Top positive review
Overtly a tribute to Philip K. Dick, but no less rich, imaginative, and thoughtful for that
Reviewed in the United States on February 23, 2018
Even before her recent passing, I've known that my lack of experience with the works of Ursula K. Le Guin was a shortcoming I needed to rectify. The only book of hers I've read was The Dispossessed, a book I admired a lot while ultimately finding a bit dry and didactic. (It's also a book I plan on revisiting soon, ideally after reading some more Le Guin and now that I know what to expect, to see if I feel differently about it.) And, as authors paid tribute to the legendary author in the wake of her passing, one novel that I saw mentioned again and again was The Lathe of Heaven, which I knew nothing about.
And, man, am I glad I checked it out. Often viewed as Le Guin's tribute to the works of Philip K. Dick, The Lathe of Heaven undeniably feels a lot like a Dick novel, with a surreal hook used to explore philosophical questions about reality and who we really are. But as you'd expect from Le Guin, there's no shortage of more social questions raised here, from the nature of peace to the dangers of global warming, all done within a great narrative that twists and turns underneath you.
The hook is simple enough: there's a man named George Orr (yes, the half allusion is probably intentional) who is scared to dream, because his dreams become real. But what makes this hard to prove is that his dreams don't just create reality; they rewrite it, making whatever he dreams not only true, but making it always have been true, so that no one remembers the change but him. That's true until George goes to court-mandated therapy, where his therapist seems to be aware of the change - and his ability to possibly control George's ability.
Like she did in The Dispossessed, Le Guin explores any number of ideas about utopias, the role of the individual in society, the question of the greater good, and her concerns about utilitarianism. At what point should the individual give way for society? Where is the cutoff between acceptable sacrifice for the greater good and too much? And what is the responsibility of one person to give it all for the world? But whereas The Dispossessed engaged with these ideas in the forms of detailed discussions, The Lathe of Heaven lets them remain more subtextual, unfolding as a battle of wills between George, his therapist, and a lawyer George brings in to help him. More than that, The Lathe of Heaven unfolds as a bizarre thriller of sorts, with reality constantly bending and shifting underneath us, and Le Guin able to explore the ramifications of so many changes, and what it would take to fix some of the problems in our world.
It all adds up to a great book, one that I really enjoyed. And if it's a bit derivative of PKD, well, that's okay, because Le Guin makes it her own, following the political and social ramifications of her conceit, not just the philosophical ones. It's a book I really enjoyed and absolutely couldn't put down, and has me eager to dive into more of an author I don't feel like I ever properly appreciated in her lifetime.