The Lathe of Heaven Analysis by Ralph K Jones

Dystopian Literature Review

The Lathe of Heaven: When a Dream is a Nightmare

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin is not your typical dystopian novel. Instead of dealing with warring factions and subversive individuals, the story explores the great mystery that is the dream state, and how trying to manipulate it is akin to playing with fire. The events of this story boil down to one essential question: if one’s dreams have the power to alter reality, will the world become a utopia, or the realization of a nightmare?

The Lathe of Heaven Analysis by Ralph K Jones

The world in The Lathe of Heaven is constantly changed by dreams, but at the story’s beginning, it is a rather troubled one. Global warming has wreaked a devastating impact on the planet, leading to incessant rain and abnormally high temperatures. The world is overpopulated, malnourished, impoverished, and the global powers are engulfed in all-out war. At the centre of all this tumult lies George Orr, the story’s protagonist, who has the peculiar ability to influence reality with his dreams.

The story begins with George being referred to a Dr. William Haber for mandatory therapy due to drug abuse. Haber is an arrogant, detached psychiatrist who is an expert on dreaming. It is during their first session that George reveals his dreams change the real world, and he had been taking pills to prevent himself from dreaming. Haber believes him to be delusional at first, but he is left in awe when George demonstrates his power to be genuine. Excited by the possibilities of George’s power, Haber plans to use him as a tool to realize his “dream” of becoming the saviour of humanity.

The Lathe of Heaven in-depth Review

George notices that Haber is using him, and enlists the help of a lawyer named Heather Lelache to observe the legality of his therapy sessions. However, she merely gets roped into Haber’s schemes, and watches in horror as he makes George eliminate 6 billion people as a solution to the overpopulation problem. Haber then ends the war by creating a seemingly hostile alien threat on the moon, which causes George to fear that Haber will create more harm than good in fulfilling his vision of a perfect world.

The Lathe of Heaven in-depth Review

George, who is the only opposition to Haber’s tyranny, is simultaneously helpless to resist. Heather offers to help him have a dream that will make Haber more benevolent, but this also makes the aliens descend upon Earth, causing widespread chaos even though they are not actually hostile. Afterwards, Haber proceeds to use George’s dreams to create a dull, oppressive world in which people are stripped of their humanity. People with genetic diseases are euthanized publicly, athletes massacre each other in coliseums, and the people are literally gray so as to eliminate racism. Haber takes all the credit for making a “heaven” on earth, and blames any negative aspects on George’s depraved subconscious.

George then dreams that he and Heather are married, and she accompanies him on his final appointment. Haber plans to rid George of his power and utilize it for himself so he can truly enact his vision for the world. However, Haber ends up having a nightmare that throws the entire world into chaos, which renders him insane. George turns off the dream machine, and goes on to live his life as the world recovers from the incident. The story ends with he and Heather, no longer his wife, going out for coffee in a world forever changed by aliens, unexplainable events, and, of course, dreams.

“The end justifies the means. But what if there never is an end? All we have is means.”

― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

One mans Dream Another Mans Nightmare

The two main characters of The Lathe of Heaven–George and Haber–represent a condensed, slightly altered version of the rebel versus the state. Although they are only two people, their struggle literally decides the fate of the entire world. Due to George’s unfavourable legal position, Haber is able to easily take advantage of his power and use it for his own gain. While his intentions are good in the beginning, he begins to lose touch with reality due to the power he feels and his lack of strong opposition. At the same time, George is practically helpless, and can only resort to avoiding his treatment to stop Haber from enacting his plans. George is the only person who can prevent Haber from changing the world, and knows how to do it, be can do absolutely nothing about it in the end.

One mans Dream Another Mans Nightmare

Haber’s inability to properly use George’s power reflects how the individual’s desires are often incongruous with the rest of society. As Haber begins using George’s dreams to create an increasingly bleaker world, it becomes clear that disaster would ensue if he were to use this power all on his own. Haber’s fatal flaw was that he only saw things as they benefited him, and not for what they really were. As a result, what he saw as a perfect world in his own twisted subconscious mind, manifested in his own dream, would have been a true nightmare for the rest of the world. If George had not intervened when he did, Haber’s dream would have surely destroyed the entire world.

The Lathe of Heaven Ralph’s Wrap Up

The Lathe of Heaven goes to show that your vision of a perfect world, no matter how noble its intentions, will be far from perfect if manifested in reality. It is even likely that your vision would be a nightmare for many other people. In the end, we must accept that our dreams for the world can only “substitute one kind of war for another”.

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