Book: Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin
Reviewers: Jeriann and Dani
Age/Genre: Adult Science Fiction
Preferred Reading Environment: Portland! Or in the absence of, a place you would miss if climate change caused havoc on your surroundings.
Reading Accoutrements: Personally, we think a nice tall glass of whiskey helps the concept go down 🙂
Content Notes: This book has little nods to religion but is not a religious statement book. It does however contain ideas about freewill, manipulation and power struggle. There is also contemplation of suicide.
Jeriann: Since I’ve been digging into science fiction recently, it was only going to be a matter of time before I read some Ursula LeGuin. I saw Lathe of Heaven on one of Electric Literature’s “Read More Women” lists, and the idea intrigued me a lot. The ebook was pretty cheap and I’m always looking for reminders that my Kindle exists, so I bought it. When I told Bethany I was planning on reading it for Earth Day, she mentioned Dani loved this book, and we decided to do a co-review!
Dani: I read this book for AP English back in high school. We were given several authors’ names and we were able to choose any book as long as it was by one of those authors. My mom just happened to have a copy of Lathe of Heaven, so it was an easy pick. I loved it! I made an art project with a base picture and clear projector pages to lay over the top to change the picture just like the world changes around the main character in the novel.
When I read this book in high school the other students judged the book by its name. They thought they were going to have to listen to a report about religion and were not excited or tuned it out. This book does have nods to religion, such as the creation of the world and the end of the world or post-apocalyptic ideals. These references are nonspecific to any one religion and have been used in a variety of ways by other novelist without the mention of religion. This book is definitely characterized by science fiction throughout. This just goes to show you really can’t judge a book by its cover.
Lathe of Heaven follows George Orr, a man who is caught illegally using his friends’ and neighbors’ pharmacy cards to get drugs to keep him from dreaming and is mandated “voluntary” therapy with Dr. Haber. George explains that his dreams retroactively change reality – meaning that when he has specific vivid dreams, he wakes up and the rest of the world doesn’t remember things how he does. For everyone except George, the new reality is what has always existed.
Haber hypnotizes George and gets him to dream. The book doesn’t make it completely clear how much Haber understands about what is going on, but he begins to use George’s ability to change things, mainly revolving around his own position in the world. Dreams are unpredictable though, so Haber’s suggestions often have unintended consequences. Since Haber and George are both present while George dreams, they are both aware of the changes that have taken place.
George wants Haber to stop using his abilities, so he seeks help from a lawyer. Enter Heather Lelache, the love interest. Lelache sits in on one of George’s sessions and she’s not sure what she sees, but she is compelled to learn more. Throughout several increasingly large shifts in reality’s continuum, Heather and George are drawn together, even when she doesn’t really remember him at all.
Jeriann: Lathe of Heaven is set in Portland, Oregon, where Bethany and I went to college. I loved seeing the familiar landmarks – Mount Hood, Lloyd Center, and lots of bridges. The setting was so familiar, even though this was written in 1971. When George’s dreams change how things are in the world, Le Guin shows how Portland is affected. Sometimes Mount Hood is volcanically active. In one continuum, Lloyd Center’s ice rink is filled in. Parking garages have been converted into office buildings since cars aren’t common any more, especially downtown. These details made it super easy to visualize the effect that climate change, war, and other global events have on the everyday surroundings we take for granted.
Dani: Even though the world has changed, people remain the same. The people surrounding George are static characters who seem to be in a search for self-identity. George could dream of any change, but the characters’ personalities and positions remain mostly the same. This suggests a predetermined state that draws characters toward a specific path. George and Heather seem drawn to each other throughout every iteration of the world. Destiny? They always seem to find one another whether or not they remember one another.
Jeriann: Heather was one of my favorite parts of this book. She’s kind of a badass, with a strong personality. She’s also the only character whose personality shifts a bit in one of the timelines, because George dreams up his ideal version of her. But when uninfluenced by others’ idealizations she stays consistently tough and intelligent.
Dani: George is often written off as a pushover, especially by Dr. Haber who sees himself as a dominant personality. I got the sense that Dr. Haber was gas lighting George and making himself doubt the changes that he is making happen in order to keep George in a submissive position, to the point that when George reflects on the changes he questions himself. I thought this was interesting because it shows how manipulative – and manipulated – people can be, even without realizing it.
Jeriann: Haber’s manipulation and George’s perceived push-overness while remaining steady in his convictions both seem to speak to larger themes about personality and morality. Another huge theme is authoritarianism, which is present in varying degrees in each iteration of the world that George dreams up.
Climate change and overpopulation are also huge themes in this book, which is apropos considering that today is Earth Day! Haber tells George to imagine a solution to overpopulation, and the world’s climate changes, as well. Haber never prioritizes the environment specifically. When he tries to solve problems like overpopulation or racism, the results address the surface issue rather than the roots. So millions of people just vanish, but humanity’s practices don’t improve. At one point, everyone has a grayish skin tone, so there’s no “racism,” but hatred and inequality still exist. When Haber tells George to dream that all humans are at peace with each other, George’s mind invents another enemy for humanity to unite against. I think there’s a lot here about how we try to solve problems without changing problematic behavior.
We both loved Lathe of Heaven, and definitely recommend it. It’s a pretty short read that you can probably finish in an afternoon, and there are tons of amazing details we didn’t even get to discuss (ALIENS!). If you’re interested at all in sci-fi, post-apocalyptic futurism, explorations into authoritarianism, or speculative environmental fiction, check this book out.
What’s your favorite book written years ago that still resonates today? Let us know in the comments!