Reading this book has been definitely a good way to start the new year! Well, anything by Le Guin is what I’d call a very safe bet – which is precisely why I picked it not only as the my first read of 2024, but as the first subject to be discussed here.
Title: The Lathe of Heaven
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Genre: Science Fiction
Standalone or Series: Standalone
Content Warning: Mental illness – Gaslighting – Drug use – Climate change – War – Pandemic – Medical content – Sexual harassment
In a world ravaged by war, famine, and environmental catastrophes, George Orr accidentally discovers that his dreams have the ability to alter reality – in ways that are, however, beyond his conscious control.
After abusing drugs in the attempt to keep such an unwanted power at bay, he is forced to attend therapy sessions with Dr. William Haber, a psychiatrist and sleep researcher who immediately sees the potential of Orr’s ability, and is determined to exploit it for both personal and humanitarian goals.
Under his guidance, Orr’s “effective dreams” impose more and more dramatic changes to reality, but every improvement to human condition is counterbalanced by unsettling side effects – for instance, overpopulations is drastically curbed by a devastating plague, and peace on Earth is only made possible by the looming threat of an alien invasion.
While Haber is apparently untroubled by any ethical qualms, Orr is increasingly disturbed by the consequences of his dreams, and hires a lawyer, Heather Lelache, to represent him against Haber – with the main result of getting her involved in his misadventure, as well as in his personal life.
Unbothered and unshaken by any resistance, however, Haber persists in his plan – in a way that may end up threatening the very existence of a coherent reality.
Style – The story is told in third person from the alternate points of view of its three main characters; while the narrator occasionally soars above the scenery to describe the world at large, the perspective is generally close to that of each character, enhancing both their different values and the limits of their personal understanding.
In doing so, Le Guin manages to convey complex concepts and pieces of worldbuilding without resorting to heavy-handed infodumps, instead having us discover the world through the characters’ though patterns, often sharing their own astonishment.
The prose itself is thoughtful and poetic, dotted with symbolic images that are not just suggestively written, but even more meaningful as the story moves on – such as the initial sequence, where a jellyfish is described in its fluid drifting, which represents the concept of balance and acceptance that is a running theme of the entire novel.
Plot Structure – The storytelling is nominally linear – to the extent that it follows Orr’s vicissitudes from the beginning up to their final outcome; however, given the very premise of the novel, the story includes a multitude of interweaving alternate timelines.
While there’s no lack of surprising events, the pacing is unhurried and reflective; the book surely appeals to our curiosity, making us wonder what’s going to happen next, however it even more strongly invites us to ponder over its deeper meanings and messages.
Setting – The novel is set in Portland, Oregon, in the year 2002 – which at the time of its publishing was distant enough to appear sufficiently science-fictiony. The setting, as it’s first introduced, is bleak enough, as the planet appears to suffers from the devastating effects of climate change, in a way that’s eerily prescient of our current concerns.
While the dystopian backdrop is essential to the story – as the desperate state of the world constitutes a strong incentive to take risky measures to change it – the attention is more focused on the fickle nature of reality, and on the moral implications of tampering with its fabric.
The main speculative element – that is to say, Orr’s “effective dreams” – leans heavily on the paranormal side, and while the characters have a nominally scientific approach to the phenomenon – talking about brain waves and employing futuristic machine to control them – the novel makes no claim of plausibility whatsoever. What matters, in fact, is not how our thoughts and dreams could possibly affect reality, but what this phantasmagorical scenario can teach us about out desire to control our destiny, and the relationship between ourselves and the reality we inhabit.
Characters – The three main characters are undeniably representative of the different worldviews the author wanted to explore – with Haber’s staunch utilitarianism being contrasted to Orr’s passive wisdom, and Lelache representing an element of duality both in terms of heritage and demeanour. At the same time, our protagonists are by no means reduced to mere mouthpieces of the principles they are meant to embody, but are properly fleshed out as believable individuals in their own right.
The organic development of each character’s personality and ideals, combined with the novel’s underlying ethos, also leads to some unusual narrative choices: Orr, a meek and unambitious everyman who, despite his powers, is reluctant to take action, is far from our traditional image of a hero, and yet we’re induced to sympathise with his worldview much more than with Haber’s proactive stance – which, in a different context, might have easily been the mark of a heroic character, even though a tragical one at that.
This is not to say that Haber is portrayed as a simplistic villain; sure, he takes questionable actions, and the way his utilitarianism isn’t tempered by any compassion for those he sacrifices makes him hardly a sympathetic character. His motives, however, are very understandable, and even though the author clearly does not approve of his philosophy, it’s hard to dismiss his points in their entirety
The third PoV character, Heather Lelache, is at once more complex and less subjectively developed than the other two: on the one hand, the contrast between her fierce demeanour and her compassionate nature, as well the implications of her mixed heritage, make for a quick but intriguing character study; on the other hand, she is given the smallest number of chapters from her own perspective, and more often than not she ends up being either a victim or an inspiration of the Orr’s dreams – which is not necessarily wrong in itself, but I would have enjoyed to learn a bit more about her lived experience.
Themes – At a first glance, the entire story could be seen as a variation on the old adage “be careful what you whish for” – as displayed by the sequence of very reasonable wishes being monstrously twisted by Orr’s subconscious, either by an overly literal interpretation of the original input (the aliens aren’t on the Moon anymore – because they’re landing on Earth!
), or by the introduction of unexpected consequences and caveats.
The novel, however, isn’t just a fantastic aesop on the risks of meddling with a preternatural power such as Orr’s – it’s a reflection on power, more in general, and on its limits and risks. It could be easy to dismiss Le Guin’s hypothesis as too departed from reality to inspire any moral lesson, or to argue that the unpredictability of Orr’s dreams is a contrived expedient to doom Haber’s plan to failure. At a closer look, however, how many much more realistic actions are still rich with all sorts of unforeseeable consequences, or come with a steep price that others might have to pay? How many noble purposes are twisted by selfish temptations?
Le Guin is openly critical of utilitarianism, showing how The Greatest Happiness for the Greatest Number can lead to horrifying results, as well as to the justification of eugenics and other disquieting practices. This is not to say that we can’t strive to improve the world in any shape or form – it’s ultimately shown that Orr’s dreams might have likely saved it from utter destruction
, but we must be wary of playing God, instead accepting that, no matter how we put it, we can’t have the fullest control of our destiny.
The misguided desire to shape reality to one’s own will is contrasted by the Taoist principle of cosmic balance, and by the acceptance of reality that comes with it – a concept openly evoked by the very title of the novel, inspired as it is by a quotation by Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou, roughly (and likely inaccurately) translated as: To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven. Which is, in a way, the destiny that ultimately befalls Haber, driven to madness by his relentless and unbalanced will and ambition.
Overall Thoughts – The Lathe of Heaven provides way more food for thought than I can easily explore in this post. I am not entirely sure what to do with its message, that on the one hand makes appeal to a higher sense of wisdom, on the other hand leaves some issues necessarily unaddressed – and I’m saying this in the best way possible, since I love books that inspire further reflections instead of providing us with a definite but simplistic conclusion. It’s the kind of book that’s delightful to read, and that will keep beautifully haunting my thoughts again and again.
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