Posted by: AnubiSphinx | March 24, 2009

the Lathe of Heaven

While reading Ursula Le Guin’s fable, the Lathe of Heaven, the proverbial leprechaun granting a wish that wasn’t exactly wished for came to mind. Instead of wishes and a wee man, dreams are used to shape reality through hypnotic suggestions from a mad scientist. When psychiatrist Dr. Haber realizes George can effectively dream his interests go beyond his patient to helping mankind. He has George create new realities, where there is no war, disease, overpopulation, or racism, just terrifying side-effects. While seeking utopia, the dreams never come out quite the way Dr. Haber intends, and existence begins to crumble.

Published in 1971 but set in 2002, the Lathe of Heaven is a phenomenal read, albeit a scary look into the future’s possibilities. Aside from some scientific lingo and references to dream states, the novel isn’t overly technical. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy Le Guin’s science-fiction pieces. She also has an exceptional way of writing, storytelling, and stirring up questions.

The Lathe of Heaven takes a good look at whether the end justifies the means. Also among its themes are power, humanity, dreams and reality, utopia, morality, masks, science, and Taoism. Even if mistakes happen, is it wrong to use science if it improves life and to what extent? Summing up a few different ideas and views, is a debate between George and Dr. Haber (82):

George: You can’t go on changing things, trying to run things.

Haber: You speak as if that were some kind of general moral imperative. But in fact, isn’t that every man’s very purpose on earth- to do things, change things, run things, make a better world?

George: Things don’t have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What’s the function of a galaxy? I don’t know if our life has a purpose and I don’t see that it matters. What does matter is that we’re a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass.

In another discussion with Dr. Haber, who “can’t see see anything except his mind- his ideas of what ought to be” (99), George says:

“You have to help another person. But it’s not right to play God with masses of people. To be god you have to know what you’re doing. And to do any good at all, just believing you’re right and your motives are good isn’t enough. You have to be in touch” (150).

In regard to power, Le Guin writes:

“The quality of the will to power is, precisely, growth. Achievement is its cancellation. To be, the will to power must increase with each fulfillment, making the fulfillment only a step to a further one. The vaster the power gained, the vaster the appetite for more” (128).

Le Guin has a knack for developing characters through their inner-thoughts and opinions of others. George is the type who “had a tendency to assume that people knew what they were doing, perhaps because he generally assumed that he did not” (33). His first impression of the “jovial, masterful” Dr. Haber is that he’s successful because George was referred to him by the Medical School. The psychiatrist thinks a lawyer is covering up her timidity by wearing large metallic jewelry that clicks and clacks, whereas she thinks of herself as a spider seeking its prey. Through George’s thoughts, the doctor’s and his relationship and personalities are defined:

“That geniality was not faked but it was exaggerated. There was a warmth to the man, an outgoingness, which was real; but it had got plasticoated with professional mannerisms, distorted by the doctor’s unspontaneous use of himself. Orr felt in him a wish to be liked and a desire to be helpful; the doctor was not, he though, really sure that anyone else existed, and wanted to prove they did by helping him. He boomed ‘Good afternoon!’ so loud because he was never sure he would get an answer” (32).

The power-hungry Dr. Haber has no interest in science for science’s sake and is of the opinion that:

“there was no use learning anything if it was of no use. Relevance was his touchstone… For there is nothing important except people. A person is defined solely by the extent of his influence over other people, by the sphere of his interrelationships; and morality is an utterly meaningless term unless defined as the good one does to others, the fulfilling of one’s function in the sociopolitical whole” (54).

Having read Le Guin’s translation of Tao Te Ching and that she grew up with her father’s copy, it’s unsurprising that Taoist notions course through the Lathe of Heaven. The naturalistic views work quite well to balance out those of science. “The way”, which is commonly referred to in Taosim, is used quite frequently.

“[There are] those who have returned in pure compassion to the wheel, those who follow the way that cannot be followed without knowing they follow it, the sharecropper’s wife in Alabama and the lama in Tibet…and all the others. There is not one of us who has not known them” (99).

“We’re in the world, not against it. It doesn’t work to try to stand outside things and run them, that way. It just doesn’t work, it goes against life. There is a way but you have to follow it. The world is, no matter how we think it ought to be. You have to be with it” (136).

“Everything dreams. The play of form, of being, is the dreaming of substance. Rocks have their dreams, and the earth changes… But when the mind becomes conscious, when the rate of evolution speeds up, then you have to be careful. Careful of the world. You must learn the way. You must learn the skills, the art, the limits. A conscious mind must be part of the whole, intentionally and carefully- as the rock is part of the whole unconsciously” (161).

The Lathe of Heaven can easily be considered one of Ursula Le Guin‘s finest novels, in fact, I place it right beside the Left Hand of Darkness in brilliance and as a favourite. I highly recommend this “must read”.

Quotes, of which there are just a handful:

  • “The questioner cannot withdraw himself from the question, assuming objectivity – as if the answers were an object” (32).
  • “The power of dreaming is quite undreamt of” (35).
  • “To be put in solitary is the worst kind of confinement! We need people around us. To help us, to give help to, to compete with, to sharpen our wits against” (61).
  • “[Dreaming is] a third state of being” (62).
  • “A man who saw a miracle would reject his eyes’ witness, if those with him saw nothing” (66).
  • “That’s what strikes humans as uncanny about sleep. Its utter privacy. The sleeper turns his back on everyone. ‘The mystery of the individual is strongest in sleep'” (67).
  • “[Is it possible] that reality’s being changed out from under us, replaced, renewed, all the time- only we don’t know it? Only the dreamer knows it, and those who know his dream” (71).
  • “The end justifies the means. But what if there never is an end? All we have is means” (83).
  • “The infinite possibility, the unlimited and unqualified wholeness of being of the uncommitted, the nonacting, the uncarved: the being who, being nothing but himself, is everything” (95).
  • “Life is the most incredible mess. You never can guess what’s next” (95).
  • Of the world’s end: “We are all dead, and we spoiled the world before we died. There is nothing left. Nothing but dreams” (105).
  • “As one denies what is, one is possessed by what is not, the compulsions, the fantasies, the terrors that flock to fill the void” (146).


  1. I’ve had it for a few months now and I can’t wait to read it.

  2. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and am glad the one copy was still at the shop when I went back for it. Now I’m kind of curious to see the made-for-TV version.

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