Lathe of Heaven (Synopsis)
by Ursula LeGuin (c.1971)
Commentary by Anderson Smith
George Orr is tortured by his dreams because sometimes they come true. The world he wakes up to has changed into the world that he dreamed, sometimes radically, sometimes violently. As a teenager he dreams the death of his aunt and he awakens to finds that she was killed in a car accident six weeks before. He is horrified, and attempts to control his dreaming, but over the years some of his dreams and nightmares come true. Finally by the time he is thirty ( in the year 2002) he is becoming psychotic and he contemplates suicide but then turns to pep pills to stay awake to prevent dreaming. When he nearly overdoses, his landlord calls a medic who saves him but turns him in for illegal drug use - a minor offense that requires psychiatric therapy.
That's how he meets Dr. Haber, the novel's antagonist. Haber, a large, powerful, active man with curly brown hair and beard who prides himself on his professional psychiatric skills and his talent for manipulating his patients (for their own good of course), specializes in sleep disorders and dream research. He occupies a windowless office in a non-descript office building in Portland, Oregon, the setting for the novel. By using hypnotic suggestion and a brain wave generator called the "Augmentor", Haber is able to tell George what to dream and to his astonishment actually verifies George's ability.
George senses that Haber wants to use him, but because of his congenitally passive nature and fear of his uncontrolled dream states, allows the therapy to continue. After a few therapy sessions George seeks legal help so he can stop the therapy and really get cured. That's when he meets the lawyer, a black female who clicks and snaps and wears bangles and brass buckles and is reminiscent of a black widow spider waiting in her office when George arrives. Though outwardly very different (George is slight ,fair and quiet) they experience an inner chemistry and George later dreams that she is his wife, but at that point everybody is gray anyway. Her name is Heather and she gets dreamed in and out of the story at various points, appearing and disappearing as needed.
Instead of trying to cure him, Haber uses George's "effective dreaming" to create benevolent, far reaching changes in the world including population control, disarmament, and ecological regulations. The results always seem to include a bigger office and more power for Haber as well as improvements in society. After several more therapy sessions things begin to go wrong. At Haber's hypnotic suggestion to create world peace, George dreams that aliens have seized the moon and are threatening earth, thus uniting the earth in defense and causing world peace, just as suggested, but revealing that although Haber can make suggestions he cannot control the details of the dream supplied by George.
In sheer frustration and helplessness, George runs away to his cabin in the woods. Heather begins to believe his story and seeks him out at his hideaway. Finding him in a state of exhaustion and desperation she says she will hypnotize him ( she learned it in college) and suggests that he dreams that the aliens are not on the moon and that Haber is really a good man who will cure George, not use him. This spontaneous plan backfires when George dreams that the aliens are no longer on the moon. You guessed it. George dreams that they came to the earth itself. Portland is nearly destroyed and civilians are killed by friendly fire as the military overreacts but it turns out that the aliens are peaceful beings without weapons, who are psychic and whose native element is the dream state itself.
Even though they are large and totally encased in metallic shells like giant, nine foot tall, upright sea turtles, the aliens are few and (with a little help from George's dreams) are soon accepted as harmless. They generally become small time merchants who set up little shops in out of the way places and can be seen occasionally walking about the city in their mechanical shells. One of them greets George one day and acknowledges him as "iahklu". The alien reveals that he understands George's dream ability and accepts it and gives George a power word that he can use to call for help in his dreams if he needs to.
Meanwhile, Haber has been busy using the Augmentor to replicate George's brain waves so he can do his own effective dreaming without George. Finally Haber attempts effective dreaming and nearly destroys the world which is saved by George who pulls the plug on the Augmentor, but not before Haber burns out his brain and becomes cataleptically insane.
In case you don't have the book here are some revealing excerpts:
Suggestions for discussion based on the above synopsis and quotes:
- 1. George to Haber: ' " Did you ever happen to think, Dr. Haber, " he said quietly enough but stuttering a little," that there might be other people who dream the way I do? That reality is being changed out from under us, replaced, renewed, all the time - only we don't know it? Only the dreamer knows it, and those who know his dream. If that's true, I guess we're lucky not knowing it. This is confusing enough."'
- 2. George to himself: 'He spread out his hands and looked at them then sank his face into them; it was wet with tears. Oh hell, hell, he thought bitterly what kind of man am I? Tears in my beard? No wonder Haber uses me. How could he help it ? I haven't any strength, I haven't any character, I'm a born tool. I haven't any destiny. All I have is dreams. And now other people run them.'
- 3. Haber: 'He (Haber) looked at Orr with his genial, reflective smile, stroking his beard. "But in fact, isn't man's very purpose on earth - to do things , change things, make a better world ?...I was wondering if this self-canceling centerpoised personality of yours leads you to look at things defensively. You are afraid of losing your balance... You can't try to live safely, there's no such thing as safety. Stick your neck out of your shell then and live fully! '
- 4. George: ' "...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 are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass." '
- 5. An alien speaks to George: 'Jor Jor, please forgive warranted interruption. You are human capable of iahklu as previously noted. This troubles self... We also have been variously disturbed. Concepts cross in mist. Perception is difficult. Volcanoes emit fire. Help is offered : refusably. Snakebite serum is not prescribed for all. Before following directions leading in wrong directions, auxiliary forces may be summoned, in immediately following fashion: Er' perrehnne !...If desired. Speech is silver. Silence is gold. Self is universe. Please forgive interruption, crossing in mist.'
- 6. George to Haber: ' "Iaklu is too much for one person to handle alone," George was saying, "it gets out of hand. They (the aliens) know what's involved in controlling it. Or not exactly controlling it, that's not the right word; but keeping it where it belongs, going the right way... I don't understand it. Maybe you will. Ask their help. Say 'Er' perrehnne before you... before you press the ON button .'
- 7. George: ' Weariness took him over, picked him up like a current in the sea into which he was sinking slowly. "Er' perrehnne," he muttered surrendering to sleep.... Orr slept. He dreamed. There was no rub. His dreams, like waves of the deep sea far from any shore, came and went, rose and fell, profound and harmless, breaking nowhere, changing nothing. They danced the dance among all the other waves in the sea of being, Through his sleep the great, green sea turtles dived, swimming with heavy inexhaustible grace through the depths, in their element.
- 1. Haber and George Orr are both idealized and exaggerated characters. What might they stand for ?
- 2. How would you answer Haber's assertion that the purpose of man is to " do things , to change things?"
- 3. Could you offer any evidence to either support or refute George's statement that the universe is not a machine?
- 4. The aliens play a pivotal role in the resolution of the conflict between Haber and George because they give George the power word which he uses and Haber fails to use. What is the purpose of this word?
- 5. If Haber and George are personifications of opposites, how would you characterize the aliens?
- 6. Why do you think the aliens are described as "sea turtles?"
- 7. Each chapter in the book is headed by a quote. The quote for chapter 3 is: "Those whom heaven helps we call the sons of heaven. They do not learn this by learning. They do not work it by working. They do not reason it by using reason. To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven." - Chuang Tse. In the light of this quote, how would you interpret the title of the book?