Ursula Le Guin’s 1971 science fiction/dystopian novel. I read the library‘s 2003 First Perennial Classics edition (which has a depressing number of typos). If you plan to read it, try to find a different edition.
2.5 out of 5 stars.
George Orr has a power he doesn’t want: He can change reality through his dreams. When assigned to involuntary psychiatric therapy, Orr is used as a tool by the ambitious Doctor Haber. Haber thinks he knows how to make the world better using Orr’s powers. But what does “better” mean? And for who?
Great concept, great author. What could go wrong?
(I don’t know, but I didn’t like The Lathe of Heaven very much.)
The problem could be mine: I suspect I read this at the wrong time in my life. But I’m going to stick with my rating, possibly to recant in future years.
The ideas are solid, the prose fantastic, but I never connected with the story. It didn’t trigger anything in my imagination – and a set-up like this should have kept my mind whirling whenever I put the book down. But I was never curious about what was going to happen. I wasn’t invested in the characters. I was a passive bystander, continuing because it was a short book and I knew I could finish it in a couple of days.
 Reference/Vocabulary (but first, a rant):
Each chapter opens with a quote. It’s a detriment to Le Guin’s story. I had this same problem with Watership Down (see concluding thoughts): Real-world quotes remind us of our reality, acknowledging that the alternative history of Lathe is a fiction. (And it sits weirdly to be presented with authors who wouldn’t exist in some versions of George Orr’s world.)
Overusing quotes (using more than three in a book) comes off as a crutch or flat-out cheating (see King’s use of Shirley Jackson in Salem’s Lot note ). It doesn’t set an atmosphere, it says: “This work is not strong enough to stand on its own.”
But Le Guin’s writing is good enough to stand on its own. I wish she had trusted the readers to find the themes.
Now the References:
Chapters 1, 2, 3, 9, and 11 open with numbered quotes from Chuang Tse (in order: II, XXIII, XXIII, II, XXII). The quote which opens Chapter 3 contains the book’s title:
Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.
…and I have to admit: I don’t really know what a lathe is.
Chuang Tse (Zhuang Zhou) was an influential Chinese philosopher who lived around the 4th century BC during the Warring States period. He is credited with writing – in part or in whole – a work known by his name, the Zhuangzi (“Master Zhuang”), which expresses a philosophy of skepticism. The Zhuangzi consists of 33 chapters and is traditionally divided into three parts.
noun – a machine for shaping wood, metal, or other material by means of a rotating drive that turns the piece being worked on against changeable cutting tools.
 Le Guin commands her words and ideas. She never flounders. She knows exactly the effect she wants and how to get there, no matter how wild her ideas may be. I love her precision, even in a moment as simple as this:
Even as he spoke he could hear the elevator whine up and stop, the doors gasp open; then footsteps, hesitation, the outer door opening. He could also, now he was listening, hear doors, typewriters, voices, toilets flushing, in offices all up and down the hall and above him and underneath him. The real trick was to learn how not to hear them. The only solid partitions left were inside his head.
“I’m a dream specialist. Literally. An oneirologist.”
Oneirology is the scientific study of dreams.
“Extreme alcoholism can lead to a condition called central pontine myelinolysis, which is fatal; its cause is a lesion in the lower brain resulting from lack of dreaming.”
Central pontine myelinolysis (CPM), also known as osmotic demyelination syndrome or central pontine demyelination, is a neurological disease caused by severe damage of the myelin sheath of nerve cells in the brainstem. CPM was first described in 1958. It presents most commonly as a complication of treatment of patients with profound, life-threatening hyponatremia (low sodium). Although less common, it may also present in patients with a history of chronic alcoholism or other conditions related to decreased liver function.
It is not caused by “lack of dreaming.”
“My field was pioneered by Dement, Aserinsky, Berger, Oswald, Hartmann, and the rest, but the couch we get straight from Papa Freud.”
William C. Dement (b.1928) is a pioneering US sleep researcher and founder of the Sleep Research Center at Stanford University.
Eugene Aserinsky (1921 – 1998) was a pioneer in sleep research. In 1953, as a graduate student, he discovered REM sleep.
Hans Berger (1873 – 1941) was a German psychiatrist, best known as the inventor of electroencephalography (EEG) in 1924.
Ian Oswald (1929 – 2012) was an English sleep researcher and psychiatrist.
I’m not confident that this is the right Hartmann, but let’s give him a try:
Heinz Hartmann (1894 – 1970), a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. He is considered one of the founders and principal representatives of ego psychology.
