Before proceeding with this review, I have to admit something: I’ve never been a fan of Urusula K LeGuin. I know, I know, she’s written so many books, and won so many awards for them. She is considered one of the great feminist sci-fi writers, a collective which I should whole-heartedly support. I think its a prejudice that started in middle school when I read, and was disappointed with, A Wizard of Earthsea (which I haven’t read since then, and which I should probably go back and read again before I start disparaging it).
That said, the concept of this story, and the way in which le Guin approaches it, is fairly wonderful. Orr is a man living in a post, pre, and concurrant apocolyptic world, and he was born with a strange gift. Sometimes when he dreams, his dreams come true. His dreams actually alter the past, not the present or the future, so that when he awakes things around him have changed, but no one else notices because “they’ve always been that way.” Orr is not a man who likes to have that kind of power, he just wants it to go away. After turning to drugs to keep himself from dreaming, Orr is sentenced to Voluntary Theraputic Treatment and is introduced to a psychiatrist who specializes in dreaming. This doctor hypnotizes Orr in an attempt to get him to stop being afraid of his dreams, and by a function of being near Orr is taken along with him into the next “reality” and remembers the changes. The doctor sees this as an opportunity to make their world a better place to live, the only problem is, it doesn’t seem to work that way. Over the next few months, the doctor takes it upon himself to “fix” all the unhappiness in the world. The doctor orders Orr to dream of world peace, no more war in the middle east, and when Orr awakes planet Earth is united together… in a war against the aliens. As each session with the doctor creates a world that is less and less familiar, Orr begins to believe that the doctor is fundamentally damaging reality, but he has to overcome his own passive nature and take one vital step towards action to save the world from the excesses of the doctor.
I think my dislike of The Lathe of Heaven stems from the wordy pseudo-philosophical style in which it is written. “It was not standing there, Orr thought: not in the same way that he would stand, or sit, or lie, or be. It was standing there in the way that he, in a dream, might be standing. It was there in the sense that in a dream one is somewhere.” Now, normally I’m a big fan of prosetry (writing that is half prose half poetry), but I believe that it has to serve a purpose. There has to be a point the author is trying to make. In this instance, it is strangely out of character for Orr to be thinking in such philosophical circles. Orr is described as being flat, completely mentally balanced, and passive to the extreme. The other characters do not think of him as stupid, but as being simple, direct, and usually saying exactly what he thinks. So this particular quote, and others like it, just feel like the author’s self-indulgence and love of her own writing style (and I know it when I see it, I’m often guilty of this flaw myself.) Just because a sentence is purely beautiful, well written and meaningful doesn’t mean it belongs in the story. And when a novella is barely 150 pages, every word has to count, every sentence has to contribute to the story as a whole, and not just be a way for the author to expound her own brilliance.
Le Guin also has the tendency to get a little bit “preachy” in The Lathe of Heaven. This is her chance to tell you some of what she thinks is wrong with the world, and how *not* to fix the problems. It tells you what le Guin herself is afraid of seeing in our society, and some of the societies Orr dreams up are pretty scary. This novel asks the reader to choose between race and gender issues versus uniformity, freedom versus control, what makes the perfect world?
When the ending comes, it is with a jumble of psychadelic abstract images. The reader is left knowing that le Guin believes there is no “lathe of heaven,” there is no tool that can create the perfect reality, utopia cannot be found by shaving away the things we don’t like. We are just pieces of the puzzle, we can’t see the whole image, we can just attempt to find where we fit as individuals. (And I forgive her; sometimes, as authors, we can’t help but throw in some prosetry, because we think it sounds pretty.)