Monday, June 18, 2018

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

Life is but a dream
The Lathe of Heaven, a science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, was first published in 1971. The story takes place in 2002, in a future world plagued by global warming, overpopulation, and war. George Orr, a mild-mannered draftsman, is assigned to court-appointed psychiatric treatment because he is convinced that his dreams can alter reality. When Orr has a particularly lucid dream, he can essentially change the course of world history to suit what his subconsciousness envisions. When he goes to see Dr. Haber, a dream specialist, Orr manages to convince the psychiatrist that his power is real. Instead of trying to cure Orr of this unusual malady, however, Haber decides to use Orr’s power to enact and implement his own personal plan of dream-induced world-shaping.

One’s appreciation of a work of science fiction often depends on which branch of science is being fictionalized. I chose this book solely on the basis of Le Guin’s reputation and had no clue as to its contents before I read it. What I got was a novel about psychology and oneirology (the science of dreams), subjects that don’t really fall within my particular areas of interest. I was more interested in the brief glimpses of the futuristic world than in the main narrative taking place within it. Even Le Guin seems to be conscious that her novel may be too far outside the realm of commercial sci-fi, as she feels the need to use the dreams to introduce more traditional sci-fi subject matter into the story.

The imaginative premise of the book is exciting at first, but it soon sets into a repetitive pattern. In each chapter, the reader has to wade through about 20 minutes of psychobabble about sleep science, just waiting to get to the last couple pages to find out what aspects of reality have changed from Orr’s latest dream. I admired the first half of the book for setting up its own unique laws of existence and reality, but was disappointed when the second half of the book denied those laws and went off in arbitrary directions. Just as in time-travel novels there are always chicken-or-egg conundrums, the cause-and-effect relationships between dreams and reality in this book don’t always make sense. The climactic scene of the novel seems to defy the alternative logic that Le Guin worked so hard to establish at the beginning, and the bizarre, dream-induced manipulations of reality are described in such vague and sketchy terms its really quite a letdown. I ended up enjoying the romantic subplot more than the sci-fi or the philosophy behind it.

The story is set in Le Guin’s hometown of Portland, Oregon. The city is not merely a backdrop to the narrative, but is really quite integral to the plot, and Le Guin discusses Portland and its environs in great detail. At first it is quite refreshing to read a sci-fi novel that doesn’t settle for New York, Washington, or L.A. as the center of the universe, but after a while the level of Portlandia becomes kind of annoying. Just as so many French novels assume the reader has an intimate knowledge of Paris, it often seems as if Le Guin wrote the novel strictly for an audience of Portlanders, or at least expects readers to have a city map spread out before them as they read the book.

This is the first work I have read by Le Guin, and maybe I was just expecting too much since her name is so often uttered with reverence and associated with greatness. Overall, The Lathe of Heaven is a pretty good sci-fi novel but far from a masterpiece. I liked it enough that I’m sure I will give Le Guin another try in the future, but I don’t feel in any hurry to do so.
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