I’m not really sure where to begin with this novel. Wikipedia describes it as possibly a tribute to Philip K. Dick, and I can understand that. From reading Dick’s biography I know that Ursula and PKD were friends via correspondence, had they lived in the age of the internet they would have been frequent emailers, and the central premise of the story bears a striking resemblance to a key red herring in Ubik (1969).

The Lathe of Heaven (published 1971) centres on George Orr, a man living in ~2000 who has the ability to change the past with his dreams. When Orr falls asleep he runs the risk of changing reality for all humanity, and it is slowly driving him crazy. To escape the anxiety of ruining the lives of others Orr is retreating into drugs, and is eventually busted by the authorities for illegal procurement of a legal chemical. This bust results in his being sent to “Voluntary Therapy” with the stories other main character, psychiatrist William Haber. Haber hooks Orr up to a machine called ‘the Augmentor’ that allows him to analyse Orr’s brain activity during dreaming, and the story kicks off, with Haber learning to manipulate reality using his control over Orr.

Once again Le Guin provides herself to be a powerful and thoughtful writer, one that I find deeply compelling. The Dispossessed was intensely interesting in its depiction of a functioning anarchistic society, and here Le Guin toys with ideas of interventionism versus harmony and balance. The idea that the world falls into its own natural patterns versus the making of the world by mans hand.

Where PKD only skirts the edges of the idea of the manipulation of reality, Le Guin takes the idea and gives it full shape while making it a battle between the truly ‘centred’ Orr and the narcissistic and greedy Haber. In particular, when Orr is sent to Haber he is at his wits end, a good man who is unable to reconcile his abilities with the impact it has on the lives of others. He is able, for example to relegate 6 billion people to oblivion with the power of a single dream, something that effects him profoundly. Haber on the other hand sees this as a necessary action, something for the greater good, especially his own.

By the end of the story Orr is completely at ease with his powers, and realises the extent to which he is the centre of this, his reality, and that Haber is merely the driver of the machine, himself. These two roles, the being who is all the world, and the tinkerer at the machine, are in a way two rival conceptualisations of the godshead itself. Fascinating.

I could go on, but don’t want to undermine anyone who’s read over the jump and has already had something of a spoiler.

A thoroughly recommended read, if not only for the depiction of the 7 billion person, global-warming, mass-extinction year 2000 world Le Guin predicts.

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