Tuesday 15 January 2008

Ursula K Le Guin: The Lathe of Heaven (1971)

Published: Panther, 1974

This short novel by Ursula Le Guin - over 850 pages less than the other book I was reading alongside it, Peter F. Hamilton's Pandora's Star - is quite untypical of the work for which she is best known: her anthropologically based examinations of alien societies such as The Left Hand of Darkness, or the young adult fantasy of The Wizard of Earthsea. While most of Le Guin's science fiction is original and unusual, particularly for its time, The Lathe of Heaven directly recalls two authors that one would not necessarily associate with her. These are Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny, both interested in the mind and the nature of reality.

The two major characters in The Lathe of Heaven are psychiatric patient George Orr and his therapist, Dr Haber. Orr believes that his dreams sometimes alter reality, and the effects of dreams produced under Haber's post-hypnotic suggestion convinces the psychiatrist that this is not a delusion. Haber sets out to improve the world, admittedly an unpleasant place: overpopulated, polluted, and violent. Orr becomes increasingly reluctant to dream under Haber's direction, mainly because of the guilt caused by some changes (such as his response to a suggestion that over-population be solved, which leads to the deaths of billions in a plague of environmentally related cancers: an event that only he and Haber remember not occurring some years earlier). He was involuntarily referred to Haber in the first place, so he can't just ask to stop the treatment.

This could very easily be an idea used by Philip K. Dick, touching on his common theme of the nature of reality. This is particularly important here, as the suggestion that the whole of Orr's dreaming might itself be a dream, as the end of the original dystopian world approaches. The lack of the profusion of secondary ideas that fill Dick's work is the main difference.

Zelazny's influence is more obvious, but perhaps more superficial: there is a clear relationship with The Dream Master, which also deals with psychiatric therapy using directed dreaming. However, Zelazny's story is less about the nature of reality - though the psychiatrists are effectively creating their own worlds to share with their patients. The points of view of patient (in The Lathe of Heaven) and therapist (in The Dream Master) make the novels quite different in emphasis. The Lathe of Heaven ends up feeling more like Dick than Zelazny - or, indeed, Le Guin. This last is because it isn't as different from the mainstream of the genre as Le Guin's Hainish novels: it is unusual in her output by not being particularly unusual.