Saturday, June 17, 2023

Review: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Lathe of Heaven is Le Guin's critique of George Orwell's 1984. It's clear that she wants us to draw direct lines of comparison between the two science fiction works: Le Guin names her main character "George Orr", and the history of her world includes an attempted police state occurring in 1984.

They rewrote the Constitution in 1984, the way you remember, but things were so bad by then that it was a lot worse, it didn't even pretend to be a democracy any more, it was a short of police state, but it didn't work, it fell apart right away.

We don't hear more details about how Orwellian-style authoritarian rule fell apart in a tangle of its own contradictions. Perhaps Le Guin (an anarchist) found this part of Orwell's famous dystopia too incredible to make it worth re-examining. Instead, Le Guin challenges the "brainwashing" aspect. Is it possible to control someone's thoughts towards your own political ends?

Her answer is a resolute "NO". 

Our protagonist George Orr is placed on Voluntary Therapeutic Treatment (an Orwellian sort of name) for abusing drugs, which he takes to suppress dreams. We learn that Orr is able to rewrite history through his dreams — he had previously inadvertently done so to erase the fall-out of nuclear war and disappear an inconvenient aunt — and he is horrified at the prospect of meddling in the world without the permission of its other inhabitants.

His therapist, Dr Haber, sees in Orr's powers an opportunity to change the world for the better. Haber develops a system of hypnosis and brain stimulation to direct Orr's dreams, with mixed success. Haber attempts to have Orr address world peace; Orr's dreams create an alien threat that unites mankind against a new foes. Haber attempts to have Orr solve racism; Orr's dreams create a dull world filled with gray-skinned people. Orr's subconscious can be influenced, but it cannot be controlled with the precision of Orwell's Big Brother's tools: people mediate the messages they receive.

Orr objects to the way Dr Haber uses him, but "voluntary" therapy keeps him trapped under Haber's thumb. His efforts for legal intervention are thwarted — like our world, Le Guin's dystopia is also rife with gaslighting and medical abuses. Orr learns that the aliens he invented have deeper knowledge of dream states, and one alien directs him to The Beatles' "With a Little Help from My Friends". The world can't be changed by single individuals, Orr learns, but instead we have to be one with the world and with each other, connected and surrendering to its flows like wave-flung jellyfish.

The critique of the impossibility of mind control or of solving sociopolitical problems through science is clear and pointed. Le Guin's solution for change is murkier — how exactly holistic, social dreaming works is rather unclear, and the Beatles reference was a little cheesy. In this regard, The Lathe Of Heaven is similar to The Dispossessed, which she published three years later. After a few hundred pages of probing the difficulties of anarchism, unable to find a real solution, the rebels of The Dispossessed who are trying to found a better anarchist society throw their hands up and say "It was our purpose all along (...) to shake up things, to stir up, to break some habits, to make people ask questions." 

Unlike the antagonists of 1984, Le Guin's Haber is not portrayed as evil or seeking power for the sake of power. Although Haber does use Orr's abilities to improve his social standing and influence (acquiring for himself various promotions, for example), Haber believes he is acting for the greater good, and this drives his decisions and rhetoric. It leads to a more interesting discussion of philosophy, of utilitarianism versus self-determination. In this, too, The Lathe of Heaven is consistent with Le Guin's other worlds: her characters are real people, with well-thought out and articulated philosophies, which lead in a rational way to their political beliefs. Her worlds are detailed, her prose is beautiful, and she's always a joy to read.

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