" In this universe the night was falling; the shadows were lengthening towards an east that would not know another dawn. But elsewhere the stars were still young and the light of morning lingered; and along the path he once had followed, Man would one day go again"

Arthur C. Clarke Against the Fall of Night

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Ursula K. Le Guin, October 21, 1929 - January 22, 2018, The Lathe of Heaven

"What will the creature made all of sea drift do on the dry sand of daylight; 
what will the mind do each morning. waking?” (7) The Lathe of Heaven

Some time ago my wife mentioned that Ursula K.Le Guin had passed away, we read and enjoyed her science fiction and many years ago had the opportunity to attend a talk she gave in Calgary. She was a thoughtful and compassionate voice, within the libertarian sea infesting much of science fiction.

Helen also supplied to this link to a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation with Le Guin by John Freeman which appeared on The Literary Hub.

While I have read science fiction since I was a teenager I suspect I came to Le Guin rather late. I received an undergraduate degree in Anthropology in the late 1970’s and I knew of her parents Alfred Louis Kroeber and Theodora Kroeber, as well as Ishi the Native American of the Yahi/Yana culture who was the subject of some of their research, (including Theodora’s book, Ishi in Two Worlds: a biography of the last wild Indian in North America) before I read any of Le Guin’s work. One thing I enjoy about LeGuin’s work is the obvious knowledge of anthropology that she brings to her world building and the cultures that inhabit it.

"Christopher Priest has said all that needs to be said. I had never met her, nor read enough of her, but I regard The Lathe of Heaven as one of the greatest SF novels of the last fifty years."

Alistair Reynolds

From Tor

An interview with Wired from 2012

Which includes the following quote:

"Wired: I’m a big fan of Philip K. Dick, and when I attended the Clarion writers workshop, Tim Powers and Karen Joy Fowler assigned each of us a book to read that they thought would resonate with us, and the book that they assigned me was The Lathe of Heaven, which they described as an homage to Philip K. Dick, and I’ve always wondered if that’s true?

Le Guin: Oh yeah, definitely. You know, I couldn’t write a Phil Dick book, but I could steal some of his tricks, in a way. Pulling reality out from under the reader all the time, changing reality on them, the way he does. Well, I did it through dreams. Phil would have done it another way. But yeah, homage to Phil Dick is right."

Rather than look at Le Guin’s entire career, (I do not pretend to have read everything she wrote and I have not read any off her recent work), I want to focus on my favourite Le Guin novel, The Lathe of Heaven. The first step was to reread the novel to see if it held up to my memory and if I still enjoyed it. I enjoyed it even more and was even more impressed with Le Guin not just as a science fiction writer but as a writer and stylist is general.

The book is filled with bits of observation or description that illuminate the text like gemstones suddenly appearing within a stream bed.

“She had French diseases of the soul” (82)

It was no longer pleasant to exchange glances with the moon” (82) 

“At dreaming - at what dreaming is an aspect of. They’ve done it for a long time. for always, I guess. They are of the dream time. I don’t understand it. I can’t say it in words. Everything dreams. The play of forms, of being, is the dreaming of substance. Rocks have their dreams and the earth changes. “ 143 

‘I don’t know. Things don’t have purposes, as if the universe was a machine, where every part has a useful function. What’s the function of a galaxy? I don’t know if our life has a purpose and I don’t see that it matters. What does matter is that we’re a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass.” (73)

‘“ “Sleeping people are so remote,” she said, still looking at Orr, where are they…”  (60)

On to the novel. George Orr is a draftsman living in Portland Oregon in 2002. When the book opens George is dreaming that he is walking through a bombed out Portland while dying of radiation poisoning. The dream is disturbing enough that the building medic has been summoned. As he treats Orr it is revealed that Orr has exceeded the amount of medication allowed on his government issued Pharmacy Card by borrowing from friends.  As a result Orr has been recommended for VTT (Voluntary Therapeutic Treatment), refusal to participate could result in a jail sentence or imprisonment in a mental institution. In time Orr’s case is referred to Dr. William Haber an oneirologist specializing in dreams because Orr has been using drugs in an attempt to suppress dreaming. Orr has done this because he is convinced that certain, particularly vivid dreams that he has, especially when he is stressed can actually alter reality. And as he tells Haber while Orr can remember the changes everyone else simply accepts the changed reality as normal. Hamer decides he can treat Orr’s delusion using hypnosis and a EEG machine fitted with a trance cap of his own design.

