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.”