Patreon Request Post: The Lathe of Heaven

My final Patreon request post for May (I got all of them in!) is a request to write about Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven.

Shamefully, I’m not actually very familiar with Le Guin’s work. I read some of her stuff when I was young and devoured anything in the library with a spaceship or wizard on the cover, pretty much uncritically, but by my mid teens I’d conceived something of a prejudice against anyone I lumped in with the new wave SF writers of the late sixties and early seventies, who I saw as pretentious wankers who were ashamed of actually writing stories about things and wanted to write bad literary fiction instead. By the time I actually got over that and started thinking sensibly about science fiction books, I was more interested in reading new books rather than going back to classics, so a whole swathe of great writers like Le Guin or Samuel Delaney are less familiar to me than other, lesser, writers.

But The Lathe of Heaven is so very much my thing I’m surprised no-one had specifically recommended it to me earlier (cue twenty commenters saying “I recommended it to you in 2012 and you said you’d get right on to reading it straight away”, no doubt).

More than anything, this reminds me of Philip K. Dick. At first I thought that was just because the copy I have, a Gollancz Masterworks edition, is typeset and designed the same way as my copies of VALIS and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. but in fact this book shares so much with Dick — themes, obsessions, and even storytelling flaws — that had you handed it to me with the cover torn off I would have insisted it was by him.

The plot of the book, such as it is, is simple — George Orr, a placid, “normal”-seeming man, is abusing drugs to stop himself from dreaming, and is forced to see a psychiatrist, Dr Haber. Orr admits that he doesn’t want to dream, because sometimes his dreams can retcon reality — he can go to sleep, dream that someone he knows died, and wake to find they’d been dead for six weeks. Haber uses hypnosis to control Orr’s dreams, and to remake the world, but every attempt at making the world better makes it worse — overpopulation is solved because a plague decades earlier killed six billion people, humanity no longer wars against itself because they’re in the middle of an alien invasion, racism has never existed because everyone has always been a uniform grey colour, and so on.

Eventually Haber (who is portrayed as a solipsistic sociopath) gains Orr’s power himself and almost destroys the world. Orr, with the help of his lawyer/love-interest, manages to stop Haber and return the world to a state of normalcy.

The book is, frankly, not strong on character, plot, or description — there are only three characters of any note, and they might as well just be described as “pleasant protagonist”, “mad scientist”, and “the girl one” — but that’s not really the point. Le Guin’s book is an attempt to discuss ideas of the nature of reality and how our perceptions affect it, of medical and psychiatric ethics, of the nature of our responsibility to others, and indeed the concept of responsibility itself.

It’s also a story about the environment — the book is very concerned with climate change (and also, because it was written post-Population Bomb but pre-Green Revolution, with mass starvation due to overpopulation even in the West), and the repeated efforts to reshape the world having unpredictable negative consequences can be seen at least in part as a parallel to the negative consequences of technologically disrupting the environment.

In particular, Dr Haber (presumably named after Fritz Haber, the inventor of chemical warfare) epitomises everything wrong with the technolibertarian viewpoint — he has a “post-racial” view that comes out as imposing uniformity on everyone, he wants children raised on “rational” lines, he’s a eugenicist, and sees the death of six billion people as a net positive from a utilitarian standpoint — and while he pays lip service to utilitarianism and claims to act for the greater good, every change that’s made ends up also increasing his political power and wealth.

Unfortunately, Le Guin’s answer to these problems, inspired by Chinese mysticism, especially Zhuang Zhou (who among other things is famous for the parable of the butterfly which seems to have inspired this book), seems to be that the best thing to do is to accept the world passively, and try to live in harmony with it rather than change it. It’s a cop-out of an answer, and one that’s really identical to the “he meddled with things man was not meant to know” at the end of a fifties monster movie, just dressed up in Daoist clothing.

However, having an unconvincing answer to a set of questions is nowhere near as big a sin for an SF novel, in my view, as not bothering to raise them in the first place. And the questions Le Guin raises here are among the ones that interest me most deeply.

It’s a very early-70s book, and that shows in the way the story is told (lots of people infodumping at each other in dialogue) and in the very nature of the plot (the world ends up being saved by someone listening to a track from Sgt Pepper while high on dope). Its obsessions too — environmental, spiritual, social, and political — are all ones that were up-to-the-nanosecond current in 1971.

But as we’re currently in a world that seems to be performing an early-70s tribute act politically and socially, and in which the environmental crises Le Guin writes about have not yet quite happened but are clearly close, the book seems if anything far more relevant than it would ten or fifteen years ago.

This is a dark book, a paranoid book, and frankly a book I probably shouldn’t have read this week (my mental health is in a bad way, and this… this doesn’t help. It touches on sore mental spots for me). But it’s one of those very rare SF novels that really tries to do what the genre does best, and I would particularly urge anyone else who likes Philip K Dick to read this — in many ways it’s rather better at doing what Dick did than Dick was himself.

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4 Responses to Patreon Request Post: The Lathe of Heaven

  1. Sean Dillon says:

    Thank you for doing this book, and I’m sorry for any mental distress I have caused because of it.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      ABSOLUTELY nothing to apologise for! Seriously, please don’t think that way. In even the medium term, this will have been good for me…

  2. Sass says:

    These are questions that deeply interest me, too, and I’m a sucker for stories where reality isn’t quite… real. I find Le Guin a bit hit and miss, but it sounds like I should give this one a try.

  3. You make a lot of valid points but I read Lathe differently. The point is that the power that Orr is lumbered with is just too much for anybody. Orr is a dreadful wuss but his conclusion that the best thing to do with such power is nothing seems right to me. You could see Lathe as a reworking of Wells novella “The man who could work Miracles”.
    I actually see Taoism as being Liberal rather than Conservative, the way to improve the World is by lots of small, tentative changes that work with the grain of things as they are. Revolutions are a last resort.

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