Review "The Lathe of Heaven" by Ursula K. Le Guin (4 1/2 Stars) - podcast
A refreshing philosophical exploration into high-concept esoteric questions draped in all the brilliant colors of science fiction.
This is a tale rooted in the exploration of hubris in its broadest sense. Whatever array of the political spectrum you subscribe too, the story will speak to you.
The plot centers around the personal struggle of George Orr who is blessed and (mostly) cursed with the ability to change reality through his dreams. This Midas-like touch tortures the protagonist due to his inability to completely control his dreams and avoid the unintended consequences.
You might be able to boil this story down to the simple posit that this is what happens when one is granted god-like powers. Not an exactly new storyline [Insert magic lamp and rub]. However, the author’s unique take is that Orr’s dreams don’t exactly change things for individuals. Instead the changes are realized more so on the macro level, which in turn affects the individual to varying degrees.
Le Quin manages to stencil in distinct and sympathetic personalities with the three main characters of this novella without excessive prose. She shies away from the trappings of rote evil and refuses to prop up some symbolic villain to be slain (I understand this to be a theme with her writings). That said, I did find myself searching for the design of evil lurking in among the fringe motivations of the characters. Everyone in this book seems to want to do the good that they see fit to do (don’t we all). However, I will contrast her writing with other authors like George R. R. Martin who also explore the many gray facets of imperfect personhood. In this novel, there is no deep-seeded, nefarious mystery that must be dredged up to elicit a sympathetic revelation for the reader.
Instead, Le Guin, has developed characters who pursue a hero’s journey that is guided more so by their philosophical ideals than by any personal faults or weaknesses. That is not to say the characters are without personal struggle and conflict. They still must question their loyalties to their own beliefs and the limits of their abilities to carry out their convictions. The struggle is thoughtful and heartfelt. The pain real. Life, reality and living are incredibly complicated without the forces of evil laying out traps and undermining one’s best efforts. Even the best of intentions cannot come without unforeseen consequences (credit: Gandalf: “Even the wise cannot foresee all ends.”).
Le Quin also has a sweet and subtle way of gently weaving in some Taoist philosophies into the storyline without any pedantic overtones. Her juxtaposition of these eastern notions against a more concerted western altruism is compelling. So too is her ability to create a world that is constantly changing with characters who must perceive more than one reality at once. Le Quin is dealing with something akin to writing about time-travel and all the confusing questions and inconsistencies that can abound from such a storyline. Here her masterful prose paints a perfect and understandable story as she tackles multiple realities at the same time and yet still manages to move things impossibly forward (with a protagonist whose chief talent is to hit the BIG reset button every time he sleeps). And she does it with such ease and such spare masterful prose that you simply float through. It would be so easy for another writer to become mired in the mechanics of such concepts.
Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: "No Deodorant In Outer Space". The podcast is available on iTunes, Tune-In Radio, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website (http://www.nodeodorant.com).