22 February 2012

The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. Le Guin

I cannot believe I waited this long in my life to dive into "real" science fiction. What have I been waiting for? Did I think it was all weird names, odd planets, and "too smart for me" subjects? Yep, sure did. With that stereotype in my head, I have only occasionally read science fiction that was recommended by the non-science fiction reader. Consequently, I ended up missing out on authors like Ursula Le Guin, and I wish I had tried more of this genre when I was younger.

I picked up this Le Guin novella because it was mentioned in Jo Walton's Among Others which I recently enjoyed. (Others might be familiar with Ursula Le Guin because she was also mentioned frequently in the book and movie The Jane Austen Book Club.) Among Others has been defined by several reviewers as a love letter to science fiction, particularly from the 1970s, and while I enjoyed the story, I felt a bit left out with all of the books referenced. I committed to myself that I would read a few that Morwenna, the main character from the story, loved. I wanted to truly understand why there were such die-hard fans of science fiction.

The Lathe of Heaven did not disappoint and was a perfect book for a new science fiction reader like me. Yes, it did incorporate a few odd things here and there that I wasn't used to, but I expected it and actually rejoiced in it. I wanted to be challenged by my reading and I got it with this.

George Orr is a man who is afraid to sleep. He does everything he can to avoid it, but the human body can only go so long without sleep before finally succumbing to it. And with that, he dreams. The dreams are sometimes unimportant and inconsequential, meaning nothing to him when he awakens. Other times, though, the times that drive his fear, George Orr dreams of a change in the world, a shift in his own life. Upon awakening, he finds that what he has dreamed of has now actually happened and changed the world in some way.

For an ethical person, this is tough for George to deal with. He has the very power to adjust not just the future, but the past as well, and this also means that what he dreams of could remove or add actual people in the world. Knowing that people suddenly disappear out of existence, and their own family and friends don't even remember them, tortures George. Even the insignificant changes upset him, so he does everything he can to not dream.

After an overdose of medication that is supposed to stop him from dreaming, George Orr is required to go to therapy. His doctor, William Faber, appears congenial enough and willing to believe George's story, no matter how outlandish his fear may sound. If Dr. Faber had any doubts, it's completely squashed when Dr. Faber realizes that a picture painted behind his desk on the wall, now becomes a completely different image after he puts George into a dream-state sleep in his office and gives him general ideas to dream of. Normally, others can't feel a shift in their current existence, even if there are dramatic changes, but because Dr. Faber is monitoring George in this first session, he is able to acknowledge to himself that what George stated is true: George's dreams do change things. He doesn't admit to George that he fully believes, but instead begins a calculated therapeutic process of putting George to sleep in each session and giving him ideas of what to dream of next. But the torture then continues for George. After all, can you imagine what it would be like to have realities constantly change in the world, but only you know what's changed, who might no longer exist? What a terrible, awful burden.

Although Dr. Faber isn't setting out for personal gain, ultimately the ethical question remains, and the path taken to rid the world of certain horrible elements can be debated. Would a world without hate truly be perfect? If everyone were the same, would it make life easier? With these discussions, along with race, justice, eugenics, and the act of "playing God," The Lathe of Heaven is a divine science fiction classic novella that made me ponder these questions and much more.

So it's with this book that I learned that science fiction isn't only strange names, oddly-created creatures who can speak, or subjects that might be a bit above my abilities to understand. I instead found that science fiction does a doggone good job of questioning society, and gives an opportunity to the reader to truly evaluate what current-day controversies might be like in the future. It was a refreshing perspective, and I reveled in the fact that this book was written in 1971. Pretty cool thinking at the time, if you ask me.

And yes. I'll be reading much more science fiction and will ultimately not steer myself away from this section in the bookstore ever again.

Book club choice? Maybe, but you have to really have an open group to select something like this. It certainly would give a lot to bicker about, I think. It's a novella, so with less than 200 pages to read, why not pick this up and try it yourself?

A passage to remember:
Orr was not a fast reasoner. In fact, he was not a reasoner. He arrived at ideas the slow way, never skating over the clear, hard ice of logic, nor soaring on the slipstreams of imagination, but slogging, plodding along on the heavy ground of existence. He did not see connections, which is said to be the hallmark of intellect. He felt connections - like a plumber. He was not really a stupid man, but he did not use his brains half as much as he might have done, or half as fast. It was not until he had got off the subway at Ross Island Bridge West, and had walked up the hill several blocks and taken the elevator eighteen floors to his one-room 8 1/2 x 11 flat in the twenty-story independent-income stell-and sleazy-concrete Corbett Condominium (Budget Living in Style Down Town!), and had put a soybean loaf slice in the infrabake, and had taken a beer out of the wallfridge, and had stood some while at his window - he paid double for an outside room - looking up at the West Hills of Portcland crammed with huge glittering towers, heavy with lights and life, that he thought at last: Why didn't Dr. Haber tell me that he knows I dream effectively?
Others said:
If I've missed your review, let me know so I can add it here.

