The Lathe of Heaven

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Essay by Ted Gioia

The dream sequences in novels or movies or TV shows
usually put me to sleep, perchance to dream.  They are
typically little more than a clumsy way of attaching symbolic
resonance to the story, but without advancing plot, character
development—an awkward Freudian intrusion
into the narrative.  

The dream sequences in myths and folktales
are something altogether different.  Here
dreams are constitutive.  They might predict
the future or offer sage advice; they may even
create the surrounding reality.  Recall that in
Australian Aboriginal culture, the time of
creation is known as “Dreamtime,” and a
whole host  of beliefs and institutions, both
spiritual and practical, are included under the rubric of “The
Dreaming.”

A few writers of conceptual fiction have tried to bridge this
gap, imagining a return from our degraded psychoanalytical
concept of the dream to the creative, constitutive dreaming of
traditional societies.  For example, in Jonathan Lethem’s
Amnesia Moon, discontinuities in the characters’ construction
of reality are linked to dreams—a blurring of the borderline
between physical and imaginative states very much in keep
with the work (especially the later books) of Philip K. Dick,
whose influence on Lethem is clearly marked in this novel.  

Ursula K. Le Guin’s
The Lathe of Heaven, a 1971 book that
was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards, stands
out as an extreme novelistic treatment of dreaming as a world-
altering activity.  The "effective dreams" of her hero George
Orr not only change the future . . . they also change the
past.   And it is not just his personal past that is altered; the
collective past of the planet—and, as it turns out, even the
universe—shifts in response to his REM-musings.  

Orr first discovered this terrible talent in his teens.  At age
seventeen he had a dream that his Aunt Ethel had been killed
in a car crash in Los Angeles.  When he awoke, he learned
that not only was his Aunt dead, but that the crash had taken
place six weeks before he had the dream!  Not every dream is
translated so vividly into reality, but his “effective dreams”
happen often enough to make Orr wary of the calamities that
any given night might leave in its wake.  

Orr begins to take prohibited drugs to limit his dreaming or
stop it altogether—a rare instance of narcotic abuse to
prevent mind-altering states—but this leads to legal problems
and  his assignment to a government-mandated medical
treatment regimen.  His doctor, William Haber, is an expert in
sleep disorders who has been tinkering with a machine that
can influence patients’ dream states.  Haber is fascinated with
his peculiar patient, but rather than attempt to cure him, the
doctor aims to manipulate Orr’s dream power for his own
agendas.   

Haber’s goals are a mixture of a narcissistic will to power and
a zeal for benevolent social engineering.  Yet his ability to
control the effects of Orr’s dreams is limited at best.   The
mixed results of his various experiments are sobering lessons
in the law of unintended consequences.  When Haber tries to
use “effective dreams” to create peace on earth, he ends up
causing tremendous warfare in outer space.  When he
attempts to end racial hatred, he also eradicates racial
diversity—everybody ends up with gray-colored skin.  Le Guin
is ingenious in her plot construction in this unfolding series of
dreams gone bad.  Seldom has any writer done a better job of
proving the old adage:  “Be careful what you wish for—it might
come true.”

Yet Haber is not discouraged by the disastrous side effects of
his experiments, and decides that he needs to push ahead to
even more ambitious goals—only now he hopes to train his
own brain to do the magical dreaming (with a little help from
his dream machine).  His efforts not only fail, but even
threaten to tear apart the physical continuity of experienced
reality, and thrust society into a chaotic, nightmarish existence.

Le Guin has added a plausible veneer of science to her story,
with various factoids drawn from sleep and dream research
brought in to enhance the verisimilitude of what is, by any
measure, a book that renounces almost every tenet of
realism.   Yet the excitement of sci-fi, as I have argued
elsewhere, is not derived from its science—which rarely
stands up to scrutiny—but rather from its imaginative
reconstructions of our perceived reality.  And it is here that Le
Guin really shines.   The premise of this novel, with its soft
boundary between dreaming and waking life, allows its author
to reach for the most extreme effects.  Few writers could
handle this freedom as effectively as Le Guin.   Yet there is
some heavy irony here:  since this book is all about the
dangers of giving free rein to the constructs of our imagination.
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conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
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