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Category Archives: Ursula Le Guin

“What dreams may come…”:The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin (1971)

In a previous post I looked at  Ursula’s Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest. In this post I  want to look at  her novel The Lathe of Heaven (1971).

Falling into “a dreamless sleep” is a cliche beloved of romantic novelists as they depict the travails of their heroine/hero as she/he slumps exhausted onto their four posted  feather bed. In fact,  we all dream every night,   as our unconscious churns over our day, our fears and desires,  and much else besides.  And when we awake our dreams usually vanish, like early  morning mist under the  rays of the  rising sun. Usually.

George Orr dreams. George is an ordinary man, who does an ordinary job, lives in an ordinary shabby flat in an ordinary city (Portland) in an America some decades ahead of  when the novel was published  (which  in a time paradox means it is now  in our past as readers). There is  just one extraordinary thing you need to know about George: when he dreams the dreams can  come true.

Doctor William  Haber dreams. He dreams of  a more prestigious job, of  a more impressive set of   offices, of a better world for humanity. Don’t we all?  George is sent to Haber, a sleep specialist, after the authorities discover  he  has been illegally obtaining drugs to suppress his dreams. George reluctantly reveals to Haber  that when he was 17 he dreamt that his aunt Ethel, who had been making unwanted sexual advances to him,  had been killed:

“I had this dream. A very vivid one. I could recall it completely when I woke up. I dreamed that Ethel had been killed in a car crash in Los Angeles, and the telegram hadcome. My mother was crying while she was trying to cook dinner, and I felt sorry for her, and kept wishing I could do something for her, but I didn’t know what to do. That was all. … Only when I got up, I went into the living room. No Ethel on the couch. There wasn’t anybody else in the apartment, just my parents and me. She wasn’t there. She never had been there. I didn’t have to ask. I remembered. I knew that Aunt Ethel had been killed in a crash on a Los Angeles freeway six weeks ago, coming home after seeing a lawyer about getting a divorce. We had got the news by telegram. The whole dream was just sort of reliving something like what had actually happened. Only it hadn’t happened. Until the dream. I mean, I also knew that she’d been living with us, sleeping on the couch in the living room, until last night.”

Of course Haber doesn’t  believe  George,  but is  eventually convinced when he witnesses the changes  for himself. Using hypnotism and  an electronic device called the Accelerator (a dream machine, if you like) he takes control of George’s dreaming, ordering  him what to dream. And the dreams come true. At first Haber makes   small changes in the world around them –  a new flat for George, a research institute for himself  – but then he he grows more ambitious, instructing  George to make  drastic  changes in the wider world . But the Law of Unintended Consequences makes itself known,   and the results are not what Haber envisaged.

Distressed, George  seeks help  from a lawyer, the steely Heather Lelache. She  accompanies him  to a dream session at which  Haber instructs George : “You’re going to have a dream in which you feel uncrowded, unsqueezed. You’ll dream about all the elbow room there is in the world, all the freedom you have to move around.”

Heather feels the change at the moment it happens:

“The woman felt it too. She looked frightened. Holding the heavy brass necklace up close to her throat like a talisman, she was staring in dismay, shock, terror, out the window at the view. He had not expected that. He had thought that only he could be aware of the
change. But she had heard him tell Orr what to dream; she had stood beside the dreamer; she was there at the center, like him. And like him had turned to look out the window at the vanishing towers fade like a dream, leave not a wrack behind, the
insubstantial miles of suburb dissolving like smoke on the wind, the city of Portland, which had had a population of a million people before the Plague Years but had only about a hundred thousand these days of the Recovery, a mess and jumble like all American cities, but unified by its hills and its misty, seven-bridged river, the old forty-story First National Bank building dominating the downtown
skyline, and far beyond, above it all, the serene and pale mountains.”

George  has dreamt of a Plague which has  killed billions of people.  He is appalled,  but unable to stop Haber from  misusing his dreams. Still, Haber is not a power-hungry monster, as George admits to himself:

…he’s not a mad scientist, Orr thought dully, he’s a pretty sane one, or he was. It’s the chance of power that my dreams give him that twists him around. He keeps acting a part, and this gives him such an awfully big part to play. So that now he’s using even his science as a means, not an end. . . . But his ends are good, aren’t they? He wants to improve life for humanity. Is that wrong?
Finally Haber himself enters the dream world,  and George,  faced with the loss  of Heather (now his wife) and his whole world , is forced to act.
The theme of novel  is that the best of intentions can lead to  the worst of outcomes. I am reminded of one of  those tales of Arabia in whch someone is granted three wishes by a djinn,  but things don’t go well.  I very much enjoyed this novel and  thoroughly recommend it.
The Lathe of Heaven was made into a television movie in 1980 by WNET. The film starred   Bruce Davison as  George Orr,   Kevin Conway as Dr Haber, and Margaret Avery  as Heather Lelache. You can watch the film here. The two photographs ab0ve are taken fron this production.
You can watch  an interview here  with Ursula in which she discusses the film and the novel.  and  you can read the novel online here.

Finally,   Ursula took the title of the novel  from from the writings of Chuang Tzu,

“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.”

