The Lathe of Heaven

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Rating: ★★★★

This is a big-idea story about big-idea stories. Many scifi books tackle the 'what ifs' of our future and fictional present: What if aliens attack? What if the world became overcrowded? -- typically, they explore some of the projected impact of these hypotheticals on society. Lathe of Heaven subsumes this genre, by being a book about a 'what-if' machine which can bring up any such scenario. Specifically, the unconscious mind of a mild-mannered young draftsman from Portland, under the ministrations of his gung-ho experimental therapist.

The story of fighting with possible worlds has been written before. Genies can grant you anything you wish, but it never turns out how you wanted. Marvel heroes skip merrily between alternate worlds. Professor Farnsworth exercises his Finglonger. But for all its sleep science, this book's not so much concerned with interdimensional fetch quests or even how something happens -- the worlds are quite literally dreams -- as with the moral problems raised by the what-ifs. First of all this is about the scenarios themselves: if we solve racism by making everyone grey, have we lost something important? But more centrally it is about the issues raised by dreaming itself.

The conflict in the story has nothing to do with the blockbuster scenes rushing Orr to the Dream Machine so he can escape a timeline where aliens are invading Portland. The conflict is between Orr, who wants to exist in harmony with the world, and Haber, who wants to make it better. It's very East meets West, and Le Guin comes down firmly in the House of the Rising Sun: to wish the world better is to leap without looking, utopianism is merely a prerequisite for a dystopia. There were some muting notes to this message, though: Haber at least initially made the world much better than the hell it had been, even if not without cost.

I liked this most for the delightful selection of moral conundrums. Can a therapist attempting to treat a repressed homosexual be justly sued for making his client gay? In a crowded world, is it humane to condition people so they are happy in crowds? There was a wealth of this stuff, and also some startlingly good lines occasionally. I liked this one on man's purpose:

"I don't know. Things don't have purposes, as if the universe were 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. [...]