have the ability to retroactively change reality to fit the new reality of his dream. Upon waking up, however, George is the only one who remembers the previous reality. To the rest of the world, this new reality is (and has always been) the only one. While this may seem like a fascinating ability in theory, we eventually come to learn about the heavy burden that it places on Orr. In fact, he wants nothing more than to rid himself of his ability. As part of his psychiatric evaluation, George is forced to begin therapy sessions with a psychiatrist named William Haber who specializes in sleep research.
While Haber is initially wary of Orr’s claims, he eventually comes to accept it after a guided sleep session in which he becomes aware of a slight change in reality. Sensing the enormous potential of Orr’s ability, he begins to conduct weekly guided dreaming sessions (enhanced by a biofeedback/EEG machine) in which he directs Orr to dream about specific scenarios that he thinks will be beneficial for society (and himself). But while the changes that Haber tries to enact are meant to cure specific problems in the world, the method by which George’s mind makes them happen are equally (if not more) problematic. After instructing him to dream of a world free from racism, everyone on earth becomes an identical grey color. In order to help combat the growing problem of overpopulation, George dreams up a plague that kills over 70% of the world’s people. By attempting to create “Peace on Earth,” George conceives of an Alien takeover of the moon that unites the world in opposition to the external threat. In removing the Alien’s from the moon, he causes them to launch a full scale invasion of Earth. And so on and so on until the various layers of reality begin get jumbled and uncertain. When George refuses to dream anymore, Haber tries to use what he’s learned to “effectively” dream himself, with disastrous consequences.
The Lathe of Heaven Review: The idea that our individual reality is the only “true” reality has been a powerful theme ever since the Greek philosopher Gorgias expressed the concept of solipsism, which basically boils down to the idea that an objective knowledge of reality is impossible since we can only really know what our senses tell us. In The Lathe of Heaven, Le Guin uses that idea as a jumping off point to explore philosophical issues such as positivism, behaviorism and utilitarianism in the context of George’s struggle to control the processes of his mind and Haber’s attempts to exploit them. Don’t get me wrong, though. This isn’t a book that knocks you over the head with heady philosophical treatises or explanations. In fact it’s actually the exact opposite. By constructing a world in which characters are forced to deal with the changing nature of reality and the consequences of those changes, Le Guin forces us to re-examine our own ideas about our relationship to the world around us and the role that our mind plays in creating that relationship. In other words, this is some trippy ass shit!
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