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A god of death is born …The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin (1972)

Ursula Le Guin is one of the most important science  fiction writers of the twentieth century, whose works such  The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossesed   continue to be very influential.  Ursula  was an activist in the USA in the campaign against the Vietnam War,  and The Word for World Is Forest clearly emerged from that experience. Much of the  war was fought in forests between the Americans,  who had vast  military techonology, and the guerilla army of the  Vietcong, who had no such weaponry, but  were armed instead  with an  unrelenting desire to be free.

The novel  is set on Athshe, a planet  entirely covered by forests  in which live the Athsheans, a  small,  peaceful,  highly intelligent,  humanoid  race whose bodies are  covered  with green fur.  The planet is colonised by  several thousand Earthmen –   who rename  it New Tahiti   –  and begin cutting down the forests and shipping  the wood  back to Earth. They make virtual slaves of the Athsheans,  using them as labourers or  for sexual  gratification as there  few  Earth women.

The  three  main characters are the Earthman Davidson,  the Earthman Lyubov,  and the Athshean  Selver. Davidson is a military man who regards the Athseans  (or “creechies” as the colonists call  them) with contempt: “the creechies are lazy, they’re dumb, they’re treacherous, and they don’t feel pain”. He personifies the masculine mindset,  reflecting  to himself: “the fact is the only time a man  is really and entirely  a man is when he’s just had a woman or killed another man”.  Lyubov,  by contrast,   tries to underestand the Athsheans, their culture of singing , their  symbiotic relationship with  the forest, and the fact that the Athsheans dream when  they are awake as well as when they are asleep.

Davidson rapes Selver’s wife who dies.  Selver now  realises that the Earthmen  intend to destroy the forest,  and therefore his people,  unless they are stopped  – and  begins to dream of a way of achieving this. He tells his people:

If we wait  a lifetime or two they will breed, their numbers will double or redouble. They kill men and women, they do not spare those who ask life. They cannot sing in contests. They have left their roots behind them, perhaps, in this  other forest  from which they come, this forest with no trees. So they take poison  to let loose the dreams in them, but it only makes them drunk or sick. No one can say whether they ‘re men or or not men , whether they’re sane or insane, but that does not matter. They must be made to leave the forest. If they will not go they must be burned out of the Lands, as nests of stinging-ants must be burned out of of the groves of the city…Tell any people who dream of a city burning to come after me..

Selver co-ordinates attacks from  thousands of Athsheans on the Earth settlements , killing many men and women,  and setting fire to the buildings.  His friend Lyubov dies in one of the attacks. Selver  pens the survivors into a compound and negotiates a truce. This is broken by Davidson who  organises attacks on the Athshean cities in the forest. Finally,   Selver captures him alive, and tells him:

Look Captain Davidson..we’re both gods, you and I. You’re an insane one and  I’m  not sure whether I’m sane  or not, But we are gods…We bring each such gifts as gods bring.  You gave me a gift, the gift of killing of one’s  kind, murder. Now, as well as I can, I give you the my people’s gift which is not killing. I think we each find each other’s gift heavy to carry. 

Davidson is not killed,  but put  on a treeless island, to live alone. Emissaries from Earth and other planets  arrive who prepare to evacuate all  the surviving  Earth colonists.  One of the envoys asks Selver whether Athsheans are  now killing Athsheans. Selver replies sombrely :

Sometimes a god comes…He brings a new way to do a thing, or a new thing to be done. A new kind of singing, or a new kind of death. He bring this across the bridge between the dream-time and the world-time. When he has done this, it is done. You cannot take things that exist in the world and try to drive them back into the dream, to hold them inside the dream with walls and pretences. That is insanity. What is, is. There is no use pretending  now, that we do not know how to kill one another. 

As well as the background of the Vietnam War, there are clear resonances in the novel of the way that  native Americans were treated by European  colonists who raped and killed them and took their land; and  the similar  experience of the Aborigine peoples of Australia, who also talk of a “dream-time”.

While  Selver and Lyubov  have some complexity as  characters,  with Selver  feeling that what he has unleashed is dreadful   but also feeling that he has not other  choice, Davidson is  one dimensional,  a man in thrall to  his own needs and desires –   and with no empathy for others.   Reflecting some years later Ursula acknowledged this flaw  in the novel. “….he is purely evil – and I don’t, consciously, believe purely evil people exist. But my unconscious has other opinions. It looked into itself and produced, from itself, Captain Davidson. I do not disclaim him“.

Whether she intended or not, Ursula’s novel is very much a feminist riposte to  Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959)  – written against the backdrop of the Cold War  –  which  imagined  a  future society in which you can only become a citizen by serving in the military. It is in fact a paean to the alleged virtues of the military “code of honour” , a code unpicked  by Ursula in this novel to reveal its true reality: racism and murder.

The Word for World Is Forest had some influence  on “Kinda”,  a 1982 Doctor Who serial  written by Christopher Bailey,  his   first script for Doctor Who.  Like Ursula’s novel “Kinda ” is   set in a forest with a people  confonting colonists and is  a psychological, rather than an action serial, with layers of meaning and  a number  of spiritual  reference.  Bailey says  that he tried to write it without any people being killed, and  that he  name the main  characters after Buddhist terms, including the Mara (“temptation”),  Panna (“wisdom”),  and Anatta (“without self”).    Incidentally Panna was played by the wonderful  Mary Morris who,  among many other roles,  appeared in the BBC science fiction series  A for Andromeda and The Andromeda Breakthrough as the scientist Madeline Dawnay.