The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula Le Guin
Even though I've read several novels by Ursula Le Guin and consider her Earthsea trilogy among my favorites, I was unprepared for the force contained within the pages of The Lathe of Heaven. An unremarkable hero—almost an anti-hero, really—with one remarkable ability draws readers into a swirl of power, manipulation, and his attempt to hold on to love as reality morphs throughout the story. Le Guin, as she often does, layers thought-provoking ideas through the unfolding story and interactions of her characters in The Lathe of Heaven; here the result is a meaty book that offers multiple analytical perspectives.
Despite being first published over 30 years ago, the timelessness of elements of The Lathe of Heaven are apparent beginning in the first chapter:
You know there's two hundred sixty kids in that one complex suffering from kwashiorkor? All low-income or Basic Support families, and they aren't getting protein. And what the hell am I supposed to do about it? I've put in five different reqs for Minimal Protein Ration for those kids and they don't come, it's all red tape and excuses. People on Basic Support can afford to buy sufficient food, they keep telling me. Sure, but what if the food isn't there to buy? Ah, the hell with it. I go give 'em Vitamin C shots and try to pretend that starvation is just scurvy ... (p. 10)
George Orr's singular ability—the ability to have
effective dreams, that is, dreams that change reality—lead him to a sleep expert, Dr. William Haber, in search of some way of getting rid of his unsettling ability. However, Haber quickly reveals himself as a classic do-gooder, trying to use Orr's ability to create a
better world. And when the inevitable chaos comes, it's Orr whom Haber blames, rather than question the value of his meddling.
At first, Orr acquiesces to Haber's do-gooding, despite misgivings, largely because he trusts Haber as an authority. As Haber's powerlust and inability to accept responsibility for his actions become more obvious, Orr—along with some crucial support—begins to realize the true nature of the man:
... Haber was much too complex a person for candor. Layer after layer might peel off the onion and yet nothing be revealed but more onion. ....
He [Haber] was so sure of himself now that he had no need to try to hide his purposes, or deceive Orr; he could simply coerce him. .... Haber ... was an important man, an extremely important man. He was the Director of HURAD, the vital center of the World Planning Center, the place where the great decisions were made. He had always wanted power to do good. Now he had it.
In this light, he had remained completely true to the man Orr had first met .... 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. As there was no visible limit to the power Haber wielded through Orr's dreams, so there was no end to his determination to improve the world. (p. 128)
In the end, it is Orr who proves himself to be the wise one, and Haber the fool, as shown just a few pages later:
What for? Well, isn't that what you're here for?
I came here to be cured. To learn how not to dream effectively. ....
I can't show you how to stop, George, until I can find out what it is you're doing.
But if you do find out, will you tell me how to stop?
Haber rocked back largely on his heels.
Why are you so afraid of yourself, George?
I'm not, Orr said. His hands were sweaty.
I'm afraid of— But he was too afraid, in fact, to say the pronoun.
Of changing things, as you call it. O.K. I know. We've been through that many times. Why, George? You've got to ask yourself that question. What's wrong with changing things? .... [C]hange need not unbalance you; life's not a static object, after all. It's a process. There's no holding still. Intellectually you know that, but emotionally you refuse it. Nothing remains the same from one moment to the next, you can't step into the same river twice. Life—evolution—the whole universe of space/time, matter/energy—existence itself—is essentially change.
That is one aspect of it, Orr said.
The other is stillness.
When things don't change any longer, that's the end result of entropy, the heat-death of the universe. .... Life itself is a huge gamble against the odds, against all odds! You can't try to live safely, there's no such thing as safety. Stick your neck out of your shell, then, and live fully! .... We're on the brink of discovering and controlling, for the good of all mankind, a whole new force, an entire new field of antientropic energy, of the life-force, of the will to act, to do, to change!
All that is true. But there is—
What, George? ....
We're in the world, not against it. It doesn't work to try to stand outside things and run them, that way. It just doesn't work, it goes against life. There is a way but you have to follow it. The world is, no matter how we think it ought to be. You have to be with it. You have to let it be. (pp. 135-36)
I think that I am at a point in my life where trying to find a balance between change and stillness, to use Le Guin's terminology, makes sense. However, this is only one of several explorations that a freedom-loving individual might find valuable in The Lathe of Heaven. For those inclined to a more visual format, favorable comparisons with Groundhog Day can be made. And the love story, which I've deliberately refrained from detailing here, is lovely and bittersweet, as love often is. Again, a master arrived just when I, the student, was ready.
The years have proven Ursula Le Guin to be a master storyteller for adult and juvenile alike. She's a singular author—one who can make individuals think, even if they don't agree with her political ideas. The Lathe of Heaven is an excellent example of her deft weaving of ideas and plot into a story that, for any thinking person, provides enjoyment as well as points to ponder. This might be the best Le Guin story I've yet read ... and having read a fair amount of her adult and juvenile fiction, I can think of many worse ways to introduce my children to the complex world of ideas than through Ursula Le Guin's stories.