Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Lathe of Heaven

The Lathe of Heaven
by Ursula K. Le Guin, 1971

I polished off quite a few novels while we were traveling in June, and I’m still in the process of writing up my impressions. So here’s another one:

George Orr has a problem. His dreams can alter reality. He dreams that the world is different in some way, and then reality actually shifts to oblige him. He once dreamed his creepy aunt was out of his life, and then he woke up to find she’d died six weeks previously. Retroactively. And he is the only one consciously aware that the new reality isn’t the way things have always been.

Orr is understandably terrified that he has this power, and he’s been abusing illicit medication to keep himself from dreaming. Eventually the authorities catch up with him, and he ends up with a court-ordered therapist. This turns out to be one Dr. William Haber, who has been experimenting with a machine called the Augmentor to induce dreaming.

At first, Haber naturally thinks Orr is delusional, but with close proximity to his patient, Haber also becomes aware of what is really happening. He comes to see Orr as an invaluable tool to change the world for the better, to put an end to climate change (already a major worry in the world of the novel, published in 1971), to war, to overpopulation.

For instance, Orr inadvertently "solves" overpopulation by dreaming up a plague that retroactively ravaged humanity years earlier, reducing the Earth’s population to a manageable one billion people. Who could possibly have ethical problems with this?

Orr is a meek, humble man who is frightened by Dr. Haber’s grandiose schemes, but legally has no choice but to cooperate. He seeks out a lawyer, Heather Lelarche, who becomes the novel’s third viewpoint character, but the nature of her relationship to Orr shifts as the universe drifts further and further from where we began.

This was actually the first Le Guin I ever read that wasn’t set in the Hainish universe (somehow I managed to avoid the Earthsea books as a child), and it was a quick read. Wikipedia gives the page count as 184 pages. Sometimes it seems like writing novels of this length is a lost art now.

One odd random thought I had was that this is a rare 1970s novel set in the early 21st century that doesn’t seem dated. I mean, the details of current events are all invented of course (Portland, Oregon as unpleasant overcrowded megacity), but the broad worldbuilding isn’t -- a hypothetical screen adaptation produced in 2018 could set the story in our 2018 and it could be roughly faithful to the original narrative. Of course, it helps that the world of the story quickly mutates beyond the relatively mundane universe it starts in.

(Only after I finished tLoH did I learn it's already been adapted for TV not just one, but twice. I have not seen either version.)

The Lathe of Heaven moves very quickly and a lot happens. The plot summary I wrote above doesn’t even cover the vast weirdness of the second half of the novel, as oddities keep piling on cumulatively. As I said, the novel is just 184 pages, and yet I feel as if I’ve read SF novels three times the length that don’t have nearly as much plot. I don’t necessarily mean that negatively -- I have dearly loved some novels that took their time to unfold -- but it’s also good to come across a short, satisfying read, of the sort that SF authors put out more commonly in decades past.

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