Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Book Review: The Lathe of Heaven

One thing about traveling: I end up doing a lot of reading, especially when I fly because immersing myself in a book is the one thing that will distract me from the discomfort of flying.

[Note: I would say fear of flying, except it's not quite fear, it's that I find flying to be really unpleasant. I don't like the smell of the plane (you know, that gasoline/mettalic/antiseptic smell) or the sounds (the take-off/landing/low mechanical hum), or the cramped quarters.]

And one of the books that took up much of my concentration on my flight to New York City was Ursula Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven.

Le Guin is known as a science-fiction/fantasy writer. I first became acquainted with her work when I read A Wizard of Earthsea as a child (great story). There was a time when I devoured as much science fiction and fantasy as I could--great works like Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series, Lloyd Alexander's Chronicle of Prydain series, and Pier's Anthony's A Spell for Chameleon. Somewhere in the midst of these works I came across Le Guin. So it was nice to be re-introduced to her years later with her 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven.

I'm not sure where to begin in terms of the plot. The book itself is slim--around 184 pages. There are only three main characters, George Orr, an ordinary and non-descript man--the kind of person others easily dismiss, his doctor (a dream specialist) Dr. William Haber, a large man with a large ego/presence, and Heather LeLache, a lawyer with an iron will. The novel's premise, the action that propels the work, is that George Orr can change the world with this dreams. Discovering this strange ability when he was a teen, Orr comes to Dr. Haber because he does NOT want to dream--he does not want to be responsible with changing the world.

And the world that Orr describes is an alternate earth that has been ravaged by ecological destruction and global violence. It is quite similar to our own world, except that the numbers of people who are experiencing poverty and hunger and the trauma of war is exponentially increased in the world that Le Guin has created. Which is one reason to read this book. It was written in 1971 and is eerily prescient in its description of the current environmental problems that plague us. In fact, I'd argue that the novel provides a glimpse of the future that we may, indeed, inhabit if global climate change continues unabated: overpopulation, lack of clear water and air, the fight for food and shelter, and the global devastation and warfare that will follow.

Although initially dismissive of Orr's claim, Dr. Haber soon realizes that what George says is true: he can change the world with his dreams. What follows is a pretty dysfunctional/unethical doctor-patient relationship in which Haber, in the guise and with the intent of helping humanity, uses hypnosis to make suggestions to George of what to dream and hence how to change the world.

Enter Heather LeLache, a lawyer that George Orr hires to try to stop Dr. Haber from controlling him and hence changing the world. And here's where the novel gets really interesting from the p.o.v. of this blog. Although it is not initially clear (Le Guin doesn't describe people by races, she describes their bodies) what we learn at the end of the chapter in which Heather is introduced is that she is bi-racial--her white father met and married her black mother during the Civil Rights era, where they were both ardent activists. And George, a white man with blond wispy hair, falls in love with Heather.

That's all I'll say. There's much more. There are aliens. There are George's dreams. And there is an interesting solution to race in which everyone becomes grey.

At any rate, telling you all of the above will not give anything away. Because there is so much to this small novel. There is so much philosophy and science and questions of ethics and environmental and ecological issues. Really, if you are in need of a good quick read, I'd recommend finding this novel at your local bookstore or library. You won't be disappointed, and hopefully you will find yourself drawn into the questions that the novel raises about how we can make our world better, because while we can't be like George Orr and dream our way into a better future, we certainly can work towards it in our waking lives.


T said...

You know, as the ambiguously racial type mixed hapa that I am, I've always wondered about that turning everyone gray thing. I saw the PBS movie as a kid and it was obvious when everyone went gray that they still had other racial characteristics, like hair texture & facial features, and the black girlfriend was still African American if no longer black. I've been taken for white, chinese, korean, japanese, kashmiri, greek, italian, lebanese, native american, puerto rican, indian (subcontinent), latina, black (with mixin'), and "what are you, anyway?!" So I figure I might be the future of race, when everyone IS gray. There are times and places when it plays to or against my favor. But all the time it still brings up that ugly thing of race in America (or Japan or India or whatever), where somebody is more "us" than somebody else. I find my spiritual group has some of the same issue, and this isn't about race, since they're all white and the folks who are 'them' are all white, too. I always wondered if, even when we lost track of the epicanthic fold and the nappy hair, we would still find some way for folks to be "other" and not part of "us," and therefore not entitled to the same value. Sigh, maybe it really does take the alien invasion, Jorjor.

Taavi Burns said...

Ursula K. Le Guin also wrote about the Sci-Fi adaptation of her Earthsea books, particularly as it relates to skin colour. It looks like the original posting location has gone away, though a very similar article is still posted at slate.com.

She also has a page collecting links about Earthsea, which even references a PBS production of The Lathe of Heaven!

Jennifer said...

T and Taavi,

Thanks so much for your comment & links. T, I appreciate the thoughtful way you trace your own mixed race identity through the "themes" of the book--yes, maybe "gray" is a time when mixed-race people find a comfortable space. Then again, maybe (and this is overly hopeful) we should be trying to get to that place without the need to have us all turn the same shade of color--whether that's gray or any other hue. And of course the cynic in me just thinks that even if we manage to do away with race/racism, as a human species bent on hierarchies, we'll just fine something else to differentiate ourselves and create new lines of superiority.

(that's a downer, I know).

Steve Hennisch said...

Hi. Not sure if you're still checking this. I'm reading this book right now and looking for reviews.
So far you've been the most spot on. But one error: Heather's dad was black and mother white.
In fact, Heather's description of their relationship plays a lot to gender roles/identities according to their skin colors.