The Lathe of Heaven

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Reviewed 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

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
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

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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