Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic The Lathe of Heaven (1971) could become your new favorite book, especially if you are a Philip K. Dick (PKD) fan. It is interesting to note that she once was a friend of his, and helped champion his early work.
The novel certainly explores subject matter that inspired PKD (madness, the nature of reality, compassion, activism, the future, encounters with strange extraterrestrials) and in many ways is reflective to the dreaming and experimentation of the 1960s.
Le Guin has written many compelling classics in both science fiction and fantasy, but she, due to PKD’s amazing literary and cinematic success since the 90’s, also written probably the most remembered back cover blurb for a generation of new science fiction enthusiasts:
“The fact that what Dick is entertaining us about is reality and madness, time and death, sin and salvation <– this has escaped most critics.> Nobody notices that we have our own homegrown Borges.” — Ursula K. LeGuin, New Republic.
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was an Argentinean writer and fantasist who may have also inspired The Borg for Star Trek.
PKD was in contact with Le Guin’s sporadically for some time. Their story together gathered here from biographies is not a long, close or complicated one, but is interesting nonetheless to understand and compare each of them.
Ursula K. Le Guin was and still is a Borges fan (as noted in a somewhat recent New York Times profile of her in response to her latest Nebula award for Powers (congratulations again!)), but she appears to have stopped being a friend and fan of Philip K. Dick. They stayed friends for a time after they went to school together in The San Francisco Bay Area though. They had a correspondence, and a falling out where Le Guin was angered by Dick’s portrayal of women. Le Guin had been a “staunch” defender of Dick who battled madness. Dick later wrote that Le Guin helped inspire his portrayal of Angela Archer in The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. The Lathe of Heaven by Le Guin has been called an attempt on her part to write a “Philip K. Dick” novel. In a recent interview she called it a homage. Once when in trouble and needing a place to stay Philip K. Dick asked Le Guin if he could stay with her, but she declined. In the now famous book cover quote from LeGuin preferred Dick over Borges.
But a serious Le Guin would not always remain the “strait man” or beard for a humorous Philip K. Dick (1928-1982), who resented her success and could be crass in a “guyish” sort of way [sorry Phil]. Men tend to like his humor and a sometimes funny understanding of the opposite sex. Dick complained that unlike her, he did not always take the “trashy” elements out of his work. Ursula K. Le Guin was a serious writer, and for a time, having out lived him, could have, and may have, had the last laugh if she wanted to over the last 30 years.
The Lathe of Heaven, set then in a Portland of the future, 2002, is certainly heady and heavy stuff with a character who can dream new realities that come true. George Orr is treated by William Haber, his real “dream” doctor, who tries to control his dreams for the betterment of the world. It is not clear if there is a “Phil” in this novel, but George is sort of an editor, ie., he asks for-dreams-what he wants, but he gets it with complications, ruined expectations, and practical jokes of sorts. The reality continues to keep changing around them as the story progresses and Orr is manipulated. Lathe is a great cautionary novel with the message that we need to think about what we wish for with many of the best attempts going awry. Wikipedia lists and describes some of these attempts:
1. When Haber directs George to dream of a world without racism, the skin of everyone on the planet becomes a uniform light gray.
2. An attempt to solve the problem of overpopulation proves disastrous when George dreams a devastating plague which wipes our much of humanity and gives the current world a population of one billion rather than seven billion.
3. George attempts to dream into existence “peace on Earth”- resulting in an alien invasion of the Moon which unites all the nations of Earth against the threat.
It is the later George Haber who gains from his association with Orr and learns how he can set his dreams into motion, but Orr finds it necessary to contend with him.
What ensued is science fiction with its most dreamy qualities and wonder about what can transpire in the future. It also poses questions about why people try to change the world and the problems that can sometimes cause. It attempts to explore the consequences of idealism, but ends mostly with the guy getting the girl.
The solipsism is so heavy at times it leaves the characters and readers not really sure what reality is and what has transpired.
The Lathe of Heaven has been turned into a movie twice. Le Guin wrote in a piece collected in Dancing at the Edge of the World (1979) that “the rawboned beast of a movie… is transformed, transfigured, by the music.” At the time, she points out that it was the only one of her books that she “ever enjoyed imagining as a film”, calling it a “pretty good silk purse in the end. There were some who took issue with the book which was almost banned from being taught in school. It was criticized for its: “fuzzy thinking and poor sentence structure; a mention of homosexuality, a character who keeps a flask of brandy in her purse, and who remarks that her mother did not love her.” (Dancing, 123)
In many ways it still remains a cultural artifact with a telling imaginary story from a time where many people wanted to change the world. It also explored deeply the psychological complications of people being able to do so. Though over 40 years old now, it reminds us that we should not give up such aspirations so easily. It also forces us to think seriously about our impact on the future.
It is such an interesting exploration and achieves such heights that it may also become a mature genre reader’s favorite novel.