Crossing in mists

The Lathe of Heaven
by Ursula Le Guin,
SF Masterworks,
Gollancz 2001 (1971)

For me the sign of a good — or at least stimulating — novel is how much I think about it while I’m reading it and for some while after. Reading The Lathe of Heaven for the first time a couple of decades ago puzzled me, but I knew I’d want to return to it in due course. While there are still aspects that puzzle me I feel I have more of a foothold on the scree slope that Le Guin’s novel presents to us.

Part of the strength of this novel comes from the visual images that function as leitmotifs, along with the sense of place that the novel’s setting in Portland, Oregon provides, in which the three principal players and one or two other supporting characters act out their parts.

Buttressing all are quotes from Daoist texts and references to literature and popular culture which, though placed like bits of collage in the overall schema are actually integral to the author’s composition.

Mount Hood from Portland, Oregon (Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives)

The Lathe of Heaven opens and closes with watery images — a jellyfish pulsing through the sea, followed by an alien from Aldebaran in its carapace like a sea turtle within an aquarium — which sets the scene for George Orr’s feeling of drifting out of control through life. His problem is that he dreams ‘effectively’, that is, his dreams affect the real world before he awakes, changing it in untold ways. Failed attempts to stop this involuntary reconfiguring of reality lead him to enforced therapy with psychiatrist William Haber; when Haber realises George’s propensity and starts using it for ulterior purposes, George seeks advice from lawyer Heather Lelache, and the scene is set for more extreme world-altering events.

This trio are centre stage, and alternate chapters see the action through the eyes of one or other of these individuals. How they act and what they say tell us a lot about them: George the creative one, if passive and at times depressed — then there’s William the idealist who thinks that euthanasia, eugenics and the elimination of billions are all justifiable means to an end which, in truth, he has no clear concept of — Heather who sees herself as an assertive Black Widow spider but who, feeling she was a token Black for her adoptive white family, struggles to establish her true identity.

Portland’s neighbourhoods are the backdrop to the play, and behind it all is majestic Mount Hood which, in this notional future around the millennium in which Le Guin sets the drama, is bare due to global warming caused by the pollution produced by the world’s seven billion inhabitants. How to address Le Guin’s now prescient concerns? Haber thinks it will be to reduce the population, to eliminate colour differences, but that doesn’t address the problem of war; Haber’s attempt to get Orr to stop all conflict unfortunately results in an alien invasion.

While George, Heather and William are well delineated characters I was aware they were in part ciphers for the author’s veiled allegory. You may remember the quote attributed to Winston Churchill that it is better to jaw-jaw than to war-war: this is George Orr in a nutshell, as his name indicates. William’s nature is encapsulated in this passage from Chapter 9:

[Haber] had remained completely true to the man Orr had first met, jovial and remote […] He had not changed; he had simply grown.

The quality of the will to power is, precisely, growth. Achievement is its cancellation. To be, the will to power must increase with each fulfillment, making the fulfillment only a step to a further one. The vaster the power gained, the vaster the appetite for more.

This quality, of will to power, is what motivates many would be autocrat, a quality that is ravenous and will eat up the world. Not for nothing is Haber’s first name Will. Finally, Heather Lelache — as she herself points out — has a French surname meaning ‘the coward’, so will she buck the temptation to fall into the nominative determinism trap (as we first see her) or will she end up playing the victim?

Finally we come to the elephant in the room, the aliens from Aldebaran which come into existence as a result of George’s dreams. They might at first appear to play the deus ex machina role in the erstwhile tragedy, but in truth they are a kind of catalyst: one of them represents a step towards George’s acquisition of a vintage record of the Beatles’ With a Little Help from My Friends, the lyrics of which prove crucial to him turning his curse to some benefit.

The novel’s exploration of conflicting philosophies — idealism versus acceptance, progress versus stasis — reflect even more notions, about nothing (including mountains) remaining static, about the paradoxes of dreams (‘Concepts cross in mist,’ as an alien intones), about this fiction describing dreams coming true being a metaphor for storytelling.

In amongst all the crises, changes and conflicts that arise during this novel, central to everything is the debate in Chapter 6 between Orr and Haber on humanknd’s purpose. “Isn’t that man’s very purpose on earth,” declares Haber, “to do things, change things, run things, make a better world?” Orr’s answer, that things don’t have purposes, Haber sneers at.”You’re of a peculiarly passive outlook for a man brought up in the Judaeo-Christian-Rationalist West. A sort of natural Buddhist.”

