I had wanted to read one of Ursula Le Guin’s books, ever since I heard about them in the movie ‘The Jane Austen Book Club’. She writes science fiction / fantasy and before seeing this movie, I hadn’t heard about her before. The only science fiction / fantasy writers I knew were Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke, Frank Herbert and Philip Dick. I didn’t know that women writers wrote science fiction. (If that piques your interest, I will suggest you watch the movie ‘The Jane Austen Book Club’). So, when I got the opportunity, I went to the bookshop and searched for Ursula Le Guin’s books. I found ‘The Lathe of Heaven’ there. But her more famous ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ was not available. I don’t know whether it is out of print. I read ‘The Lathe of Heaven’ during the read-a-thon held in October. It was the only book that I completed during the read-a-thon. Here is the review.
Summary of the story
I am giving below the summary of the story as given in the back cover of the book.
George Orr is in most respects a mild and unremarkable man, but he has an ability with which he can transform the world around him, for George’s dreams alter reality. His psychiatrist, William Haber, at first skeptical, cannot resist using George’s powers once he sees their effects – initially just to advance his own career, but then, gaining confidence, to try to change their overcrowded world into a more attractive place.
What I think
Reading the book was an exciting adventure for me. It was exciting because it was by an author, whom I hadn’t heard of before. It was also exciting because it was about an area of science about which I hadn’t read much before. The story explores the science of the mind and the way the mind works and it also touches on dreams and reality. The book starts with a solid grounding of reality and gives a lot of information about sleep patterns – I learnt about different states of sleep, like s-sleep and d-state, and also the fact that we dream everyday in a particular state of sleep. However, at some point of time it moves away from being a description of reality to the realms of the fantastic and stays on the fantastic side of the divide. The point at which the book transitions from a science fiction novel to a fantasy is quite interesting, and the story becomes quite fascinating. But after sometime, I felt that the events were too fantastic and it started resembling a Hollywood fantasy movie. It was mildly disappointing to me, when it reached that stage. But I will give credit to Ursula Le Guin for exploring an interesting and new topic many decades back. Ursula Le Guin also touches on some of the environmental issues and other global issues which trouble us today – like food security, extinction of species, global warming, melting of glaciers, overcrowding of cities. It is quite prescient. This book was published in 1971, but much of it seems quite contemporary even today after nearly four decades and so it was quite fascinating to read.
I discovered beautiful lines throughout the book, starting from the first paragraph. I am giving below some of my favourites.
Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss. The light shines through it, and the dark enters it. Borne, flung, tugged from anywhere to anywhere, for in the deep sea there is no compass but nearer and farther, higher and lower, the jellyfish hangs and sways; pulses move slight and quick within it, as the vast diurnal pulses beat in the moondriven sea. Hanging, swaying, pulsing, the most vulnerable and insubstantial creature, it has for it defense the violence and power of the whole ocean, to which it has entrusted its being, its going, and its will.
The trains were already jam-packed; he stood out of reach of strap or stanchion, supported solely by the equalizing pressure of bodies on all sides, occasionally lifted right off his feet and floating as the force of crowding (c) exceeded the force of gravity (g).
Very little light and air got down to street level; what there was was warm and full of fine rain. Rain was an old Portland tradition, but the warmth – 70 degrees Fahrenheit on the second of March – was modern.
To go under a river : there’s a strange thing to do, a really weird idea. To cross a river, ford it, wade it, swim it, use boat, ferry, bridge, airplane, to go upriver, to go downriver in the ceaseless renewal and beginning of current : all that makes sense. But in going under a river, something is involved which is, in the central meaning of the word, perverse.
Orr was not a fast reasoner. In fact, he was not a reasoner. He arrived at ideas the slow way, never skating over the clear, hard ice of logic, nor soaring on the slipstreams of imagination, but slogging, plodding along on the heavy ground of existence. He did not see connections, which is said to be the hallmark of intellect. He felt connections – like a plumber.
That’s what strikes humans as uncanny about sleep. Its utter privacy. The sleeper turns his back on everyone. ‘The mystery of the individual is strongest in sleep,’ a writer in my field said.
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. 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.
You’re trying to reach progressive, humanitarian goals with a tool that isn’t suited to the job.
…what struck her most, of that insight, was his strength. He was the strongest person she had ever known, because he could not be moved away from the center. And that was why she liked him. She was drawn to strength, came to it as a moth to light. She had had a good deal of love as a kid but no strength around her, nobody to lean on ever : people had leaned on her. Thirty years she had longed to meet somebody who didn’t lean on her, who wouldn’t ever, who couldn’t…Here, short, bloodshot, psychotic, and in hiding, here he was, her tower of strength.
He had to get out and walk, against the current of the crowd, facing them all, right in amongst them. That had been distressing. He did not like crowds. But then the crowds had ceased and he was left walking all alone in the vast expanses of lawn and grove and forest of the Park : and that was a great deal worse.
On Friday he had been going all to pieces over a mere ethical point; here on Wednesday in the midst of Armageddon he was cool and calm.
Everything dreams. The play of form, of being, is the dreaming of substance. Rocks have their dreams, and the earth changes…But when the mind becomes conscious, when the rate of evolution speeds up, then you have to be careful. Careful of the world. You must learn the way. You must learn the skills, the art, the limits. A conscious mind must be part of the whole, intentionally and carefully – as the rock is part of the whole unconsciously.
There is a bird in a poem by T.S.Eliot who says that mankind cannot bear very much reality; but the bird is mistaken. A man can endure the entire weight of the universe for eighty years. It is unreality that he cannot bear.
I found the book quite interesting. One of the reviews says this about the book : “A clever exercise in alternatives and ethics, and the practical problems of utopia building”. Very true. Though after reading around three-fourths of the book, my enthusiasm for it went down, beautiful passages kept popping up till the end of the book. I think Ursula Le Guin is an interesting and exciting writer. I have another Le Guin book called ‘The Tombs of Atuan’ which I borrowed from the library sometime back. I am hoping to read that also soon. I also am planning to read her award-winning books ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ and ‘The Dispossessed’ if I am able to get them. If you like science / fantasy fiction and would like to explore a new science fiction writer, you can try reading this.