The Lathe of Heaven really messed with my head

Had my Rock & Roll Bookclub not chosen The Lathe of Heaven as its May book I would have never read it. Science Fiction, or as the cool kids call it, Speculative Fiction has never been my thing. Aliens, dragons, spaceships, wizards, knights — none of it appeals to me in the least, not even when I was a kid.

So I approached The Lathe of Heaven with a little bit of trepidation. I did not protest it’s nomination for May book, because when I asked the R&R Bookclubbers what books they remember loving as a kid it was the first title to pop out of Wolfdogg’s mouth. Plus, you know, it’s only like 186 pages.

I have a new reason for disliking Science Fiction after reading this book. It hurts my brain. Seriously, Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel about dreams and reality messed me up, and it was kind of awesome. I like when a book infects your entire life because it makes you think all the time.

This one’s a real thinker. In the 2002 of LeGuin’s novel (which caused me to think while reading, so in 1971 2002 is way into the future but now it’s already the past. . . woah, see this is why I don’t read Sci-Fi), things are not going well in Portland, Oregon. The world is polluted and over populated. There’s the constant threat of world war thanks to tension in the middle East, oh and it never stops raining. Good times.

When the novel opens, George Orr is busted for tricking the Vend-o-matic into dispensing him extra narcotics and ordered to submit himself to voluntary therapy. There he hooks up with Dr. Haber, a dream specialist. It seems George was taking the drugs to prevent himself from dreaming effectively. When George dreams effectively, reality changes.

At first Haber thinks George’s just your run of the mill schizophrenic nutjob, but after hooking George up to some sort of EEG-dream monitoring thing called an Augmentor, hypnotizing him and suggesting a dream, and then watching as reality does indeed change, Haber decides to change the world.

George isn’t happy with this turn of events. He doesn’t want to change the world at all, he just wants to be cured of his effective dreaming. The guilt and responsibility he feels with each shit in reality weighs heavy on his mind and he consults a lawyer, Heather, to help him stop Haber.

In Haber’s defense he has good intentions, though they never turn out as he hopes. When Haber asks George to dream about an end to racism the human race turns a pale shade of grey. A cure for the overpopulation? George dreams of a plague that kills six billion people. Peace on earth? George has aliens attack the moon.

As reality shifts so do Haber and George’s lot in life. Each new reality finds them with better jobs, more money, and for Haber more power. Still George isn’t happy and Haber grows increasingly power hungry. Things get progressively worse for everyone.

The story even with all the dreams explained, which can sometimes be dull, is enthralling. As a reader I couldn’t wait to see what happened next, to see how George’s subconscious would interpret Haber’s suggestion. At the same time I was concerned for George and hoped he’d get what he really wanted (Heather).

While I enjoyed reading The Lathe of Heaven I would warn people against reading it right before bed. It will mess with you something awful. I had the odd desire document reality before bed in case it changed while I was dreaming. As if that’d be enough to demarcate between realities (it’s not in the book, where everything changes to support the new reality and only those who witness the actual moment of change have some vague recollection of the way things used to be).

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8 Comments

  1. Placemat 12.Jun.10 at 3:17 pm

    One should never feel guilty about pooping.

    Reply
  2. UH 12.Jun.10 at 8:40 pm

    “The world is polluted and over populated. Theres the constant threat of world war thanks to tension in the middle East, oh and it never stops raining.”

    That’s some pretty good prognosticating.

    Reply
  3. Chris 12.Jun.10 at 11:15 pm

    While it is truly a product of its era in terms of what the future will bring, it is such a great story of the characters. If anything, the future will have a great depopulation worldwide (Japan is already starting to face this problem with more robots rather than more immigration). But it is the problems the characters face and how they react that drives this story.

    In the early 1980’s, Ms. Le Guin allowed PBS to make a movie of this book starring a very young Peter Davidson. The film only became available recently on Netflix, mostly because the film used a Beatles song without permission. Opps.

    I agree, this is a spooky book to read before you go to bed.

    Reply
  4. MLO 15.Jun.10 at 2:32 pm

    Ursula LeGuin is NOT a good introduction to science fiction. It is the most literary of books of the genre. LeGuin specifically wrote to challenge the way people thought of the world around them – all of our assumptions.

    I must be a really jaded reader as I can’t imagine being able to put the book down in order to go to sleep.

    Reply
  5. Mish 15.Jun.10 at 5:45 pm

    I agree with MLO about Le Guin, who is one of my favourites. I look at her writing as a ski mountain: easy- YA, fantasy; intermediate- Lathe of Heaven, YA, various works; advanced & black diamond- SF, essays, short stories. Some of her shorts make my head feel like it’s about to implode, but I like the way she’s intellectually challenging. And she’s a great writer with something for most people.

    I think it’s awesome that you enjoyed the book, especially because you’re not into SF. Grouping all SF together is like generalizing about fiction. There’s something for everyone, even those who don’t like aliens and spaceships. I noticed you read 1984, what did you think?

    I began a reading challenge partly because of SF’s stigma and stereotypes thanks to Star Trek and partly due to non-SF readers asking for suggestions. Some of the participants were pleasantly surprised that they read the genre without realizing (the Handmaid’s Tale, Frankenstein) and that they liked what they read. If you’re interested, I’ll be hosting it again this year.

    Reply
  6. Jodi 16.Jun.10 at 8:21 am

    Mish, The Handmaid’s Tale is my favorite Margaret Atwood book. I probably read more sci-fi than I think, because I am unsure of how the genre is defined. Does Kurt Vonnegut count? I’ve read all his stuff. How about Kevin Brockmeier? Read some of him too.

    Mostly I read whatever tickles my fancy at the moment it needs tickling.

    I just looked at some of your challenges, and remember that I read LeGuin’s “Sur” story in a women’s fiction class I took in college.

    Nice challenges by the way. I like that.

    Reply
  7. shelaka 16.Jun.10 at 10:44 am

    Chris – I actually saw that PBS TV movie version back in the 80s. I thought It was well done and thought-provoking, (though now it would probably look dated & low-budget) and handled the weirdness of altering history well. More importantly, it made me read the book, which is always a good thing. I always wondered if the Back to the Future writers took some of those ideas, albeit in a light-hearted way.

    Jodi – If you’re interested in another time-skew short read, I recommend Replay by Ken Grimwood (1988). It freaked me out! But it won’t hurt your brain as much as Lathe.

    Reply
  8. Mish 16.Jun.10 at 4:45 pm

    Sur is one of the easier shorts I’ve read by Le Guin. Handmaid’s Tale is horrifically awesome. Have you read Oryx and Crake? It’s on my list. Vonnegut’s done quite a bit of SF, off the top of my head, Slaughterhouse-5, Cat’s Cradle, and Sirens of Titan. He’s in my reading pile. Like Atwood, he writes literary fiction that’s also SF. From what I’ve heard Brockmeier is more fantasy/horror, but has a couple books in the SF realm, ie Brief History of the Dead.

    One of SF’s quirks is that it’s more encompassing than specified genres like mystery so not as clearly defined. That’s one reason why I like it, but also think it’s detrimental. SF is speculative fiction that looks at ideas, humanity, technology, or possibilities that may include: the past/future, a different timeline, utopias/dystopias, science and technology like time travel, robots, or an invasion of body snatchers.

    Thanks, I’ve gotten to really like challenges as a way of finally reading certain books and diversifying my reading. They bring about some good discussion and add to the TBR pile. Plus, they allow me to read whatever I’m in the mood for, from classic lit to SF.

    Reply

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