Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

Title: The Lathe of Heaven
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Publisher: Avon Books (1973)

Michael (of Lazy Thoughts From a Boomer fame) recently brought it to my attention that a movie of The Lathe of Heaven existed. I hadn't a clue this classic sci-fi novel had been adapted for film and was pretty excited to give it a looky. Since I'd read the book just a few months ago (or a year now? hmmm) it seemed like another great addition to our movie/film posts. As usual, Michael will be presenting the movie review and I'll take the book.

You can get to Michael's film review by clicking here.

As I said, it's been a little while since I read this book so I dug out my copy (ok, it was actually lent out and my neighbor kindly gave it back for a couple days:) to help refresh my memory for the review. I like to read the backcopy to help me with my summary and was pretty taken aback. Apparently it's "a truly prescient and startling view of humanity" which is weird because "prescient" is probably the last word I would have used to describe this story. Well, giantflamingturd is probably the LAST word but you get what I mean. One of Le Guin's strengths has always been her views of humanity so that I will certainly agree with. Anywho, over-eager backcopy and generic blurbs aside, I really liked this comment listed on her website:

"When I read The Lathe of Heaven as a young man, my mind was boggled. When I read it, more than 25 years later, it breaks my heart. Only a great work of literature can bridge — so thrillingly — that impossible span."
— Michael Chabon

At this point you must be thinking, get to the book already! So here we go...

George Orr would like to stop dreaming. To that end, he's been finagling ways to get past the limits set on the autodrug dispensary. Getting caught eventually lands him in Voluntary Therapeutic Treatment. He is assigned to Dr. William Haber. George explains that he would like to stop dreaming because his dreams affect reality. Naturally, Haber doesn't believe him but he agrees to treat him. Haber eventually realizes George is telling the truth and begins to imagine how one might go about creating a more perfect world. George, a reluctant participant at best, tries to get around the machinations of his doctor with the help of a lawyer named Heather Lelache.

The real triumph of this novel is its parallel scales. Haber is a passive-aggressive egomaniac trying to Change the World and George is a regular guy trying to get a problem under control. Readers experience the enormity of what Haber is doing but, right alongside, readers are also very much a part of George's everyday life as he tries to deal with this. Le Guin is a master of world-building and it is certainly on display here. And not only does she perfectly present the world as George experiences it, but we are also taken right along when any changes are affected by George's dreams. In a bittersweet sort of way, these changes can be really funny.
There's an aspect of this story that is like getting three wishes from a genie: once you get what you wished for, you realize you should have been more specific. At the same time that Le Guin is able to make a reader truly ache with the challenges faced by George, she's also able to give you an unexpected laugh when you see just how his dreams attempt to meet the requirements of Haber's World View.

The characters here are great. It's really just the three (George, Haber, and Heather) but they are excellently done. This is an aspect that was very much lost in the movie. But more on that when I comment at Michael's blog... Heather is especially well done in that she's given the "outsider" position, mostly having to react to situations rather than have any true agency but, despite this, she's not filler at all. It's another testament to Le Guin's excellence as a writer.

So while I really enjoyed this book there was something about it that didn't allow me to become fully immersed. I can't put my finger on what it was but I was never "lost in the story" or anything like that. I have a feeling it's one of those books that takes a couple reads to really appreciate all the aspects of the story. And, points to Le Guin, it's not a tome so a re-read is easy enough. (I've always liked how Le Guin can tell an excellent story without 2-3 times more words than necessary.)

One part that really annoyed me - and definitely took me out of the story - was this bizarre throwaway line of Heather's when she and George are first discussing the case. She mentions another case that might be similar and gives a bit of info on the other plaintiff. In what seems very odd coming out of a Le Guin book, you've got the over-used, completely unfair, disgustingly prejudice linking of homosexuality with pedophilia. I'm not saying that pedophilia is something that is strictly limited to heterosexuals but this literary device (that seems much too mild a term for such a transgression) really must fucking die! And, again, it's really weird coming from a Le Guin novel, at least in my experience.

My final verdict: Sci-fi fans for sure ought not to miss this one but even those who are a little hesitant to attempt the genre will get a lot out of this title.

And in case you haven't already been, here's the link again for the movie review!

