dreaming of a better place | 2018.01.29

The Lathe of Heave by Ursula K. Le Guin | Review

Le Guin, Ursula K_The Lathe of Heaven

Publication: New York, Scribner [1971]

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 184

Formats: Paperback

Source: MCL

What is reality? Does mere perspective create reality? Can we change reality armed with nothing but our dreams?

I recently attended my very first in-person book discussion group, and these were the questions that cropped up during our talk about this novel. We decided that dreams (and nightmares) do come true. Developers do it all the goddamn time! Or just look at global warming. Look at gentrification and the parking lots that were our parents’ (or even grandparents’) entrepreneurial shops.

Then the discussion turned to ideas of perspective, as this book subtly stuffs itself among three main characters. I found it interesting that the three characters’ perspectives were missed by the other readers, because Le Guin offers these through third person voices. This made me think about how stuck we often are in our boxes, so much so that proposals of seeing from another being’s vantage is the farthest from our minds. Argument boiled hot about whether Heather Lelache’s character turned grey in one of Orr’s dream realities, for example. This fine point seemed maniacally important to all of us, speaking volumes about each reader’s individual experience within the reading process.

Then! Then, there was our discussion about living too long in a place until you can no longer recognize it after so much time. And I (as the youngest in the group by at least thirty years, I’d wager) was suddenly struck by the complete privilege these longstanding Portlanders had of watching the literal evolution of their city unfolding around them. Is it a privilege, a gift? Or is it a curse, a torture? This is the heart of the question Le Guin seems to pose in this book. Themes of environmental crisis in the wake of progress pressed their faces close to each of us as we frantically tried to grasp at strands of meaning from this book.

What’s this all about, though? The novel, with its impressive compression into 184 pages, tells the tale of George Orr (may the callback to 1984 and Animal Farm not be lost in the character’s name), who is introduced in the first few pages as a person plagued by the gift (or curse?) of having his dreams change the delicate fabric of reality, and quite literally so. He dreams of a world not undone by racism and when he wakes, all humans have become grey. No whites, no blacks, no . . . well? Racism solved? But his hoped-for soulmate (the Ms. Lelache mentioned above), whose self-made, (and feministicly-so) proactive existence is centered around her civil rights activism work, is lost at Orr’s waking. The book group cried together at such a notion of her character being so suddenly wiped off the scene.

This book is also about power, we discussed. For Orr’s psychiatrist, the all too benevolent Dr. Haber, wants to steer Orr’s dreaming-to-reality capacity toward creation of a world without pain. And so, each of these three characters dance with their perspectives around the stage of the quandary of what to do when subconscious is given full rein.

Was it worth begging off work early? Absolutely! Thank you to the Pagerturners of Multnomah County for their bravery in broaching a more SF-leaning read than they would normally be comfortable with. At the end of the meeting, I felt even the most adamant non-SF consumers were swayed into seeing the depths of meaning that this tricky genre can offer.

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