The Lathe of Heaven
by Ursula K. le GuinPublished 1971 184 pages
Full disclosure: this is the first Ursula le Guin book that I’ve ever read.
The central premise is captivating: when George Orr dreams in a certain way, the thing he dreams of becomes reality—and no one but him can remember that it's ever been any other way. Early on in the book he dreams that his aunt has died in a car crash, and when he wakes up he find himself living in a reality where his aunt died some weeks back. It raises a lot of questions about our grasp on reality: are we all living in someone else's dream? If the fabric of reality changed under our feet, would we be able to recognise it? It reminds me of the old thought experiment about, can you prove that the world didn't start mere seconds ago, and all of your memories of the world more than a few seconds ago were just implanted by God? Le Guin’s aware of these implications, as well, and the way that the dreamer-protagonist interrogates these implications is fun and compelling.
I liked that le Guin steered clear of George's dreams always making the world worse, as well—it was nice to hear that George had dreamed the world out of a nuclear apocalypse—even if it was into a bland utilitarian dystopia. Is one better than the other? Like a lot of good science fiction, The Lathe of Heaven leaves the door open for the reader to go off on their own exploratory tangents.
I was a little disappointed by the second act, however. The pacing gets a little wonky—it feels like the novel climaxes at a couple of different points but then continues on for a little while afterwards. The stakes are raised in a series of improbable sequences that change the book from an intimate character study to a psychological battle on which the fate of the world rests. It felt like le Guin was just moving goalposts for bombast. At a certain point I stopped really caring what happened to any of our characters; George would continue his descent into Taoist fatalism; Haber would inevitably fly too close to the sun.
The books sort of peters out at the end. There’s a final climax and a tidy (maybe too tidy) resolution to George’s dreaming problem, and then the book ends. It felt so promising at the beginning! I just wish it had stuck the landing a bit better.