Review: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

The idea of dreams changing reality isn’t unique, but its presentation in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven is inventive and disquieting. The Lathe of Heaven follows George Orr as he seeks treatment for a sleep disorder. Some of Orr’s dreams impact the real world, so he has been abusing medication to alternately stay awake or sleep dreamlessly. His drug use lands him in “Voluntary Therapeutic Treatment,” which becomes less voluntary when his doctor, William Haber, finds a way to control Orr’s dreams to his own benefit.

After a disorienting opening chapter, Orr tries to explain his problem to Haber. He explains that his dreams not only change the present, but also the past. When he wakes up, the “new” world is the way things have always been. Only Orr can remember what his life was like before he fell asleep. In addition to the fear of inadvertently causing a calamity in his sleep, Orr has to balance multiple memory streams in his head. He explains a dream he had about his Aunt Ethel’s death. She had been living with him and his mother, until he dreamed that she died:

“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.” (14)

Orr remembers both versions of events—his aunt living with them for weeks and having been dead for weeks—because he was the only one “there … at the moment of the change.” (14) When he begins to dream under the doctor’s supervision, Haber is also “there,” so he can also remember both realities. But unlike Orr, Haber doesn’t feel at all conflicted or out of control; he believes he can create a better world by guiding Orr’s dreams.

This is where the science fiction comes in. Haber has developed a machine that allows him to hypnotize Orr and shape his “effective” dreams (effective is the word given to Orr’s world-changing dreams). Before his sessions with Haber, Orr had effective dreams rarely, but begins having them regularly under Haber’s supervision. While Orr doesn’t want to dream effectively, he has no defense against Haber’s machine.

Haber starts small, using Orr’s dreams to change the wall art in his office, but things quickly build. I had no real expectations when picking up this book, but I’d assumed that the story would be fairly small with Orr’s dreams largely impacting his own life and the lives of his family and friends. Soon, though, the consequences of his effective dreams impact the city and eventually the planet. The scale of this book was a pleasant surprise as it made things completely unpredictable. I’m sure someone out there feels the end of this book is a bit fantastic or outlandish, but it’s based on dreams and therefore entirely logical.

As much as I enjoyed this book and the way it was written, the actual reading experience verged on stressful and unpleasant. Though Haber claims that he wants to improve the world, he’s more interested in his own power and shows little concern for Orr’s wellbeing. While Orr is pitiable and too easy to push around, Haber’s treatment of him is disturbing. I’m still terrified of Nurse Ratched after reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest decades ago. Even within a fictional setting, medical professionals who use their position to abuse the patients entrusted to their care is viscerally terrifying. Haber tickled my old Nurse-Ratched fears as I read. He makes it clear to Orr that his consent doesn’t matter for these experiments. As a respected doctor, it would be easy for Haber to commit Orr to his care and force the “treatments” for his “insanity.” The narrative shifts around as it juggles Orr’s memories of multiple pasts, and the jumps between rapidly changing realities make Haber seem more fearsome and powerful.

But “too creepy” isn’t a valid complaint for a book. (And some of the scariest books on this site, The Shining and The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, have earned high marks from me.) At the risk of repeating myself too much, I’m really enjoying books that create a weird mood and stick to it. With any less commitment to the bizarre and the dreamlike, this book would have been a tremendous flop. As is, I couldn’t put it down until I finished it.

Overall: 4.6 (out of 5.0) I have The Left Hand of Darkness in my queue and will read it soon for more Le Guin.

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