Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin

I seem to be catching up on a few of those writers I've inadvertently not got round to reading. Latest is Ursula Le Guin. Not her classic "Left Hand of Darkness" of the Earthsea books, but her 1971 novel "The Lathe of Heaven."

George Orr is in a bad way having taken too many drugs to stop him from dreaming. He has to be referred to a psychiatrist to wean him off his addiction. The world he lives in - an overpopulated American western seaboard, a Portland, Oregon where it always rains as climate change and man-made pollution have led to the desert inland also being repopluated - is a chaotic, controlled one, where food is rationed to keep up with the over population and drugs are used to subdue them, but are equally rationed.

He has a good reason for not wanting to dream - for the dream's that he has come true, more than that, they change the past to enable this rewriting of history. He can't control this, and so has been taking a cocktail of drugs to knock him out but suppress his dreams.

The psychiatrist he is referred to has a special interest in dreams. William Haber has been developed a machine that through hypnosis can speed up, control and record the dream state. He begins to put Orr into a trance and asks him to dream of  "a horse." The picture on his wall, on waking, becomes the horse of the dream and its as if the previous mountain picture has never been there. Yet such innocent changes don't last for long. These controlling dreams grow in dimension. The past changes and because the road to the present has so many variables those also change.

It's a fascinating re-take on the idea of time being changeable. For in Le Guin's book, there is no time travel, just a rewriting of alternate histories. The psychoactive drugs of the sixties feed into a lot of the SF of the period, writers like Blish, Harrison and Le Guin. Haber appears not to realise what has happened, yet Orr is not so sure, and begins to suspect he is being manipulated. The doctor gets more successful, the dream worlds that Orr creates becoming the new reality. Despite this, certain things stay the same: the world is always at war; the president remains the same.

For his part Haber is wanting to improve things - what harm can it do if it rains a little less for instance? When Orr approaches a lawyer because of his concern, she agrees to come and "observe" the next hypnosis session ostensibly to check out the legality of Haber's experimental Augmentor machine. Haber is vague on what he asks Orr to make happen - Orr has been agitated at the overpopulation of the world - and in the next dream the world changes cataclysmically, a giant plague wiping out 4/5ths of the planet. For though his dreams can be directed they cannot be controlled. In this new underpopulated world everyone has enough food, larger flats, is healthy - but they also have memories of the plague that has wiped out so many. Yet the war goes on. Haber asks Orr to create peace amongst men - and it happens but in the dream the corollary that allows this is an alien invasion which sees the moon taken over by Orr's imagined aliens and cause mankind to join together to fight the new enemy. Heather Lelache, the mixed race lawyer who has been helping Orr is intrigued by him - and when she realises he has disappeared she travels off to the remote shack where she suspects he is hiding. Whilst there the connection between them grows but she also agrees to hypnotise him to change Haber into someone who helps Orr. She also foolishly asks that he gets the aliens off the moon - and off they come, to invade earth.

The upping of the ante- throughout the novel is its real strength, even though we never once have a reason for why Orr has this particular power. But in Haber's exploiting of it, we are taken from one precipice to another. With the alternate realities beginning to contradict each other, the novel becomes more fractured in its final third as Haber tries to take over Orr's power so he can now dream the dream's himself. Yet this causes a chaos that sees the world in total crisis. There is no going back, but bits of the old world can be returned to - and besides the world as it was originally meant to be was going to end in atomic collapse at some point.

It's a tour de force in many ways, a long story that just about keeps its internal logic working throughout. The title comes from a misquote from Confucious and the book is highly philosophical in how it uses this dreaming of alternative futures to suggest the moral quandary inherent in trying to make the world a better place. I'm minded of a few conferences I've been to recently where a certain social determinist mindset is in place as new technology and big data are seen as being cure-alls, with only positive consequences. I think some of the alternate futures in Stephen King's recent JFK novel follow something of the same internal logic of Le Guin in the Lathe of Heaven - or the problem of unintended consequence.

Part of its skill I think it that there's just enough confident technical detail to believe in this channelling of the dream state - and so the ramping up of the consequences, when they come, are built on a solid foundation. The aliens in particular are a fascinating touch, because they can only be from Orr's imagination, so that their uncertain communication comes from him only having half imagined them  - they exist, if at all, partly in dreams. Apparently there have been a couple of ill-advised film adaptions of the novel - its hard to see how they could work - as the dream states and the alternate realities are so much of the imagination. An excellent novel and great introduction to her work.

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