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Coming up after the holidays:
Falling Angel
(and its movie adaptation by a slightly altered name - Angel Heart)

Links to previous joint posts:
The Princess Bride
A Scanner Darkly
The Children of Men
The Minority Report


  1. As usual, another fine book review, Rachel. I guess I shouldn't find it surprising that the novel's characters get more depth than in its film adaptation. Still, the film is more than 30 years old, and the novel is almost 40, and yet we both found Le Guin's story relevant now. Says a great deal about what the author achieved when she wrote it. I really need to take her novel in.

    Of course, I've only seen the film, so my frame of reference remains there. Though the parts are likely more reflective representations of the novel's characters, it does work me. Davison, Conway, and Avery still managed to make them magnetic enough to enjoy both them and the story. And what a story! I'm curious, though. Does the novel include that early reveal (at the start) in the film where Orr is walking through the remains of the real world?

    Also, I appreciate Le Guin's name-play in this work. George Orr for George Orwell. Even William Haber seems representative. Besides all of that, it remains a great work of science-fiction. Thanks again for suggesting it for this series, Rachel.

  2. Wow, I never even heard of either book or movie, and now apprently the dynamic duo considers them both worthy!

    I'll put LoH on my list.

    Interesting thoughts on book grading, Rachel. I'm intrigued by the idea that you'd rate a book 3.5 and stick it in your keeper shelf!

    Also: hee on tater tots in the forest. My DH also keeps me more on the straight and narrow nutritionally.

  3. Michael -

    You make a great point about the story still having relevance. Maybe that's what was meant by "prescient" thought I would call that timeless. I most definitely think you would enjoy the book.

    Early reveal, no. However, there are many, many more world changes evoked by Haber/George in the book and they are given more time than in the movie so I considered that early scene to be representative of more possibilities. My favorite world change was the gray people thing. I was glad to see it in the movie. One of my favorite lines was George saying very simply that Heather wasn't supposed to be gray she was supposed to be brown. I found the entire scenario very illuminating from the "narrator" angle I mentioned before. I also thought it was the first time George really showed some agency. I know he tried to get a lawyer but his only motivation was that he didn't want to be near Haber. I don't think he was giving much thought to greater ramifications but when something was brought very much home to him in his real life it's the first time he really thought about what was going on and what it meant.

    I also thought the actors did a great job bringing the characters to life. I was glad to see how much of their true characters came through rather than making them little automatons to move the story along. I suppose that is because, like you said, the story came first.

  4. M - I definitely think you ought to give the book a try. I don't know if you read sci-fi but Le Guin is a great author for the sci-fi shy. Another of her good ones is The Left Hand of Darkness. The Dispossed is pretty good, too. she writes great characters.

    Intrigued are you? Hmmm... Well, maybe I'll do a post with a list of Keepers broken down into 5/4/3 star ratings. That could be fun. And it might be a nice discussion on the difference between what I like to read over and over and what I consider to be a good or excellent book. :) I have friends coming into town and staying til (US) Thanksgiving so it may not get up soon but I'll come back to it.

    Ah, so you also get the "gentle" reminders about food consumption, huh? :)

  5. Oh, and great link on the Haber process, Michael. Do you think that was deliberate?

  6. I really need to read this book! The narrator perspective is one I'm curious of regarding how it is used in telling the story.

    I would definitely agree with your choice for a favorite line. I found the matter-of-fact manner the story is told was a strength. And given her use of George Orr (short for Orwell) as a character name, it's my feeling that Haber, too, was specifically selected by the author.

    Thanks, Rachel.

  7. Ooops, that book title up there ought to be THE DISPOSSESSED.

    Michael - I think you got what I meant since you said "narrator perspective" but I thought I should clarify that this is definitely one of my interpretations. There is no true narrator, it's told in 3rd person omniscient but the style and the parts of the story that are detailed vs. left to the imagination put me in mind of a specific angle being incorporated. Since I hate to say the author had an agenda or perspective (some authors are very obvious about this but most are just telling a story) I chose to call that the narrator. I'm not sure how that should be described. Would that be narrative perspective? Anyway, hope what I meant is able to be understood even if I'm not explaining it well.

    I second the matter-of-fact comment and find much of her work to be that way. I have always liked her writing style.