The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin - Sci-Fi Classic Review
The first edition cover
There are a few different ways to look at Ursula Le Guin's reality-warping 1971 fantasy novel, The Lathe of Heaven: it's at once an eco-fiction dystopia, an homage to Philip K. Dick (for whom Le Guin was an ardent advocate), a new-age elaboration on the genie myth, a science-fiction yarn about alternate realities, a cutting rebuke of utilitarianism, and most importantly, a Taoist parable about the importance of equanimity. In fact, Le Guin packs so much into a relatively short novel that I'm not entirely sure how to approach this review. I could say this was the novel that made me fall in love with her as an author, or I could talk about how it inspired me as a teenager to become a wannabe Taoist, but then I'd spend this whole essay talking about myself instead of the novel.
So instead, let's break it down piece by piece, starting with where it sits in the canon of the eco-fiction boom of the late sixties and early seventies. Le Guin was a central figure for that period, but honestly, I think she handles environmental issues far better in some of her other works (including The Word for World is Forest). Here, the closest thing she gets to the "real" universe is a near future (2002, to be precise) racked by catastrophic global warming, extreme overpopulation, mass famine, and nuclear war, which comes across as preachy, hyperbolic Malthusian nightmare fuel that doesn't jive with reality. Normally, I'm quite forgiving about this sort of thing--dystopian fiction is supposed to exaggerate--but it doesn't really work in the context of this novel's greater themes, which are about finding contentment with reality as it is while letting go of the desire to try to fix the entire world. I grant that a dystopia is necessary for the plot to happen, but why preach about climate change and overpopulation in a novel whose central theme concerns the dangerous futility of drastic action?
Of course, the novel's protagonist, George Orr (whose name is a none-too-subtle Orwell reference), has a hard time finding contentment with reality, because it is constantly changing according to the whims of his unconscious. The plot concerns how Orr, when he sleeps, occasionally has what he calls "effective dreams," which are dreams that not only become real, but they alter the fabric of reality in order to accomodate the change. Caught abusing pharmaceuticals in an effort to stop dreaming, Orr comes under the care of Dr. Haber, who quickly figures out that Orr's claims about his dreams are real and then tries to use Orr's powers to make the world a better place.
It's turtles all the way down
This is where The Lathe of Heaven starts to feel like a Philip K. Dick novel, as Orr and Haber find themselves drifting from reality to reality. At first, the changes are subtle, but before long, they become more and more extreme. Haber and Orr, for instance, wipe out more than half the humans on the planet in order to "cure" overpopulation (this was written well before Thanos' snap). However, each change has a catch, a way for reality to counter the change to maintain balance. When humanity's compulsion to make war with itself is taken away, it turns out that remorselessly hostile aliens landed on the moon four years ago and rallied the world in defense of the Earth. As the genie says, you have to be careful what you wish for.
This is not to say the novel is devoid of science. Le Guin clearly did a lot of homework concerning the nature of dreams and the brain. While some of her information is terribly out of date, it's still accurate enough to put a veneer of plausibility over the character of Dr. Haber and his Infernal Machine. (If I were to knock Le Guin for how much science has advanced in the field of neurology and dreams, I'd have to knock myself for Thesea, my own horror/sci-fi novel partially inspired by The Lathe of Heaven.) Indeed, Haber is arguably the most interesting character in the book, Heather Lelache being stiff competition. He's clearly the antagonist, but at the same time, his motives are absolutely pure, making him a perfect villain.
He strives for a utilitarian future, where the greatest benefit is given to the greatest number. While he does make several changes to inflate his own power--by the end, he is practically running the entire world from his office complex in Portland--he has altruistic aims, believing that any means would be justified by the enormous benefits of the utopia he seeks to create. Unfortunately, as Le Guin adeptly demonstrates, utopia is impossible, and the search drives Haber--the psychiatrist tasked with curing the supposedly delusional Orr--incurably insane. Utilitarianism, despite its lofty, altruistic ambitions, is shown to be impossible, not just in this reality, but in any reality. Le Guin not only disagrees with utilitarianism, but she also skewers it with wonderfully satirical inventions like "Consumer Product Equity-Rationing."
A totally generic sci-fi cover that doesn't even have pulpiness to fall back on
Anyone who's studied Taoism, even in passing, should be familiar with the metaphors Le Guin throws into The Lathe of Heaven. From the jellyfish that opens to novel to the river that moves mountains, she offers several motifs that are ripped wholesale from the Tao Te Ching, in addition to quoting Lao Tzu directly at the start of a few chapters. The title of the novel even comes from Zhuangzi (albeit a shoddy translation). While many of Le Guin's books are inspired by Taoism, this one is a full-throated endorsement of Taoist philosophy, replete with variations on the Three Treasures, an inherent distrust of language, and a focus on the critical importance of harmony with the universe.
Rather than getting lost in Eastern mysticism, however, Le Guin finds a way to ground these ideas in everyday life. Orr seems at first like a very odd protagonist in that he has no real character of his own, and this is a non-trait that is referenced several times in the text itself. Late in the novel, it becomes clear that there's more than just lampshade hanging going on, because when Haber reveals to Orr the results of an exhaustive series of personality tests, we learn that Orr is in the middle of every spectra, that he is, essentially, a personification of perfect balance. He isn't a hero in the classical sense, but he is a champion of Taoist philosophy without knowing it, reinforced late in the book by the Aldebaranians and, oddly enough, The Beatles. Orr, the centered man, is the one gifted with the power to change the universe, but who ultimately learns to put away that power and find peace in a flawed existence.
There's a lot more thematic depth to be found in The Lathe of Heaven, but sufficed to say, I find it a calming, reassuring work of startling beauty. It begins with angst and fear, but closes with a poignant message about the contentment one can find amidst the chaos of everyday life. It's a wild trip, to be sure, especially during the second half as things spiral more and more out of control, and it is perfectly entertaining on its own merits, not to mention extremely well written. (Okay, some of Haber's exposition dumps are exhausting, but I'm pretty sure that's intentional.) It's not a typical Le Guin work, which is why I didn't cover it before covering some of her other well-known novels, but it is a fantastic piece of science-fiction and philosophical fantasy that I cannot possibly recommend enough. It's been an important influence on me for my entire adult life--though I don't pretentiously call myself a Taoist anymore--and I think we'd all do well to take its principles to heart.
-e. magill 12/3/2020
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: