The Lathe of Heaven
Unconnected to any of her more famous cycles (Hainish, Earthsea), The Lathe of Heaven has the most fascinating premise: what if dreams could literally change the world?
George Orr finds himself dealing with this very conundrum and its moral and ethical implications and, seeking to rid himself of these world-altering dreams, he uses more than his allotted share of barbiturates, which will, ultimately, land him in VTT (Voluntary Therapy Treatment) in the seemingly capable hands of Dr. Haber. The initially reluctant psychiatrist finds that Orr is, indeed, not psychotic; that his dreams can truly change reality, shift it to another continuum, leaving no memories of the previous timeline to anyone else but the dreamer and, now, the man who suggested the dream and who was right there when the change occurred – his shrink.
This leaves Ms. LeGuin the freedom to explore not one, but several alternative realities and, also, the great gap between intent and actual consequence. Ultimately Haber is a power-hungry individual but with fairly good intentions (at least in a sort of utilitarian way – the best for the most, not much room for empathy); in his way he wants, as the cliché goes, to make the world a better place with, of course, the arrogance of one who believes he knows what he’s doing while playing God. Orr turns out to be an imperfect instrument not only because of his moral misgivings and reluctance towards the therapist, but also because his subconscious, where all the transformations happen, changes Haber’s instructions sometimes beyond recognition. Thus, Haber’s desire for peace on Earth brings an alien threat from the Moon (against which all warring nations can rally together) and his suggestion to eliminate racial prejudice, discrimination and inequality leads to a single race of bland, grey humans.
The various alternatives of the world Orr takes us through reflect the coming to pass of various 70s fears that are still issues today – global warming, overpopulation, scarcity of resources etc. In a way, Haber and Orr switch roles throughout the book: while in the beginning Haber is in control and trying to model Orr to his wishes, by the end, his desire for the ultimate power trip – to have his own effective dreams – changes him into an out of control ‘monster’, with only Orr capable to literally step into the nightmare and put an end to it.
This was, by far, my favorite book by Ms LeGuin, and I’m glad I didn’t start off with it – any follow-up would probably have been rather disappointing.