I had time for a quick read this weekend: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, an unusual work of science fiction that playfully straddles that fine line between the mundane (pot-smoking landlords in Portland, Oregon) and the utterly fantastic (alien turtles). I’m primarily fascinated with this little book because of its vision of ecological crisis and the power of the human psyche to either impose or deny such environmental realities. The protagonist, George Orr (no doubt a reference to George Orwell as well as the hero’s characteristic either/or indecisiveness), is an “effective” dreamer, meaning some of his dreams have the effect of altering waking reality, at times even rewriting history. Afraid of his ability, Orr turns to dream-inhibiting drugs, gets in trouble for overdosing, and finds himself remanded to the care of an “oneirologist,” Dr. Haber. Haber, after learning of Orr’s power, attempts to use it to solve the world’s problems in the most heavyhanded of ways. And the world, at this point, is chock full of problems: primary among them overpopulation and air pollution.
The Lathe of Heaven was first published in 1971, and it imagines a world, in fact, several worlds, in which even Americans are just more masses of undernourished people crammed together under eternally leaden skies, courtesy of toxic greenhouse gas concentrations. Thus, in an increasingly surreal series of treatment sessions, Dr. Haber sets about trying to end world war, overpopulation, racial discrimination, and more through Orr’s dreams, but the solutions never turn out quite the way he intended, while exacerbating the moral dilemma for Orr. The imperative to end discord based on skin color results in turning everyone the same uniform gray; the direction to promote world peace results in Orr dreaming up an alien invasion, which in effect forces the nations of Earth to cooperate in their first interstellar conflict; the implanted suggestion to dream of more elbow room results in a plague that kills billions of people, depopulating the overcrowded Earth.
Clearly, given the many chapter epigraphs from Chuang Tse and Lao Tse, Le Guin was influenced by the tenets of Daoism in writing this story, and Orr is a Daoist protagonist in that he does not actively strive to better humanity but recognizes the moral rightness in just letting things be. He is also most comfortable in a world that does not give preeminence to the human but recognizes the human’s part in a much broader range of entities and concerns.
Yet the story makes me uneasy with both Haber’s well-meaning but ethically bankrupt dominance and Orr’s self-abnegating passivity. Technology here is suspect, in the form of Haber’s Augmentor machine, and the book’s climactic scene features Orr’s one real action: exerting himself to hold reality together long enough to turn the Augmentor off. By book’s end, Haber is in the lunatic asylum, and Orr is happily at work designing real, old-fashioned kitchen cookware. DIY > dystopia?
On a final note, Orr’s ambivalent relationship to Dr. Haber via the process of hypnosis and directed dreaming as well as his later, and more positive, collective dreaming with the alien race of turtles, were an eerie precursor to my viewing of Inception this weekend, which is a movie premised on the notion of “shared dreaming.” See my comments on the movie and its relation to game worlds at the Critical Gaming Project Blog.