Orr had a tendency to assume that people knew what they were doing, perhaps because he generally assumed that he did not.
The half-familiar, big man, in his voluminous russet gernreich.
Gernreich seems to refer to designer Rudi Gernreich (Rosemary’s Baby, note ). I’m not sure what piece of clothing Le Guin intends “gernreich” to mean.
Haber seemed to refuse to believe that [Orr] was contented with his job. No doubt Haber had a lot of ambition and found it hard to believe that a man could be without it.
 These bits are swoon-inducing. My God, to write like this…
It was not raining when he came out of the portals of Williamette East Tower, the March sky was high and clear above the street canyons. The wind had come round to blow from the east, the dry desert wind that from time to time enlivened the wet, hot, sad, gray weather of the Valley of the Williamette.
The dizziness increased in his body and in his mind.
To go under a river: there’s a strange thing to do, a really weird idea.
To cross a river, ford it, wade it, swim it, use boat, ferry, bridge, airplane, to go upriver, to go downriver in the ceaseless renewal and beginning of current: all that makes sense. But in going under a river, something is involved which is, in the central meaning of the word, perverse. There are roads in the mind and outside it the mere elaborateness of which shows plainly that, to have got into this, a wrong turning must have been taken way back.
He felt the heaviness upon him, the weight bearing down endlessly. He thought, I am living in a nightmare, from which time to time I wake in sleep.
 Lawyer Heather Lelache blithely and annoyingly makes the “homosexual = pedophile” mistake (see also The Magus, note ):
“Well. Something like this came up last year in Arizona,” said Miss Lelache. “Man under VTT tried to sue his therapist for implanting homosexual tendencies in him. Of course the shrink was simply using standard conditioning techniques, and the plaintiff actually was a terrific repressed homo; he got arrested for trying to bugger a twelve-year-old boy in broad daylight in the middle of Phoenix Park, before the case even got to court.”
She could not figure out what this fellow, so inoffensive and defenseless, was out for. He made no sense at all and yet he didn’t sound as if he wasn’t making sense.
“Not willingly,” he said, with gratitude – no, by God, it wasn’t gratitude, it was liking. He liked her. He was a poor damn crazy psycho on drugs, he would like her. She liked him.
A person is defined solely by the extent of his influence over other people, by the sphere of his interrelationships; and morality is an utterly meaningless term unless defined as the good one does to others, the fulfilling of one’s function in the sociopolitical whole.
“You know that back in the eighteenth century Malthus was pressing the panic button about population growth.”
The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus (1766 – 1834) was an English cleric and scholar, influential in the fields of political economy and demography. In his book An Essay on the Principal of Population (1798), Malthus observed that an increase in a nation’s food production improved the well-being of the populace, but the improvement was temporary because it led to population growth.
“ ‘The mystery of the individual is strongest in sleep,’ a writer in my field said.”
This quotation seems to be a Le Guin original; I can’t find references to it outside of Lathe of Heaven.
 Reference (and seriously, just look at this quote. This is not even the longest one used to open a chapter in this book. Why do this? Why take us so far out of the story? This is not a college essay, it’s a work of fiction):
It may remain for us to learn… that our task is only beginning, and that there will never be given to us even the ghost of any help, save the help of unutterable and unthinkable Time. We may have to learn that the infinite whirl of death and birth, out of which we cannot escape, is of our own creation, of our own seeking; – that the forces integrating worlds are the errors of the Past; – that the eternal sorrow is but the eternal hunger of insatiable desire; – and that the burnt-out suns are rekindled only by the inextinguishable passions of vanished lives.
–Lafcadio Hearn, Out of the East
Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850 – 1904), known also by the Japanese name Koizumi Yakumo, was an international writer, known for his books about Japan. Out of the East: Reveries and Studies in New Japan was published in 1895.
“You can’t go on changing things, trying to run things.”
“You speak as if that were some kind of general moral imperative (…) But in fact, isn’t that man’s very purpose on earth – to do things, change things, run things, make a better world?”
The end justifies the means. But what if there never is an end?
For all he knew, Haber was incapable of sincerity because he was lying to himself.
He had grown up in a country run by politicians who sent the pilots to man the bombers to kill the babies to make the world safe for children to grow up in.
These kinds of statements pile up on each other, making Lathe of Heaven a heavy-handed Message book more than a story. There are ways to do both but I don’t feel Le Guin is pulling those pieces together.