Be Careful What You Dream For
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin is a science fiction novel about a dystopian world in which a man, George Orr, has the ability to quite literally make his dreams a reality. Throughout the course of the novel, George discovers that his unique skill is more of a curse than a blessing when he undergoes psychiatric therapy. Le Guin plays with many themes in this book including racism, warfare, and power- all of which are prevalent in any version of the reality we live in.
Our novel starts off with our protagonist George waking up with an at most hazy recollection of what had happened the night before. It turns out he had been found abusing different types of drugs and medications by a couple of medics. Okay, so a little sketchy but not really anything too out of the ordinary, right? It’s sad, but the introduction could have easily been a story about a college student who had a little too much to drink one night; but then we start to find out more about our George.
George is forced into “voluntary” therapy sessions with Dr. William Haber in which he tells Dr. Haber about his strange skill. Dr. Haber doesn’t quite believe George, until he puts George to the test, making him have dreams about horses, paintings, and even…POOP?! Alright, so now we have a patient with some kind of weird psychic abilities, a psychiatrist, and some fecal matter- still no real problems yet. That is, until George realizes that Dr. Haber has been manipulating him and erasing his memory of the dreams. He seeks out the help of a lawyer Heather Lelache and they work together to find some kind of loophole to figure out if Dr. Haber is invading George’s privacy.
Sure enough, Heather sits in on one of their sessions and witnesses Dr. Haber indirectly killing 6 billion people through plague in order to solve overpopulation. So it turns out Haber has been solving many of the world’s biggest problems but only through the shadiest of methods LIKE KILLING MOST OF THE POPULATION. And get this, if the plot just couldn’t get any more convoluted, George falls in love with Heather and even dreams of marrying her at some point. Of course, how could we forget that there’s love involved here too? George gets increasingly depressed and develops self-hatred, driving him to run away and hide out in a cabin in the woods where he doesn’t eat or sleep for a week. (Can you blame the sleep-deprived college student in me for wondering how he was still alive at this point?) Heather convinces him to go back to Dr. Haber because the real world is suffering and they are growing desperate. They rush to Dr. Haber and he barely saves the world, but only after he acquires the power to give any patient George’s skill.
Our novel doesn’t really give us any real closure. Fast forward to the future and George has a stable career and runs into his true love Heather again. The world is shattered but eventually reaches a point of normalcy. However, we are left wondering what is even considered normal anymore; reality has been altered one too many times.
What I learned from the distorted plot of this novel is that humans should never get the chance to mess with reality and “play God.” Actually, I take that back because it seems to already be a little too late for that. In fact, many of the seemingly screwed-up practices and ideas in the novel are actually very present today.
For example, the way that George was forced into therapy for something that he could not control reminded me a little of something that sadly still occurs in several states today. Does conversion therapy sound familiar? Many homosexual males and females are still forced into conversion therapy where the end goal is to “change” their sexual orientations to heterosexual. Without opening a can of worms, I thinks there’s so many things wrong with turning one’s sexuality into a psychological disorder. The same could be said about George’s ability.
Then there’s the whole issue of Dr. Haber’s intense power trip. His intentions are good at first until he starts to gain status and wealth from his treatments. This makes it easy to use his newfound power for his personal gain, something we’ve witnessed in many politicians and leaders in power. “A person is defined solely by the extent of his influence over other people, by the sphere of his interrelationships; and morality is an utterly meaningless term unless defined as the good one does to others, the fulfilling of one’s function in the sociopolitical whole.” There’s many things wrong with this quote because it implies that one’s worth is determined by power and status. The world in the Lathe of Heaven becomes a chaotic mess because Just like what we’ve seen in George’s case, as time goes on, it becomes much more difficult to stop someone from a power trip as time goes on.
And don’t even get me started on the racism in this book. At some point, Dr. Haber even gets George to dream away racism, but there’s a caveat: there aren’t any races which means that all the colored people in the world just don’t exist. So George’s lover Heather just disappears because she’s of a different skin color. What?! Is that really the only way that we can eliminate racism and discrimination? I mean, pretty sad, but okay.
Even though this novel was written in the 1970’s and is about a world set in the future (when people have supernatural powers and even aliens can communicate with us yikes), it’s still very applicable and relevant to our world today. While George’s powers may not exist in the real world, many of the issues brought up in the book are still very present and deserve much more attention.