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The lathe of heaven

Ursula Le Guin

First published 1971

Unpublished commentary January 2008

The urge to make the world a better place is admirable. It's important to have a "vision" and work towards it because nothing worthwhile ever gets done without a "dream". Everyone knows that.

The hero of this striking fantasy novel has a dream all right - his occasional 'effective dreams' change the reality he wakes up to and we first encounter him when he's caught fraudulently obtaining drugs in order to keep himself awake. The society of this story is not punitive about narcotics, so he is turned over to William Haber, an idealistic psychiatrist who quickly realises that he can manipulate George Orr's dreams as a tool to create utopia.

The world spins through many permutations as the doctor sets about his schemes for its improvement. The upgrades, big and small, do indeed happen, yet each time something else slips out of place. War disappears, but the war-free world has gladiatorial contests and casual euthanasia. The request for an end to racial conflict is fulfilled: there is no racism, never has been any, never could be any, because humans have only ever come in grey. A price worth paying perhaps, but Orr's beloved partner has never existed in this world:

That's why she's not here, he thought ... her color of brown was an essential part of her, not an accident. Her anger, timidity, brashness, gentleness, all were elements of her mixed being, her mixed nature, dark and clear right through, like Baltic amber. She could not exist in the gray people's world. She had not been born.

The novel can be seen as an extended play on the idea of yin and yang. Each new version of the world solves a problem while creating a new one; Haber's quite genuine altruism is shot through with love of power; good and bad are inextricably muddled up, and one cannot always know which label to apply.

All Le Guin's writing is permeated by Taoism but it is quite explicit in this novel which takes its title from a passage in the Lao Tsu. Taoism is a contrarian way of viewing the world: it values the quiet, the passive, the reactive. Haber, the ambitious scientist, the doer, the improver, is more our cup of tea - we can make some things better, so surely that means we can make everything perfect? Put like that, the unwarranted inference is plain, yet the hope of perfection pervades public rhetoric.

"...isn't that man's very purpose on earth - to do things, change things, run things, make a better world?"


"What is his purpose, then?"

"I don't know. Things don't have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What's the function of a galaxy? I don't know if our life has a purpose and I don't see that it matters. What does matter is that we're a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass." (see also ...)

Outdated hippy nonsense - or authentic agnostic spirituality? Le Guin is not normally thought of as an environmental author but a taoistic approach sits well with greenery because it makes great play of the idea of the natural, of not forcing things, of taking the simple and obvious path. One interesting note is that I recollect reading about the possibility of global warming way back in the seventies. I had started to wonder if my memory was faulty but the world of the lathe of heaven is drizzly and globally warmed - the greenhouse effect is specifically namechecked. So there was some awareness as far back as 1971.

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