ABSTRACT – LE GUIN, URSULA K. – LATHE OF HEAVEN Charles Scribner’s Sons 1971 Perhaps Le Guin’s finest work, Lathe of Heaven is a book whose theme—though bizarre—resonates in the mind’s depths and is not soon forgotten. Attempts to adapt the book to a movie have failed even to present this fantasy/science-fiction classic comprehensibly—let alone to capture the phantasmagoric—and just plain weird—world of George Orr. George Orr is a man with unusual psychological problems—or, rather, one unusual psychological problem. He is plagued with dreams that materialize: Orr’s dreams—some of them—the “effective” dreams—come true. As the story opens, Orr awakens from a nightmare of nuclear holocaust to the “real” world of overpopulation and widespread malnutrition, where his home is a one-room apartment so tiny that it is almost filled by the inflatable bed where Orr is lying, feeling very ill, and convinced that he is dying from radiation sickness. The elevator guard and a medic set him straight: Orr has ingested a cocktail of medications, not all of which are authorized by his Pharm Card. The medic reports Orr for “borrowing.” “Borrowing” other people’s Pharm Cards is a minor offense, but Orr is required to undergo VTT—voluntary therapeutic treatment—and is referred to Dr. William Haber. In Haber’s office Orr diffidently, and with little expectation of being believed, explains his unusual affliction: He dreams “effective” dreams, which come true. He administered the cocktail of medications to himself to prevent his tampering with reality. Orr explains that the “nightmare” of nuclear holocaust from which he awakened had been reality, but that he had lost consciousness and dreamed this new world instead, in an “effective dream.” He tells Haber that his first effective dream occurred when he was a teenager and a divorced aunt moved in with the family. Orr found his aunt annoying and dreamed of her death in an automobile accident. He awoke from the dream to learn that his aunt had been killed before moving in with the family—and only Orr remembered the previous reality. To test Orr’s hypothesis, Haber hypnotizes Orr and suggests an “effective dream”—whose only effect on reality is to change the mural on Haber’s wall from a picture of Mt. Hood to a picture of a horse. (Haber has suggested that Orr dream of a horse.) Because Haber was present at the time of “the shift,” he remembers that the mural was, indeed, a picture of Mt. Hood. But Haber is noncommittal about admitting to Orr that he recalls “the shift.” Orr leaves the office believing that Haber thinks he is insane. Soon Haber is hypnotizing Orr and using his effective dreams to alter reality to Haber’s advantage. Through the agency of Orr’s effective dreams, Haber becomes a powerful and important man—while continuing to tell Orr that the effective dreams are a hallucination and proof of Orr’s mental instability.
Not content with merely improving his own life, Haber begins to use Orr’s dreams to “improve” the human condition. The trouble is, Orr’s subconscious interprets Haber’s hypnotic suggestions in unforeseen ways, often wreaking havoc. Another difficulty is with Haber himself—his drive for power and control, his sheer absence of positive inwardness. Haber is an “empty suit,” an emptiness and a nonentity whose apparent persona is all pretense. Orr realizes that Haber is using him and consults with attorney Heather Lelache. When Heather attends a therapy session, Haber, arrogant and overconfident, suggests an effective dream to Orr in which there is no longer an overpopulation problem. While Heather watches, dazed, the buildings outside Haber’s window melt away. In a sudden and convulsive “shift,” most of humanity is wiped out in a carcinogenic plague. Heather is too dazed to admit to Haber that she witnessed “the shift.” She tries to help Orr end the machinations of the arrogant and power-maddened Haber. Orr and Heather fall in love, but Heather is repeatedly lost to Orr when Haberradically changes the world. Often, when the world is reinvented, Heather remembers Orr only vaguely or not at all. Haber, frustrated by working through Orr and wanting to remake the world entirely in his own image, invents a machine that will allow Haber himself to dream effectively. Orr realizes that Haber is “dreaming”—disastrously—when a “shift” begins, in which the world descends into utter chaos. Realizing he must stop Haber, Orr hurries through a world that is melting and in flames, and pushes the “off” button on Haber’s invention. Orr walks away from Haber’s slack body, believing that in this “shift” he has lost Heather forever. Haber is placed in an insane asylum, his power to dream or use Orr’s dreams destroyed forever. When Orr visits Haber, the orderly tells Orr that the other patients are terrified of Haber—of the void and nightmare that is Haber’s inwardness. And Orr at last finds Heather again, changed, as she had been changed in each of the changed worlds. She barely remembers Orr, but she accepts his invitation to coffee.