But Orr knows that it’s wrong to force the pattern of things. Here is the nub of Haber’s weakness: we know that, for all that he has a German surname, haber is Spanish for ‘to have’ — but he cannot have it all. If The Lathe of Heaven isn’t just a well written and gripping speculative novel but in addition incorporates an important message, this is that message, that possession brings great responsibility.

I’m so glad I’d decided to reread this: it reinforces my admiration for what Ursula Le Guin believed in and for what she achieved. In portraying an unbridled, single-minded and visionary ambition blinkered against any kind of innate humanity or humility it underlines such danger to all species and to the planet. It may sound simplistic but at such times we may cope best by starting with a determination to get by with a little help from our friends. Who knows what may follow a simple plea.

This reread follows on from a revisit of Philip K Dick’s Ubik, another meditation on what membrane divides dreams from reality. Next I think I’ll tackle William Gibson’s Neuromancer for the first time

26 thoughts on “Crossing in mists

  1. I could not get over the philosophical content of this novel. My own review is rather harsh about that, I’m curious if you have an opinion on it with the book fresh in mind.

    I’m glad you enjoyed it though, and I’m looking forward a lot to your review on Neuromancer, one I should reread myself.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for commenting, Bart; I reread your review from 2015 which you linked to and I can’t say I disagreed with your criticisms about Le Guin’s attempt to have her cake and eat it, the character inconsistencies (especially Orr, but the other two as well) and the pacing of the novel; I also enjoyed the informed comments below your post. On the other hand you point out the beauty in some of her writing, the poetry which I completely avoided discussing but which is absolutely a Le Guin characteristic.

      In fact it’s interesting to place this in its context, published I think just after The Tombs of Atuan but sharing some of its labyrinthine and claustrophobic qualities. You rightly praise her for her environmental sensibilities (she even was close in estimating the time that the global population reached the seven billion mark) but I’m not sure she was necessarily anti-science; more anti irresponsible technology perhaps and, particularly, anti-war (the Vietnam war was facing increased opposition at home as the 60s became the 70s, especially after the Tet offensive mounted by North Vietnam). I also suspect — though I haven’t investigated the detail at all — that Portland, UKLG’s home town on the West Coast, must have felt particularly sensitive, vulnerable even, to events on the other side of the Pacific.

      So, taken all in all, the logic of her story is most definitely full of holes, and let’s not forget that the notion of one person’s dreams affecting future as well as past history is never given a rationale, nor is there any attempt at plausibility. But, given this is neither a ‘novel of ideas’ (except in the loosest of senses) nor scientific (according to the strict criteria of hard SF) what do I make of it? Well, it is a rant, of course, but the rant of a poet. It castigates both an inhuman idealism (Haber) and a passive philosophy of acceptance (Orr) — the latter, we mustn’t forget, does take decisive action, if almost at the point of no return — but UKLG’s use of images and allusions are the lubricants that help to ease my enjoyment this early-ish piece.

      And, given the calibre of the leaders of certain nations (which shall be nameless, but you know which ones I mean) their visions of a future where vast swathes of their populations can fall victim to a pandemic and they appear not to care, Haber’s magalomania is not confined to either fiction or ancient history…

      I also wonder how personal this story may have been to UKLG, Bart. I’d forgotten to mention that George’s surname sort of references the state Portland is in, Oregon: and I now muse on whether the three characters are all aspects of herself, a form of autobiography.

      After all, like Orr she dreams up alternative realities, like Haber she deliberately manipulates them, and like Lelache … Hmm, I’d need to think a bit more on that, especially the continuous terraforming of Portland itself.

      She tried a similar mind experiment late on in her life, Changing Planes (which I really ought to finish and review).

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That’s really informed, thanks. Especially the postscript gives food for thought.

        I don’t remember her really taking a stand against passive acceptance, but it has been 5 years so… I’m glad you point out it’s more nuanced than I remember. Le Guin has been a bit hit or miss for me, but I’m not done with her yet.

        (All this reminds me to head on and read the fourth Earthsea installment. When I finish the new Harrison I had The Day of the Triffids lined up, perhaps after that.)

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I’m no Le Guin expert by any means so all the postscript is pure speculation on my part, Bart. But I often wonder how significant a role Portland played in her fiction (and of course Portland looms large in our recent thought because of the murder of George Floyd — I wonder what she would have made of that if she’d lived).

