The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

The Lathe of Heaven: Le Guin’s Trippy Local SF Novel About Reality

A biweekly series, The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread explores anew the transformative writing, exciting worlds, and radical stories that changed countless lives. This week we’ll be covering The Lathe of Heaven, first published serially in two parts by Amazing Science Fiction in March and May 1971. My edition is from Gollancz, SF Masterworks no. 44 (2001) and this installment of the reread covers the entire novel.

I haven’t slept well the past year. I dream too much. I dream, I wake, I half-sleep, the cat wakes me, I dream, I sleep, my daughter wakes me, I half-sleep, I dream, and all of a sudden it’s time for work again. They aren’t nightmares—or at least not always, and when they are, they’re quite mundane: being forced to fist fight a friend or suddenly existing in a world without my partner. That sort of thing. Mostly they’re the kind of dreams that are so closely textured to reality that it sometimes takes hours for me to realize a “memory” was in fact a dream-memory. Thank the Nine I’m not George Orr, protagonist and reality-altering dreamer of Le Guin’s fifth novel, The Lathe of Heaven.

We’ve now passed a threshold in our reread of Le Guin. We began with her “major” works, the most popular books: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Dispossessed (1974), and the first three Earthsea novels. After these, we went back to Le Guin’s beginnings, her first three novels. In continuing chronologically, we have come to The Lathe of Heaven, one of two novels written between her career-making masterpieces, LHoD and The Dispossessed. We are in a period some might call High Le Guin, based solely on how this period shaped her reputation in the SF world, though by no means were her “best” novels written only in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Lathe of Heaven, then, starts us down an interesting path—not an incredibly popular novel of hers, comparatively speaking, but one written in a period when she was incredibly popular. It’s not fair to say Lathe is not a fairly popular novel, since it and The Word for World Is Forest are often regarded (along with Always Coming Home) as among her best SF novels, but it has not had the extreme mass appeal of her more genderfucking or anarchisting work.

The Lathe of Heaven is in fact a pretty weird novel and it sticks out in Le Guin’s oeuvre, especially in this period of her writing. It’s 1971, and SF is quickly gaining ground as a genre used in mass culture (and especially film) to deliver social critique—think of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) or Planet of the Apes (1968) or Soylent Green (1973), all films that demonstrated that SF could appeal to a mass audience and say something useful and interesting about society. Le Guin’s fiction was doing this, too, as was most of the American and British scene thanks to the New Wave pioneered first in Britain by Michael Moorcock’s editing of New Worlds and brought full force to the U.S. via Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions (Le Guin wasn’t quite well-known enough to be included in the first collection, but the next novel in our reread did appear in Ellison’s sequel, Again, Dangerous Visions). 

Where Le Guin’s earlier novels dealt with questions of war, hegemony, capitalism, and gender through the Hainish toolbox, The Lathe of Heaven is explicitly about Earth just a few decades in the future, the early 21st century. And rather than focusing on some far-off planet, Lathe takes place in a not unfamiliar United States worried about race, urban decay, disease, and the economy. And rather than setting the action in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, or even Detroit—the bright centers of American industry and culture in most of popular culture—the book takes place in the small regional city of Portland, OR. The issues dealt with are personal and geopolitical; they implicate reality itself, so that you know big stakes are involved at least in how the book is thinking about the world, but the novel is always very concerned with the local, with the Willamette Valley, with views of Mount Hood, and with the changing urbanography of Portland.

Not surprisingly, Le Guin’s love of northern California and Oregon, which influences the geographies of just about every novel she writes, takes over in Lathe and becomes hyper-specific, down to street names. When she extrapolates the future of Portland from her present in 1971, she does so with the precision of one intimately aware of the city’s local struggles, its history, its people’s ambitions, even as she places the city in a larger frame of geopolitical conflict that leads to nuclear war. As a result of its hyperlocality, Lathe feels like science fiction only circumstantially: it’s in the future and science-fictional things (alternate universes, aliens) are invoked. These read as after-effects of the novel, which focuses on a non-heroic white everyman—a guy so average, in fact, that his averageness disturbs his psychiatrist—who is terrified of the power his dreams have to change reality. In his mind, a person shouldn’t be able to ethically alter the world, even if the alterations are not themselves immoral. The power to do so is itself wrong, bad, not good. This is George Orr, a guy whose life motto might as well be “live and let live.”

Truthfully, The Lathe of Heaven is probably the most exciting book of Le Guin’s I’ve read, precisely for just how much it sticks out from the rest. Maybe it’s the Pacific Northwesterner in me, the kid who grew up in Seattle, went on weekend hiking trips to Mount Rainier, and took the occasional family summer vacation to the Oregon coast. It’s refreshing to read of home in the work of an adored writer when home is provincial by the standards of global power; Port Angeles, WA might be the U.S.’s back-up capitol in the event D.C. is destroyed, but that doesn’t mean anyone’s ever heard of it or written SF adventures set there (except Stephenie Meyer). The local specificity of The Lathe of Heaven makes the novel exciting, but it is also, I think, pretty motivated by some of Le Guin’s own concern with SF and its generic focus on big manly heroes who save the day.

Le Guin was not only a brilliant fiction writer, but a solid critic of SF (and many other things) to boot. When the academic study of science fiction was growing up in the 1970s, Le Guin made sure to be a part of it. She wrote a wonderfully sharp essay for the journal Science Fiction Studies in 1975 entitled “American SF and the Other.” Her meaning of “the Other” is a bit different than what we tend to mean now, in that it’s incredibly broad, but one of her main beefs with SF is: “The people, in SF, are not people. They are masses, existing for one purpose: to be led by their superiors.” In other words, much of SF and even much SF that is engaged in social criticism doesn’t give a damn about the people who live in the worlds being critiqued. There are the heroes, the protagonists, and then there are the people who run screaming, get shot or blown up, and ultimately, passively rejoice in the heroes’ triumphs. Not so in Le Guin’s writing, of course…or at least less so. 

