Book Review: ‘The Lathe of Heaven,’ by Ursula K. LeGuin

(Originally published at www.earthlightbooks.blogspot.com.)

If you’ve read my review of LeGuin’s Planet of Exile, then you already know how I feel about this book because you already know how I feel about all of LeGuin’s work: it’s uniformly smart, sometimes brilliant, always entertaining. Lathe just brings in more evidence in favor of this bias.

In the best tradition of sci-fi, the book begins by asking, What if X happened?–in this case, What if one man’s dreams changed reality? This single element leads to dramatic outcomes: after George Orr realizes that his dreams change the substance of reality (but no one other than him notices), he submits to therapy in order to bring himself under control. But when his therapist discovers the power at hand, Dr. Haber decides to play God: he uses Orr’s dreams to ‘improve’ reality.

If you have much background in sci-fi, you’ll recognize this as the most basic and venerable plot-device in the genre. For instance: in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama, this was, What if an alien spacecraft passed near Earth? In Flowers for Algernon, it was, What if we could artificially raise someone’s IQ?In Asimov’s I, Robot, it was, What if we built conscious robot slaves, governed by three rules?

This What If plot-device is the sort of sci-fi corollary to the MacGuffins of mystery-thrillers. With a MacGuffin, several characters all compete to get control of the same object (a suitcase full of gold, a bomb, a diamond, etc.). This competition drives the plot. In What If sci-fi stories, the development of a hypothetical situation drives the plot; the story essentially consists of the author walking us through the implications of her What If.

But sci-fi, as Alan Moore has said, is never really about the future (or the distant past, or the alternate universe, or whatever). With sci-fi and fantasy, you’re always writing about our world, right now. The subtext is relevant, however weird and distant the story itself may be. What sci-fi and fantasy elements give you is a bit of elbow room, some space to make the familiar seem unfamiliar to your readers (case in point: Star Trek‘s ‘A Private Little War,’ in which American involvement in the Vietnam war gets disguised as a story about Federation and Klingon involvement in a primitive planet’s war). This gives the reader a chance to think in new ways, instead of automatically deferring to what they already opine.

Lathe has both the What If-plot and the subtextual-commentary down pat: the worlds through which Orr’s power leads are all disturbingly plausible (starting with an overpopulated, resource-strapped planet and leading to a world where having cancer is grounds to be arrested). We can recognize our own possible futures in the worlds Orr creates.

The third and perhaps most important level on which Lathe works is that of a moral tale. Beyond a clever plot, beyond social commentary, The Lathe of Heaven is portrayal of two human tendencies in combat over how to use power. Orr never asked for the power to change reality, and his agenda throughout the novel is simply to refrain from causing harm. He strives for balance and internal control. Dr. Haber, on the other hand, scarcely even believes in subjectivity, much less cosmic balance: for him, concrete improvement in the world is what counts. He is sanctimonious hubris personified:

“To a better world!” Dr. Haber said, raising his glass to his creation, and finished his whisky in a lingering, savoring swallow.

When science fiction is working at the highest level, it consists of interesting, entertaining stories which trick the reader into thinking about 1) the contemporary, political world in which they live, and 2) timeless, human questions about stuff like love and power and death. LeGuin consistently accomplishes all of these goals. And the moral message in all of her work is consistently concerned with issues of balance, humility, and inner (dare I say ‘spiritual’?) health or integrity. In an age when we relate to our tools in the way that ancients related to Fate, this message is profoundly relevant.

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