Thursday, December 19, 2013

Review of The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin

Though Ursula Le Guin and Philip K. Dick may seem to exist at opposite ends of the sci-fi spectrum, for parts of the 60s and 70s the two routinely corresponded and had a mutual regard for one another.  Experimenting in the form of the paranoid/schizophrenic/manic sci-fi master, Le Guin wrote The Lathe of Heaven in 1971 in tribute to Dick, garnering awards and praise in the process.  Winning the Locus and being nominated for the Hugo and Nebula, the novel’s reality-controlling dreams and ambiguous psychologists were more than enough to catch the eye of the public.  Perhaps more importantly, however, PKD gave his own approval.  

The Lathe of Heaven is the story of George Orr, a man who abuses drugs to prevent what he thinks are “effective” dreams - dreams that alter reality.  Forced by the authorities to undergo treatment for his abuses, Orr finds himself a patient at an asylum and begins therapy with the psychologist Dr. Haber.  Haber, seeming to quickly recognize the latent power and opportunities present in Orr’s dreams, begins rigorous testing.  The multiple levels of experiments Orr undergoes, in combination with the cumulative effects of the dreams, slowly but surely alter reality in ways neither can predict.  The conflict of interests—Orr’s desire to escape and Haber’s ambitions for Orr’s abilities—gradually culminate in circumstances that change the world.  Or does it… (PKD smiling on the wings.)

As is typical with Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven possesses a strong ideological and moral backbone.  The title taken from an (incorrectly) translated passage from a Zhuangzi epigraph, the themes of harmony, equanimity, and passive vs. active behavior toward destiny take the forefront.  Orr and Haber each seeking the same goals but from different angles, how Le Guin resolves their conflict not only exemplifies her own Daoist leanings, but proves the philosophy can make for good literary substance when applied to a suitable premise (as does A Wizard of Earthsea).

The faults of the novel are only a matter of taste.  Firstly, with reality an increasingly slippery plot element to put a finger on, it’s possible the story, and transitions within the story, may be confusing.  Things bounce around a touch, so those who prefer comfortable, linear narratives should be warned.  (Readers of Dick and those who enjoy atypical plot lines and stories of the surreal will have no problems.)   Secondly, the book does not have a comfortable resting place in Le Guin’s oeuvre.  An insular novel, those looking for works similar to her Hainish, Orsinian, or Earthsea series may be disappointed.  The setting, dialogue, and characterization all contemporary, little beyond theme links the novel to the remainder of her works.

In the end, The Lathe of Heaven is a work of science fiction that uses the tropes of the genre to quality effect, presenting a Daoist perspective on destiny and social/personal balance. Likewise, the novel can be considered an homage to Philip Dick given the similarity of the motifs, the authors’ relationship, and Le Guin's statement to the effect.  Effective dreams, psychologists with unclear motives, and reality shifting further underfoot with each step, all of the elements are present.  That Le Guin writes with lucid, fluent prose and maintains story focus throughout—dare I say—pushes her novel beyond the quality of most PKD books.  I know I risk the wrath of a million PKD fans by writing as such, so all I will say is: read the book for yourself.  Even if you disagree with my comparison, you will at least find Le Guin’s novel worth the while.

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