The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin

by Lily Wren

Title: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin
SF Masterworks

I have a goal to read all of the books in the SF Masterworks series. Considering that the list can change over time, books get added, some taken away, it’ll be no mean feat. I’m currently embarking on a challenge which will hopefully encourage me to read more in 2014 and release some much needed brain power. So what better for my first book than one from the SF Masterworks collection and my first category for the 2014 Category Challenge.

The Lathe of Heaven tells the story of a mild mannered chap, George Orr, who possesses the ‘gift’ of being able to change reality through his dreams. He calls these ‘effective dreams’. He can go to bed one night and wake up in the morning only to find his job has changed, the landscape has altered, politics across the world and even the appearance of people. However, people around him do not notice anything different. To them things are as they have always been. Only George is aware of the impact that his dreams have on reality.

The book sounded just up my street. I love dream analysis, altered reality systems and dystopic tales and so a book which incorporates all these sounded perfect. In addition to this, there have been a number of times where I have wished that I could wake up and be instantly transformed into some 8.5 stone fitness guru with a body to rival any athlete (preferably that of a female tennis player). I would also have an abundance of wealth and happiness, popularity unbounded and there would be world peace…

Ah, if only it was so easy!

As is the case with characters who have such amazing ‘gifts’ in any book or film, we find out that such abilities can often become a curse. We meet George at a time in his life where his ability to dream ‘effectively’ has become too much to bear. George needs drugs to manage his sleep and dreams. He tries to stay awake. It’s not like he can just go to sleep and have a dream that he is wealthy and popular and wake up the next day and, hey presto, there it is.  As is often the case with dreams, George doesn’t have such conscious control and, as we know, dreams can become nightmares. How often have you gone to bed and wanted to dream about a particular thing but found that something else had happened? Can you imagine waking each day/week into a dramatically changed social, political and/or environmental landscape? One that came straight from your subconscious?  What if you had a nightmare which became your reality?  It would certainly put that dream where I gave birth to a chicken into perspective….

Right from the start of the book we become only too aware of his problem as he is found in a collapsed state outside his apartment. He explains to the elevator guard who found him that:

“Couldn’t find the fit” he said, meaning that he had been trying to lock the door through which the dreams came, but none of the keys fit the lock” (p.2).

The ‘fit’ for George has meant taking copious amounts of prescribed drugs for which he has to use ‘Pharm Cards’ from other people. This is a crime for which George has to attend the ‘Voluntary Therapeutic Treatment’  programme which will seek to help him with his perceived substance abuse. During this programme George is introduced to his psychotherapist, Dr Haber, who seeks to help him overcome his ‘fear’ of sleeping and dreaming. However, Haber becomes aware of George’s ability and finds ways in which to use this for his own ends. Haber starts to plant suggestions into George’s mind during his dream stage of sleep which leads to the development of interesting ‘realities’.

I enjoyed reading The Lathe of Heaven and Le Guin’s writing flows beautifully off the page. I got through the book quicker than I have got through any book in a long time. I started reading the book before 2014 thinking by the time 2014 arrived and the challenge had begun I would be just about finishing it. I underestimated myself and the book.

The story raises issues around power, powerlessness, control and fear. There is an overwhelming sense of loss which runs throughout.  Le Guin portrays the changes George has to go through as a consequences of his ‘effective’ dreams in a rather poetic way. All facets of life are transient, forever moving on and changing at an incredible pace. This can only lead to a sense of loss for love and life as it is, was or may never be.  Le Guin manages to capture this perfectly as she portrays the grief George feels as his dreams continue to alter his reality and that of the world.  Be careful what you dream….. they may come true.

“Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening” Salvador Dali (1944)

For all my 2014 Category Challenge books to be read please go here.