Literacy 2021, Book 13: The Lathe of Heaven

Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic about an average man whose dreams transform reality

Book
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin

Synopsis
Seemingly average man George Orr is tortured by the knowledge that his dreams alter the past to become reality in the present. He’s sent to an arrogant psychiatrist who wants to use Orr’s power to rebuild the world into a better version.

Pros
The language flows smoothly between dream logic, dystopian science fiction, poetry, and Taoist philosophy, treating them all as parts of the same thing. Manages to be stridently moralistic without lapsing into dogma or a naive story of good vs evil. Has the same aspect that I like so much in Susanna Clarke’s writing, in which the protagonists and antagonists aren’t treated as equal and opposite rivals, but instead as operating with completely incompatible viewpoints. Feels surprisingly modern for a 50-year-old science fiction novel. Takes what could’ve been a sprawling and clumsy story about altering the fabric of reality, but keeps it focused on a few characters and dense with observations from their own viewpoints. Descriptions of an “effective dream” gone wrong, from the point of view of people on the outside, are fantastic.

Cons
That density makes it kind of a slow read; although it’s less than 200 pages, it took me forever to make it through. As with any story of oppressive dystopian futures, much of it isn’t a fun and breezy read. Because LeGuin is so effective at writing the inner viewpoints of the characters, the dialogue comes across as a bit stilted and unnatural in comparison. The few but significant pop culture references come across as corny.

Verdict
It’s easy to see why it’s regarded as a classic; it feels timeless and if anything, more relevant now than in 1971. It takes us through an increasingly wild story to show us the power of inner strength, simplicity, kindness, and companionship, without seeming naive or simple.

4 thoughts on “Literacy 2021, Book 13: The Lathe of Heaven”

  1. I’ve been meaning to reread this! I remember really enjoying it. When I first read it in my early 20’s I happened to be sick with a fever. I would read, fall asleep, wake up and read again. At a certain point, sick in my room and thinking too much about the book, I began wondering if the the world outside was changing. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I don’t know how much you like LeGuin’s other books, but I highly recommend The Dispossessed. It’s my second favorite book.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I added it to my want-to-read list the other night, after hearing that it was kind of a continuation of Lathe of Heaven. The only other book I’ve read by LeGuin is Wizard of Earthsea, which is a book that I loved what it was trying to do, but didn’t love the book itself that much.

      1. I hadn’t heard Lathe of Heaven and The Dispossessed were connected. Though I guess they both deal with attempted utopias.

        I need to reread the Earthsea books again as well. It’s been a long time. I like The Left Hand of Darkness a lot too.

        1. I’m basing the connection between the two books only on a comment from a Goodreads person, so that’s 100% not reliable! In any case, more recommendations are good. The thing I like about LeGuin based on the two books I’ve read so far is that she brings a more “modern” (late 1900s anyway) take to older sci-fi and fantasy, instead of just trying to recreate them.

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