Review of The Lathe of Heaven

George Orr is having trouble sleeping properly and Dr. Haber helps him. This is, in a sentence, the distilled story of The Lathe Of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin. The plot and story, however, are much more complex and send the reader on a strange journey that comments on the power of dreams, the nature of the human unconscious, whether or not human society is perfectible and the at times ethical ambiguity of action and inaction. While I found the book somewhat slow at times, a product of Le Guin’s clear love for ornate descriptions, I was able to read the book over two nights before bed.

I found myself rather amused by much of the purportedly dystopia future that I’d expected Le Guin to describe. I use the word purportedly as I’d noticed the term “dystopia” in a number of reviews of the book and disagree with its use to describe the conditions of the book. While there are clearly problems in this future that read very much like our own – environmental degradation, disease, financial insecurity – they are fleeting and serve more as a counterpoint from which to act upon rather than circumstances that cause reaction. To deny the importance of these social issues in the book, or indeed life itself, is not possible but they are presented in a very different manner than 1984 or Brave New World. They are a motivating force for Dr. Haber only upon the realization the George Orr’s dreams have ethe power to retroactively change time without the present being aware of such a change. I use the word amused as much of the descriptions of the “dystopian” future are, 45 years after it’s publication, holding true. Environmental degradation, racial strife, nationalist wars, gross economic disparity – these issues are as topical now as she’d predicted.

In a Daoist fashion, George Orr accepts this world as it is. The sleep therapist that he sees, however, does not and seeks to use his Augmentor, a machine with several important functions, to first direct George’s power and later transmit it to himself. Concerned by his use and unable to stop treatment, George began as part of a court ordered program for drug users as the Judge believed him that he was taking others people’s pharma quotas. Dr. Haber’s attempts at fixing the world’s ills through the power of the Augmentor, hypnotherapy and George Orr’s dreams leads to a number of somewhat humorous changes to world history. After Dr. Haber suggests that George make the world free of racism all people are on a grey scale. After Dr. Haber suggest that nationalist wars no longer continue, the world unites to fight off an invasion by aliens that look like sea-turtles and are later revealed to be peaceful and somewhat stupid.

One of the aspects of the book that I liked very much in the first half was the hypnotic inductions and patter of Dr. Haber. It was aligned with the training that I’ve received in hypnosis through FICAM. The research that Le Guin spent on this is clear and allows even the laymen reader to be immersed in the Dr. Haber’s perspective and practice.
In some of the reviews on Amazon I noticed that a number of readers connected this book to Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. I don’t think that it’s unfounded. There are signs that hint at criticism of crypt-socialist views. A name like Dr. Haber can be associated with Ashkenazic Jewry, those that were often drawn to the socialist credo in Europe in the early 20th century, and has a clear resonance with Sigmund Freud. I believe such a reading, while interesting and valuable for some of the connections it is able to uncover, misses some of the nuances of the book. The somewhat stupid but benevolent aliens, a key component in Orr’s coming to understand his powers, after all have no equivalent in an simple analogy between the two books. Most tellingly, there is no amount of honest exegesis that one can do to the text to create a corollary connecting the wishes of a single, well-intentioned psychiatrist to a socialist party. Hayek and the scientific socialists he seeks to warn others about both state that comprehensive social changes is a collective effort. Secondarily the rational notions that Dr. Haber seeks to enact always have, as mentioned above, wholly unpredictable effects. While one could easily say that George, representative of the working class, is exploited by the Dr. Haber – beyond the ill fit of the latter as the party there is also the mystical and irrational nature of these changes that are contrary to the rationalism of socialist doctrines. In my reading of the text Le Guin seems more interested in displaying the mystery of the mind and the difficulty that we can have, even with the best of intentions, in manifesting those desires. Her book The Dispossessed offers a less ambiguous view of her socio-political beliefs. This novel, in the end left me in a state of wonder than feeling as if I’d concluded a journey. While yes, the action ends for all the characters in resolutions that seems fitting considering their trajectory – the journey’s that they took to get there are, at least to me, somewhat confounding and so, ironically enough, in a good way.