I like to think of Lathe as an experiment, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek, in writing an SF story about the masses. Yes, “the people” are still scoped through a single character, George Orr, but he’s so damned average, so boring, so mediocre, so passive (even as his ability is used to increasingly bad ends), that he represents, as closely as one can, the idea of the everyman without making him into a hero. Moreover, Le Guin gives us the fascinatingly brash biracial legal worker Heather Lalache, an equally representative character. Le Guin makes no apologies for Heather’s impressive attitude and doesn’t sacrifice her on the altar of racial tokenism, nor does Le Guin turn her into George’s swooning love interest. These two normalites are pitted against the educated and privileged Dr. Haber, a sleep scientist who in trying to cure George of his drug addiction, discovers his ability to alter reality and sets about altering everything. Haber has grand ambitions, wants to do good, win awards, change the world. He wants to be the hero, and for this he is sorely punished.

Lathe is not a novel I want to describe the plot of, since I think it’s best to experience its twists and turns yourself, but the story goes something like this: George is assigned mandatory psychiatric treatment to cure him of his drug addiction, whereupon it’s discovered by his psychiatrist Dr. Haber that George is not in fact paranoid and can change reality. Haber induces sleep with a machine of his own invention and uses hypnotic suggestion to try to get George to dream specific things: a solution to overpopulation, a world free of racial hatred, an end to the war in the Middle East, and so on. Each time, however, George’s subconscious responds in the wild ways that subconsciouses tend to respond to reality, drawing on a random mix of what we know to come up with an explanation for how things get better. George’s ability to “fix” the world is predicated on his ability to imagine, with all his knowledge, the solutions to the world’s problems. Overpopulation is solved via the (eerily prescient) Plague Years of the 1980s that retroactively killed 6 billion people, making George’s Earth suddenly different. George fixes racism by making it so that people had forever and always been grey: no races, no problems. Haber wants an end to war? George gives him an alien invasion. Erase the alien threat? No problem, they wanted to be peaceful all along and now they live happily among us.

All of these changes begin to tax George, who is used by Haber to gain power. Near the climax, George is head of a major department of the new unified world government, and one of the foremost scientists in the world. But the utopia—Haber’s vision of progress—comes at a cost. Lathe is therefore not just an inventive alternate reality story, one with Dickian overtones (and some say Le Guin wrote this novel in homage to Philip K. Dick), nor just an experiment in localizing SF, but it is also a novel in conversation with the questions Le Guin wrestles with throughout her career, questions of power and responsibility and utopia.

I hesitate to call things “deeply philosophical,” partly because my partner is a philosopher and partly because, well, isn’t it all? But Lathe is philosophical and deeply so among Le Guin’s works. Indeed, Lathe is the kind of novel that would thrill a person who just read Plato’s allegory of the cave for the first time. We learn eventually that even the world the novel began in—the seemingly baseline world of George Orr before he meets Dr. Haber—is an alternate reality, something George dreamed into existence while dying in the nuclear dust of a global war in April, 1998. This leads us, George, and Heather to ask what reality is, how anything can be real—especially once George questions whether other people have his power, whether reality is in a constant state of total flux—without any of us ever being able to know! It’s concerned primarily with reality, our place in reality, and the tension between two (perhaps three) world-philosophical views or epistemologies. 

On the one hand, there’s Haber’s invocation of what is traditionally understood as “Western” thought, exemplified by his insistence on techno-scientific progress as well as references in narration around his character to Nietzsche’s “will to power.” On the other hand, Orr, the Aliens, and Le Guin’s (meta)narrative strategies implicate “Eastern” thought, which is practically shouted at the reader through Le Guin’s many quotations of Taoist texts by Laozi and Zhuang Zhou, and her referencing (as in earlier novels) of the “Way” and of “Being” (Haber calls this “Buddhism” and “mysticism”). And on the third hand, Le Guin seems to be alluding to an Indigenous thoughtworld, represented—and I’m admittedly not 100% on this—by an appeal to Australian Aboriginal conceptions of time and reality via the “dreamtime,” a concept introduced at the end of the novel that seems to explain the aliens’ relationship to “reality” and account for their meaning of the mysterious word iahklu’, their term for George’s special ability: a predisposition toward exerting reality-altering psychic energy that requires communal effort to rein in, so as not to disrupt the Way of things, the state of simply Being: the world not as it should or could be, but as it is. 

Whether Le Guin was familiar with Aboriginal thoughtways, I don’t know, but Lathe is nonetheless an incredibly layered philosophical fiction, dealing with Big Questions at the same time that it hits back at SF’s long-ignored masses; it’s a work that invites multiple rereads. Easily the most fun of her novels, it’s also one of the strangest, and Le Guin seems to take joy in this. I’m curious what others thought of this novel. I’ve heard from friends that it’s their favorite, and while I wouldn’t go that far, it’s certainly a wild ride through the 1970s American New Wave imagination that I wouldn’t trade away.


Join me in two weeks on Wednesday, July 29, as we read Le Guin’s ecological SF masterwork The Word for World Is Forest. Be seeing you!

Sean Guynes is a critic, writer, and editor currently working on a book about how the Korean War changed American science fiction. For politics, publishing, and SFF content, follow him on Twitter @saguynes.


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