I’ve only read Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and The Dispossessed before this, both of which I found thought-provoking and enjoyable, but not fast-paced. The Lathe of Heaven on the other hand, practically races from start to finish and was really hard to put down. It was apparently first published as a serial in Amazing Stories magazine, and I think that has a lot to do with the pacing; not that (at only eleven chapters long), it was ever going to be a slog to read.
Big fat SPOILERS all the way through from here on …
Anyhow, it’s set in a 2002 (thirty years in the future for Le Guin when she wrote it) where overpopulation and climate change mean that everyone lives with starvation and near-constant rain, and conflict is rife worldwide. (I was fascinated that the Greenhouse Effect and growing population were concerns as far back as the early 70s – I realise that makes me sound incredibly naïve, but I’ve always assumed these were issues that arose during my lifetime). There are three main characters: George Orr, a man who can dream “effective” dreams that change reality; William Haber, the psychiatrist whose help he’s obliged to endure after accidentally taking an overdose; and Heather Lelache, the civil rights lawyer whose help he seeks out when he starts to question Haber’s treatment. Le Guin’s character descriptions are clever – both Haber and Lelache are introduced to the reader as they see themselves: Haber through his jovial doctor act: all exclamation points, exposition and bluff positivity; and Lelache through her own imagined alter-ego of a Black Widow spider and her expletive-dotted speech. It kind of feels significant that we don’t ever meet George via his view of himself though, he too is introduced to us through Haber and Lelache’s POVs, as slight, fair and passive. He seems to provoke the bully in both of them initially, and it is only as the world changes around the three that he becomes more solid, more strong and real. I love everything about the way George has been written. I love his apparent powerlessness despite being able to change the world, the whole philosophy he develops as a reaction to Haber’s abuse of his ability, and his changing relationship with Heather Lelache across the many alternate realities.
Like Paama in Redemption in Indigo, George is a hero that prods the reader into re-evaluating what they expect from a hero. We are told again and again in novels, on TV and in movies that heroes and heroines are the people willing to stand up and do what others can’t or won’t. Heroism is defined by action. But here Haber is the active to George’s passive, and Haber’s activity, often self-aggrandising, definitely overbearing and ultimately aiming to take George’s power for himself, is terrifying. Haber is so driven by action that he does not know himself, he puts on masks, he performs, but he never pauses or reflects, and so when he dreams effectively he breaks the world. George, on the other hand, holding the power to bring about immense change but knowing he has no ability to control that power attempts not to act so as to do no harm.
Being able to change the course of history via your dreams sounds like a kickass super power, but the way Le Guin has envisioned it, it’s a bitch. When trying to explain why he is so afraid to dream, George tells Haber about one of his first effective dreams which caused the death of his aunt. Later on, when Haber tries to ‘fix’ the overpopulation problem via George, they wipe out billions. Dreams are at once limited by the dreamer’s imagination and beyond control because everything dreamed becomes distorted. Haber gets angry with George for some of the results of his dreams (I could’ve slapped him on numerous occasions – he’s pretty high up on the list of most annoying characters ever), even though George tries to explain repeatedly that he has no control. It’s that whole power at a price thing. The numerous dystopias that play out during Haber’s fiddling would surely have a sane man questioning whether he should continue to do what he’s doing and considering that it’s George who manages to keep his head, and Haber that loses his, it makes you wonder which of them really needs treatment. (Dr Haber, would you care to take the couch?)
What’s also very cool is that George holds all the realities in his head. He remembers the before and after for each change that is made and as the various versions of the city of Portland that occur during those changes accumulate, so his memory becomes this many-layered montage of broken realities. In an early reality George and Heather arrange a meeting that every alteration pushes them further and further away from achieving. The whole idea of this poor man remembering so many versions of the world and navigating through them (with Heather as his geodetic North) kind of blew me away.
Finally, the Aliens are awesome. The story follows a lovely progression from believable to surreal that feels authentic to the way a dream plays out, and the Aliens are almost a joke when they first appear, a dream-fix means of bringing about peace on earth, a threat from off-world that unites us as a species. So far so trite. But they get interesting. As a product of George’s dreaming mind they are beautifully benign and they speak in a kind of dream-speak that I just love. And while, once they are a reality, they are real beyond George’s imagination, they seem to have an affinity for him, or a sense of what he is. They are beings of dream themselves, and come out with odd, wise things, like:
“What comes is acceptable”
“There is time. There are returns. To go is to return.”
And after all the hub-bub, and all the realities, and George and Haber’s wrangling, I liked that there was no reset, that the Aliens remain and become a part of everyday life with their peaceful sea-turtle ways and their go-with-the-flow attitude.
N.B. Nobody cares about this but me, but The Lathe of Heaven is not only a SF classic (published as one of Gollancz’s SF Masterworks) nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards and winning the Locus Best Novel award in 1972, but it also has a truly awful cover IMO, and was recommended to me by my friend R. So I could tick off three of my Book Bingo categories with just this one book if I wanted to. If I were cheating. I’m not though, so I’m counting it towards the SciFi Classic category. Achieved! Yay me!