The Lathe of Heaven
by Ursula Le Guin,
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.
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