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

‘We’re in the world, not against it. It doesn’t work to try to stand
outside things and run them, that way. It just doesn’t work, it goes against life. There is a way but you have to follow it. The world is, no matter how we think it ought to be. You have to be with it. You have to let it be.’

We just came out of Halloween, the peak of Autumnal vibes. All of us looking for spooks and scares. Well is there anything more truly frightening than well written science fiction that makes you doubt your own future? There certainly isn’t for me. In a world where personal data has become weaponised and monetised, it’s not hard to imagine if we could touch something as intangible as dreams and use it as data, people would want to manipulate it.

George Orr is a mild and unremarkable man who finds the world a less than pleasant place to live: seven billion people jostle for living space and food. But George dreams dreams which do in fact change reality – and he has no means of controlling this extraordinary power.

Psychiatrist Dr William Haber offers to help. At first sceptical of George’s powers, he comes to astonished belief. When he allows ambition to get the better of ethics, George finds himself caught up in a situation of alarming peril.

Le Guin really said ‘hold my drink’ when she set down to write a book where even dreams can be used and abused to manipulate society didn’t she? This isn’t my first outing with Le Guin and her interest in dream. Her work The Word for World is Forest, part of her Hainish Cycle, involves an indegenous species that can dream in a concious state. This book is a bit more focused on it’s parallel of the Vietnam War but I had some idea of what to expect going into this. Yet I was taken back with how relevant some parts of this book were.

We follow George Orr, a fairly average man, Bot very remarkable or striking, until he is found overdosing. Drugs to suprress dreams and aid sleep which he gained from using someone elses resources. So as a result, and as an alternative to imprisonment, he must attend therapy for the addiction. Le Guin does many a layered male protagonist; Shevek, Ged and Genly Ai are a few. With George Orr, she seems to have wrote him to be as insignifigant as possible with the most important power. The power to manipulate reality with dreams, but what if he himself is bveing manipulated?

Now I honestly think half my love of Le Guin comes from her ability to have concepts that are really unique and execute them expertly. The Lathe of Heaven is one of those instances where it succeeds but stumbles a little as well. We have a limited cast of characters in a much shorter work so it makes sense for the focus from the get go to be Orr and his dreams, as well as how someone who’s been entrusted with caring for him could easily use him for his powers as well.

I really enjoyed the ongoing discussion in this in what happens when people seek advice on medical malpractice they feel they experienced and the struggle they go through to get taken seriously. It is during a legal consultation he meets Heather. Now I would argue Heather is the most developed character in the book, and her time on page limited. She has an awareness to her that just makes her a bit more believable, as a lawyer and a human. But when they meet, as Orr tells her, we are seeing things from her legal perspective and she (a little naturally) is dismissive of his claim of Haber using him without his full consent. There was just something about that smaller detail that resonated with me.

On that same note, there is something about Orr’s dreams that felt very relevant to me. We are living in an age where data is handled horribly. Apps, third party sharing and dubious sites handling personal details and selling them on, it’s a real load of shite. But if you take into account in this instance that George Orr has dreams that are outside of his mind, that another person can see them and potentially use them, it is his personal data (and bodily autonomy on another level) being used incorrectly. Horribly in fact. I haven’t stopped thinking about that since I read this so am glad to share it.

Overall, this wasn’t my favourite of Le Guin’s books but I was still vastly impressed by the concepts and ideas being discussed here. Even more with how they fit into the messages being put across in more modern SF. A short read if you want to start with Ursula K. Le Guin and a great intro to some of her main concepts as well! Thanks for checking in guys and happy reading!


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