Publisher: EOS (an imprint of HarperCollins (my copy)
Release Date: First published 1971
Pages: 175

FTC Disclaimer: I checked this book out of my local Virginia Beach Public Library.

About the Author
As of 2011, Ursula K. Le Guin has published twenty-one novels, eleven volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, twelve books for children, six volumes of poetry and four of translation, and has received many awards: Hugo, Nebula, National Book Award, PEN-Malamud, etc. Her recent publications include the novel Lavinia, an essay collection, Cheek by Jowl, and The Wild Girls. Forthcoming in 2012, Finding My Elegy, New and Selected Poems. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Visit the author:
This is my second selection for the Science Fiction Experience, hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. All reviews from Experience participants can be found here.


  1. This is definitely one of those books you hear about over and over again, but then I hear the words "science fiction" and my eyes glaze over. Which I know isn't fair because 11/22/63 is considered Sci Fi, right? Or The Doomsday Book? These are some of fictions best. You've made me stop and reconsider this one.

  2. I had heard the title of this one, but had never explored what it was about. The story within sounds so interesting, and portentous, and I can imagine that I would really get a lot out of it. I can't imagine my dreams having that much power or consequence, and I would imagine that it would be exciting at first, but quickly turn frightening. This was a fantastic and very thoughtful review today, Natalie. I am off to look for this book now!

  3. This sounds lovely. I am admittedly underread in science fiction, but this sounds like a great place to start, especially with Le Guin.

  4. I loved this whole review, mostly because I feel exactly as you did -- my eyes glaze over at most science-y things and I've been burned too often by hardcore scifi. But I'm so sold on this one -- I'm going to look for it this weekend and see if I can't get it on my spring TBR. You've got me sooo curious!

  5. I've read a few sci-fi books at my son's urging and haven't really loved them, so I probably won't pick this up. I'm glad you loved it so much.

  6. It's been years since I read any Le Guin. I definitely need to pick up this and The Dispossessed.

    I am a science fiction fan, but not really a Hard Science Fiction fan. This is one of the reasons I prefer the term "Speculative Fiction." One of my all time favorite books is Replay by Ken Grimwood. When i recommend people that book and then they look into it and find out that it's a so-called science fiction book they dismiss it. It's sad, because beyond the time travele-ish aspect of the novel, it's not sciency at all.

  7. I've read some of her other books but not this one yet. Thanks for the reminder.

  8. I've never even heard of this one, but I did read some of her books as a teenager (and I loved them! It was the Earthsea series, which I'd classify more as science fantasy).

  9. I've read a lot of science fiction but I haven't read this one yet. I think a lot of what is classified as scifi would appeal to a more general audience but they avoid the genre thinking it's all spaceships and rockets.

    I'll put in a word for Replay too, it's also one of my all time favorites.

  10. I loved this review! I've stayed away from "speculative fiction" for a long time, even though I remember reading and loving at least one book by LeGuin. I will add this to my list....

  11. LOL That passage cracked me up...poor George Orr, he's not a fast reasoner! I have the same 'preconceived misconception' about science fiction you had before reading The Lathe of Heaven. I read a book by Orson Scott Card years ago that was fantastic. It was recommended to me by a friend. But I didn't know what sci-fi to read next so I didn't read any.
    I'm going to put this novella on my list to read soon especially after reading your fantastic review. I don't know that I will ever be a big fan of sci fi but I would like to have a working knowledge of its authors...and stranger things have happened..!

    I have also read great reviews of Connie Willis' science fiction books

  12. I wish I could remember which of her books we read in my book club years ago, but I do recall we had an intense discussion about the subject matter. Le Guin definitely knows how to throw the ethical book at the reader so that one must consider what she truly believes...Excellent review Natalie!

  13. Okay I am convinced. I need to read Science Fiction. I have to admit that I have shied away from it in the past but this week I have read three reviews, including yours, that have convinced me that I have really been missing out.

  14. Yes; not all science fiction is rockets and aliens (although I do like some of those as well). Very awesome review!

  15. I read this in high school and LOVED it. But I haven't revisited LeGuin in a while. Sounds like it might be time. I am really enjoying your science fiction reviews, and you've even inspired me to read some myself!