Thursday, March 27, 2008

Ursula K. Le Guin - The Lathe of Heaven (Book Review)

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The Lathe of Heaven is a 1971 science fiction novel by much acclaimed Ursula K. Le Guin. The novel was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula award and won the Locus in 1972. It has also been adopted into two films. The novel sprawls just over 170 pages, which is considered short by modern standards set by thousand plus pages long doorstopper tomes. That keeps the writer with limited maneuver space. This is not Le Guin's most known work – that would be certain novels from the Hainish Cycle (considerably The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia) and her YA fantasy Earthsea novels. But even if it is not her most known work it is still influential and resonating.
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George Orr discovers that he has the ability to alter and/or shape reality with his dreams but is also vastly unnerved by that fact. He abuses drugs to help him suppress the vivid and reality-changing dreams. When he gets caught for it he is assigned to Obligatory Therapy. When his therapist, William Haber, discovers for himself what George is capable of, and all the possibilities of given situation, he starts developing agendas of his own.
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Basically this is a story about the contest of ideological and binary opposites – such as the following motives: free will vs. authority, risk vs. safety, freedom vs. totalitarism, introvertedness vs. extrovertedness, pessimism vs. unbelated optimism, passivity vs. activity and last but not least the who protagonists that personify these polar ideals. It is an allegory of two god-head figures: the tinkerer or the interventionist (example: Judeo-Christian concept of god) and the being who is the World, who belongs rather than observes and dictates (example: god figure of many eastern religions). The tinkerer is personified in the therapist and the being who is the World is represented by George Orr (he in fact holds the power of creation in his hands, but is ironically in power of Haber himself). So the first one uses and the second is used. The revolt of George Orr seems mild and without outward aggression, but it is only that it happens on an introverted and intuitive level. Haber sees Orr only as a husk of a man, incapable of action, of progress, of evolution. Orr is not unintelligent, only meek and docile tool to be used. This is of course only Haber's view on things. We get to know the opposite angle on Orr as well – a completely wholesome person and a pillar of strength to lean on to. From this point of view Haber seems a complete control freak with narcissistic, aggressive, pushy, self-centered, uncaring and intrusive tendencies. Although neither is good or bad. Orr is convinced that he has no moral right to change the world. On the other hand, Haber believes that Orr's reality-bending dreams are just a tool to be used, a next step in evolution and he has a genuine wish to change the world for the better. But dreams are unpredictable, driven by subconscious irrational mind defying control.
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---“I don’t have nightmares more than most people, I think,” Orr was saying, looking down at his hands. “Nothing special. I’m afraid of dreaming.”
---“Of dreaming bad dreams.”
---“Any dreams.”
---“I see. Have you any notion how that fear got started? Or what it is you’re afraid of, wish to avoid?”
---As Orr did not reply at one, bat sat looking don at his hands, square, reddish hands lying too still on his knee, Haber prompted just a little. “Is it the irrationality, the lawlessness, sometimes the immorality of dreams, is it something like that that makes you uncomfortable?”
---“Yes, in a way. But for a specific reason. You see, here…Here I…”
---Here’s the crux, the lock, thought Haber, also watching those tense hands. Poor bastard. He has wet dreams, and a guilt complex about ‘em. Boyhood enuresis, compulsive mother-
---“Here’s where you stop believing me.” (pg.14-15)
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Just to state this one out loud – yes, Ursula K. Le Guin is a terrific and a very intelligent writer. She took some 170 pages and turned them into a psychological (psychoanalysis, dream studies etc.), sociological (issues of poverty, racism, population control, violence, tinkering with social structure etc.), philosophical (Nietzsche's will-to-power, ethical issues, question of freedom etc.) study with a pinch of pure fiction thrown in as well. I admit I find her writing style endearing and comfortable but in some way The Lathe of Heaven just fails to connect with me in the way it should. The book is short but I still found a lot of info-dumping and (for me) uninteresting speculations about and experimentations with the society's structure. Since I'm working on my degree in social studies I found much of that tinkering with society crude or just plainly under explored; I'm aware that the emphasis of the book lies elsewhere, but I still found this element of the story too disconcerting to give the book a higher grade. The alternative realities are so numerous that I never got a (firm) grasp on the setting of the novel. I'm mentioning this to justify my final grade and because I know some of you will not be bothered by this fact. On the other hand, her criticism of western societies and its constant will-to-progress is subtle and ingenious enough – played on individual level between two main protagonists.
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---You have to help another person. But it’s not right to play God with masses of people. To be God you have to know what you’re doing. And to do any good at all, just believing you’re right and your motives are good isn’t enough. You have to…be in touch. He isn’t in touch. No one else, no thing even, has an existence of its own for him; he sees the world only as a means to his end. (pg.150)
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All in all, this one was a mixed bag of great to not so great for me (but never really bad though). It's just that it felt a bit rusty in some places and in my opinion does is not on the level with The Left Hand of Darkness, which is her other work that I've read. So if you'd like to start with Le Guin I'd recommend to start there. Nevertheless, I'm glad that I've read The Lathe of Heaven because it has some brilliant moments – it's a charming classic in its own special way.
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---(3 out of five)
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~ Thrinidir ~

2 Comments:

Larry said...

Interesting take there. While I knew that Orr's actions were based on Taoist beliefs, I never really considered much how Haber's interventions could be related to a Judeo-Christian-Muslim view of the world. But now that you've said it, it does fit to a large extent. Good review, even if I felt that the story flowed a bit better than you believed it did.

ThRiNiDiR said...

Thanks Larry, for the kind words and for dropping by.

 

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