          I never take the hardness of her SF or the philosophy of her fiction too seriously (after all, what’s the point of adopting alternative histories, worlds and realities if you can’t take liberties with Nearly As Fast As Light travel or instant communication devices) but in all her writing I find a core of sensitivity that I admire. Being part of that so-called New Wave of speculative writers in the 60s and 70s I suppose stretching the bounds of the genre was what she was about.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh this sounds brilliant!!! Thanks for posting another thoughtful review. I’ve read all of Le Guin’s Earthsea Quintet, but after failing to read “Left Hand of Darkness”, I’ve not read any other Le Guin, (apart from her Tao Te ching).

    I also love stories which leave me thinking, sometimes for years afterwards. The last book I read like that was “Speaker for the Dead” by Orson Scott Card. It was his “Hierarchy of Foreigness” which left me thinking for the longest time. (

    Anyway, thanks again!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There are a number of speculative authors who get a good press, Orson Scott Card being one of them, but whom I’ve yet to read. (At least I’ve actually bought a Guy Gavriel Kay novel, though I haven’t opened it yet…) So don’t feel bad about not reading more UKLG, Jo, I’m only a few steps ahead of you! Still, I hope you get round to this some time. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think I will give this one a go. It sounds fascinating!

        The problem I had with Left Hand of Darkness was that I couldn’t get a fix on the overall context of the book. I couldn’t see the underlying shape of it. So the whole thing seemed like a large number of separate leaves with no tree or branches to bind them into a whole. It’s an issue I have more generally in life too and relates to my particular expression of autism. I wonder if, because you are a literary specialist, you are aware of more varied literary patterns and so can find your way in more advanced texts.

        Anyway, thanks for a really helpful review!


        1. After this standalone my plan is to go again through all her Hainish novels (of which The Left Hand of Darkness is one) in publication order. It may be quite a few months before I get to TLHoD but I have read it twice now and got more out of it each time. As with you my autism meant many of my early reads turned out confusing though I sensed when there was something that made a particular work outstanding and worth a revisit. If you can wait that long I’ll see what I can do to make it more intelligible for you!

          As for me being a literary specialist, well, I would dispute that, but I do like patterns and try in this blog to seek them out — even if they’re only in my imagination! 🙂

          Liked by 2 people

        1. Children of Earth and Sky, which quite literally fell off a bookshop shelf into my hands when I was browsing. Not read any of his other stuff though of course I’ve been aware of it for many years, especially the Fionavar book. So many books, so little time…


          1. As far as I’ve got to know your taste over the years, I would urge you in the most urgent way politely possible to read Fionavar soon, precisely because there is so little time. I’ve reviewed them, should you want more encouragment from my part.

            Liked by 1 person

    1. I confess I read this early in the millennium and apart from it being about dreams coming true I remembered little until I began it again, so the same may apply to you too, Jeanne!


    1. As Bart makes clear in his comment above and in his review there are a lot of inconsistencies and problems in this novel which he finds grates against his wholehearted enjoyment of this. I have to say that I worry less about these and instead look to the roots of her creative ideas.

      It’s the same with another of my favourite authors, Diana Wynne Jones: it’s generally easy enough to accept the magic in her fantasies as a narrative component, but many readers (including me) are often confused by how she wraps up the denouement, making one think ‘What just happened there?’

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I read this way back in high school but I need to reread it too. The vision of a bare Mount Hood is all too close to reality.

    LeGuin anti-science? I don’t think one could ever say that, but she was for a humanist science, as are all the best and truly progressive scientist-humans. The divide between those terms is at the root of all our tragedies today, I think.


    1. I don’t believe she was anti-science at all, though Bormgans sensed that in his review — if science is simply from a Latin root scio, scire “I know, to have knowledge of” who can be against that? I think she was rightly against the dangerous usage or by-products of that knowledge — industrial pollutants, nuclear bombs, weapons technology, for examples.

      I agree about her espousal of a humanistic science: as a graduate in Romance Literature and a daughter of anthropologists she had feet in the arts as well as an evidence-based academic discipline. And I can only concur with your final sentence, Lory — it makes my heart hurt when I think about the seemingly unbridgeable divide created by mischief-makers between humanism and science.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Sorry, I wasn’t referring to you but to the other comment. And it’s vital that science fiction writers keep us mindful of the dangers of science as well as its wonders. We can thank her for that as for so many other things.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. A fascinating review and all the comments too. I can’t add to this discussion in any meaningful way, even though I have read Lathe about a year ago. It will make for an interesting reread in light of all the thoughts here. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: So much Vintage SciFi, I can’t keep up! | the Little Red Reviewer

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