The America Orr and Haber inhabit has been changed radically, the world population is now 7 billion. The world has been altered by climate change with rising sea levels destroying major cities and Portland experiences  almost continuous rain. The poor including working poor like Orr are squeezed into tiny rooms and have inadequate food causing them to exhibit many of the symptoms of malnutrition. A huge war in the Middle East threatens to draw in the rest of the nuclear powers. 

I thought Le Guin’s strength at characterization was really on display in this novel. She vividly and concisely presents the personalities of the characters. Orr, unhappy with Haber’s treatment eventually turns to an attorney, Heather Lelache in the hope she can extricate him from Haber. Lelache views herself as having a personality very different from the rather passive Orr. 

 Lelache “ thought of herself as a Black widow. There she sat, poisonous, hard, shiny, and poisonous; waiting, waiting.
And the victim came.’’ (40) 

It is interesting that both Harber and Lelache see something feminine in Orr. The passage detailing Lelache’s first meeting with Orr quoted above continues,” A born victim. Hair like a little girl’s, brown and fine, little blond beard; soft white skin like a fish’s belly; meek mild, stuttering. “ (40) 

Haber during his first meeting with Orr notes “ there was a acceptant, passive quality about him that seems feminine or even childish. Hamer recognized in himself a protective/bullying reaction towards this physically slight and compliant man. To dominate, to patronize was so easy as to be almost irresistible.” (21)

Although later in the novel Lelache comes to see something else in Orr. 

‘the infinite possibility, the unlimited and unqualified wholeness of being of the uncommitted, the non acting, the uncarved: the being who, being nothing but himself, is everything.” (84)


Wikipedia has an excellent discussion of this novel. It discusses the various movements and philosophies that Le Guin may be examining as well as possible influences and is well worth reading. What I would like to do is simply to offer my reaction to the novel here. First I will say that since I have been reading science fiction with the intention of posting here, several books have come to represent for me the science fiction imagination or experience, I intend to develop this idea further in a future post but The Lathe of Heaven has definitely joined that list.

Note there are spoilers ahead. 

I enjoyed and got more out of this novel as an old duffer than I did as a more callow youth. As someone who has both insomnia and sleep apnea I emphasized with Orr's dilemma of not enough sleep, even though I rarely remember dreams and dreams were the source or Orr’s problems. I also loved that Orr was not the Van Vogt superman of much of science fiction but a typical human, sometimes a victim but often with unsuspected strength and depth. I really enjoyed the way the main premise of the novel allowed Le Guin, through Orr’s dreams, to examine so many of science fiction’s themes or tropes, utopias, dystopians, nuclear war, climate change, alien invasion, etc. 

Once the aliens appear ( you were warned about spoilers ) I appreciated how they continued to be a constant element and that they continued to interact with and support Orr regardless of subsequent changes to reality. This really was a nice personal take on the trope of benevolent aliens saving a damaged humanity. The character Mannie also seems to continue to exist throughout the various versions of reality, possibly a indication of how important he is to Orr. It is interesting that the Beatles tune " With a Little Help from My friends" plays an important role in one of Orr's bleaker realities.

“The Alien watched them from within the the glass-fronted shop, as a sea creature might watch from an aquarium, seeing them pass and disappear into the mist.” (156) 

This plot also allows Le Guin to look at the (possibly even more important issues today) of the unintended consequences imbedded in change and the moral responsibility (if one accepts it) of power.

“I have frequently wondered if the majority of mankind ever pause to reflect upon the occasionally titanic significance of dreams, and of the obscure world to which they belong. Whilst the greater number of our nocturnal visions are perhaps no more than faint and fantastic reflections of our waking experiences—Freud to the contrary with his puerile symbolism—there are still a certain remainder whose immundane and ethereal character permits of no ordinary interpretation, and whose vaguely exciting and disquieting effect suggests possible minute glimpses into a sphere of mental existence no less important than physical life, yet separated from that life by an all but impassable barrier.”

from Beyond the Walls of Sleep H.p. Lovecraft


  1. Her death hit me hard.... I think The Left Hand of Darkness was the first SF book where I realized SF could be far more than spaceships and battles or a Heinlein juvenile....

  2. Yes I can understand that. Her understanding of role of cultures and the sensitivity to the role of gender really elevated the genre. I have to say it hit me hard as well there are periods or authors in my life that made more of an impression on me that others and she was one of them . Also having attended talks by Le Guin and later C J Cherryh just makes their work more personal for me.