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BOOK REVIEW: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin

REVIEW SUMMARY: A thought-provoking classic.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: George Orr, a man who can alter reality with his dreams, is manipulated by Dr. Haber, a dream specialist.

PROS: Awesome premise; excellent characterizations; great writing.
CONS: None, really, though I was frustrated that this Omnipotent Reader couldn’t figure out a way for George to solve his problems.
BOTTOM LINE: An excellent, thought-provoking classic.

One reason I like to read science fiction is the “what if?” scenarios that allow me to wonder about possible futures and the effect that they have on people. Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven is perhaps a prime example of this that uses an intoxicating premise: what if you had the power to shape reality just by dreaming it?

The protagonist of The Lathe of Heaven is George Orr, a simple draftsman in a near-future Dystopia. George can change reality by dreaming what he calls “effective” dreams. But here’s the rub: like the rest of us, he is unable to control his dreaming. George tries to suppress his dreaming through the illegal use of drugs – illegal because he uses more than his government-allotted dosage in this near-totalitarian state. Enter Dr. Haber, the dream specialist to whom George is assigned for treatment. Haber’s treatment of George involves his new invention, the Augmentor, which allows Haber to influence George’s dreams. It’s not long before Haber realizes George’s incredible power and recognizes his unique position to play God.

This is powerful subject matter indeed and LeGuin is the perfect writer to handle it. Her eloquent prose is simultaneously insightful and thought-provoking. Who doesn’t dream of being able to change the world with a mere thought? Would you use the power with good intentions? Would you use the ability to make the world a better place? Where would you stop? It’s through her characterizations that she explores these weighty topics.

George is a sympathetic character who is tortured by his gift and his inability to prevent its devastating effects. His introverted personality makes him the perfect puppet for Haber. But what could George do? Haber is the one pulling the strings here. George does manage to enlist the help of lawyer Heather Laleche to help prove his unsolvable dilemma. He is hoping that a loophole in his power – that people who are near him when he dreams have vague memories of the previous reality – will be his salvation.

Dr. Haber is an interesting character because, for all of his bad influence, he’s not really evil. The worst you could say about this charismatic character (in the first half of the story, at least) is that he is manipulative. His desire is not omnipotence; he just wants to make the world a better place. Haber realizes that with George’s power at his beck and call, “this world will be like heaven and men will be like Gods!” OK, so he becomes power-drunk, but he initially sets out to systematically abolish overpopulation, poverty, racism, sickness, and war using George’s dreams. Unfortunately his control over George is not total; George often misinterprets Haber’s wishes and thus we get interesting plot turns like alien invasions and all the people of Earth having the same pale gray skin tone.

And so, there is a lesson to be learned here. Not to go all Spider-Man, but with great power comes great responsibility. The Lathe of Heaven is ultimately a cautionary tale about wielding power, a point succinctly captured by this passage:

…it’s not right to play God with masses of people. To be God you have to know what you’re doing. And to do any good at all just believing you’re right and your motives are good isn’t enough.

LeGuin has created a marvelous story with The Lathe of Heaven, one that I whole-heartedly recommend.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

2 Comments on BOOK REVIEW: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin

  1. Alfred Bester’s “Star Light, Star Bright” also has similar premise – only it’s a child who doesn’t even know his secret wishes actually get fulfilled. Like – ah, please take this teacher from my life – and the teacher is transported to some far off place!

  2. I read a Portuguese translation of Lathe of Heaven some years ago, and I found it to be less satisfying than some of Le Guin’s other major works. If I hadn’t read The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness or even the Earthsea books first, perhaps I would be willing to give it a more positive review.

    She’s one of my favourites though. I just started Lavinia. Superbly written as one might expect from Le Guin, though I couldn’t help myself thinking I was reading a Juliet Marillier or MZB novel. Not sure if that’s a good thing…

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