Title: The Lathe of Heaven
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Genre: Science Fiction
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link
What right do we have to change the world, even for the better? And what is better, anyway? That’s the question George Orr asks himself in The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin. When he dreams very vividly, or “effectively” as he calls it, he wakes to find that his dreams came true. The world has moved into an alternate reality. No one but George can remember what the world was like before his dream.
Any other person might love that power, but George finds the burden too great to bear. He lives in Portland, Oregon, but his world isn’t the same as ours. It is somewhat recognizable, but contains some very bleak changes. His Portland features food rationing, overpopulation, and global disasters. In an attempt to stop dreaming effectively, he overdoses on drugs. A doctor who treats him assigns him to voluntary therapy. The alternative, if he refuses, is involuntary incarceration. And so there isn’t really a choice at all; George decides to go to therapy, hoping that the psychiatrist, Dr. Haber, can cure him.
Haber specializes in dreams and uses a machine he has spent years developing, combined with hypnosis, to treat George. He puts George into a deep sleep state and suggests what he should dream about. After a couple of test dreams, where the mural in Haber’s office changes from a mountain to a horse and back again, Haber can’t resist the power George gives him. He uses George’s dreams to give himself a better office with a nice window view, to secure a prestigious job, and to “solve” the world’s problems. At first, George isn’t sure if Haber knows that he is telling the truth about his dreams, but, as time progresses, it becomes clear that Haber is manipulating George to change the world.
Wanting to know what his rights are, George visits a lawyer, Heather Lelache, who dubs the tentative, slight man “Mr. Either Orr.” Heather thinks that George is insane, but agrees to visit one of his therapy sessions, and, by experiencing it in person, she can remember the division between what was and what is now. The world keeps changing with Haber’s subsequent “improvements,” however, from one dream to another, and in some realities, George doesn’t even know Heather. She isn’t a lawyer; she doesn’t exist; she isn’t the same fierce woman he has come to admire.
I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters, which is usually a necessity for me to like a book, but the philosophical issues kept me interested. What right do we have to change the world? What is progress? Haber’s ideal world doesn’t sit right with George. When Haber orders George to solve issues of racial prejudice, everyone ends up with gray skin. The problem of overpopulation is solved through a devastating plague. Sick people are euthanized. The constant, world-wide war comes to an end with the introduction of a new enemy: aliens, turtle-like creatures who speak from their elbows.
The message is that there are no easy solutions to the world’s problems. Dr. Haber reaches a point where he has the power, with his important government job, to change the world himself. But he won’t do that. He becomes so obsessed with the idea of a quick and easy fix that he completely overlooks what he can do by himself, through his own agency. Haber is an adherent to utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number, might sincerely believe that he is acting from altruistic motives, but he is flawed. Le Guin reminds readers that so-called easy solutions can have disastrous consequences, even if meant well.