Utopia: The Unachievable Goal
Arguably, every human on this planet has contemplated about the idea of “destiny.” Some believe that life is like a book, where it is fully scripted already and there is no changing what is already written. Others see that the book is being writ as we progress throughout the life, and it is up to us to determine the direction of the book; in other words, destiny does not exist, and we have the choice to determine the direction of our lives. Of course, there are others that see life as a happy-medium between the two ideas, where some things are out of our control and some are within our control. This is a very interesting concept as it can pertain to everything and anything in life. If destiny does exist, you could argue what is the point of living if everything is already pre-set (interestingly, that very contemplation could be part of your destiny)?
“The Lathe of Heaven” challenges this idea in a very interesting manner. The story introduces the idea of “effective” dreaming through the character George Orr. “Effective” dreaming is concept that a person’s dream can alter reality, including past or future events. For a quick summary of the story, the protagonist, George Orr, has the ability to “effective” dream due to his drug abuse. His original reality had been destroyed due to nuclear war, and it was only saved because as Orr was dying he dreamed of a different reality. A sleep researcher, William Haber, uses this ability to alter the world for the “better”, such as create world peace or eliminate racism. However, each time he changes the world for what seems to be for the better, some other issue arises of which he attempt to fix through George’s effective dreaming, but to no avail. Throughout the story, Haber attempts to achieve Godhood, and Orr eventually begins to resists him. In the end, Orr uses his will to shut down the machine Haber is using to control his dreams, and it results in reality being saved, but jumbled together from multiple realities.
The cover of the book tells a great deal about what is going to happen. As seen in the image, the world seems to be in chaos. There is a volcano erupting and buildings seem to be on the verge of collapsing. Just from the image, the book seems to be addressing some sort of dystopian world. However, when the title of the book is analyzed, it invokes a different meaning. Heaven is traditionally defined as a place of angels, or in other worlds, Utopia. It is a place where everything is perfect, and all human ideals have been achieved. Furthermore, a “lathe” is a machine usually made for shaping wood. Thus, title of the book can be translated into “the machine to utopia”. Yet, the cover shows the world in shambles. Clearly, this indicates that the “machine” that seemed to have the capability of creating heaven, resulted in the destruction of the world, which we find out to exactly happen in the book.
Regardless of how Haber changed reality, there was always some flaw. In this sense, the book creates the idea that achieving Utopia is impossible, unless it is within ourselves (another discussion). Haber uses a positivist (data experience and logic) approach to change the world, while all throughout finding out that there is a natural order to life. Thus, the natural order of life can be seen as “destiny”, as no matter the reality that Haber had created, nature found a way to create chaos and impose its dominance.
It is important to note that the book was written in the 1970s, which was a time full of government conspiracies, due to the amplification of the Cold War. People were unsure who to trust, and were terrified about the threat of communism. Hence, lots of science fiction was being published, and people were feeling very insecure. It is no coincidence that people thought the government would have advanced technology that they were hiding from the public. While “The Lathe of Heaven” does not address this idea directly, it just encompasses the viewpoint of the people during that time. By seeing this perspective, the book seems to provoke the people of this time to question its government for not being transparent; however, this is not the main focus of the book.
The idea of achieving Utopia (possibility during that time could have been democracy (the natural enemy of communism)), is addressed in this class, through its focus on countercultures. In essence, countercultures are a set of attitudes aiming to oppose the prevalent social norm. Another way to phrase this is to attempt to create an ideal world (for those who believe in that specific counterculture). For example, Stephanie Syjuco creates crochet purses, clothes, etc. to counter the traditional social norm of buying expensive material items from these giant companies; in the process of manufacturing the items at such a large scale, the artistic beauty of each item is lost. I will not talk about if I agree with her opinion or not, but rather that she sees a Utopian world as one with people being more connected to their materialistic items, and not succumbed to the societal pressures of having to acquire certain items (such as purses, clothes) from select companies. However, “The Lathe of Heaven” clearly introduces the idea that no matter how you shift the world to what is deemed “Utopian” some other issue will arise. In Syjuco’s case, it’s possible that if everyone made their own items, humans would not have progressed as much technologically as they would need to set aside time to make their items (as one possibility out of infinite).
If this concept is further analyzed, no matter how much Haber changed the world, there was always something wrong. Hence, Guin may have been trying to address the idea that Utopia is not possible for a human because no matter how we shift the world, we always see a flaw in the world, instead of appreciating the beauty and good in the world. This addresses any protest or movement in the world, such as, honestly, any of the guest speakers in this class. While I have no issues with people expressing their own opinions, not many people step back and appreciate what they have. It is much easier to see what we do not have, and hence immediately take arms whenever we deem we need it or that other should have it. The Beats Generation aimed to open the world to a new way of thinking by showing that thinking differently should be accepted. Generally, the Beats are seen as a group of drug abusive people that were way over their heads. While drugs and exploration was a major part of their generation, I believe the takeaway, for me at least, is the exploration and acceptance of different types of opinions. One of the guest speakers, Jack Hirschman really emphasized how people need to be more open-minded when they talk to others with opinions that are out of the norm.
Additionally, this book also challenges other ideologies such as behaviorism, which is the concept that your behavior is a consequence of your environment and history. Orr is a very strong and honest man, but yet has to undergo therapy for his “effective” dreaming condition. In contrast, Haber is a charming extrovert, who goes insane and almost destroys reality. From this viewpoint, the behavior of a character is determined not by their environment and history, but because of the power they had attained (which could be viewed as an environment, but not generally accepted that way). Furthermore, utilitarianism is questioned, as Haber had performed the “utilitarian” goal by attempting to create realities that maximized “utility”. However, in each situation, there was another issue that arose, that likely was worse than the issue that was resolved. Hence, the idea that the best thing a country can do for its people is one that maximizes utility is proven false in this story.
This story brings up so many interesting points about life and how humans view it. The main takeaway I see is that there is a natural order of life, and altering it will only result in nature rebalancing itself in likely a harsher way. By this logic, a Utopian society is unachievable and hence some force of destiny exists in this world. However, even though destiny might exist, it should not let you lose motivation to do anything. I believe its necessary to think that we have full control of our actions, but when the results are not as we expected (not-satisfactory), we should not get bummed out and lose motivation. Hence, believing that destiny exists gives a sort of reasoning to why the results may have been different than expected (but this should not be confused with as an excuse). We need to strive to be better each and every time. Frankly, a Utopian society seems boring, as conflict is what makes life interesting. This book is a must read for everyone.