Literature: The Lathe of Heaven

The Lathe of Heaven is a 1971 novel by Ursula K. Le Guin first serialized in Amazing Stories. It was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Awards and won the Locus Award.

George Orr is a perfectly ordinary man with one problem. Namely, when he wakes up from dreams, he gets the nagging feeling that things are different. He begins to suspect that his dreams have the power to alter reality, retroactively changing the world to match his dreams, but that no one but him notices.

He goes to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Haber, who, while dismissing his claims as delusions of grandeur, has a machine that may focus his dreams, curing his problems. Except that once Dr. Haber discovers that Orr's dreams can indeed change reality, he has no intention of curing him. Instead, he decides to harness Orr's dreams to shape reality into what he feels will be a perfect world.

The world changes bit by bit while Haber tries to create his utopia, passing through many classic dystopian sci-fi ideas in the process. Orr suspects what Haber is up to, and tries to stop the doctor from using him to warp reality. But then things get a lot worse. And a lot weirder.

The Lathe of Heaven has been adapted twice into TV movies, first by PBS in 1980 (as part of a series that included Overdrawn at the Memory Bank) and then remade by A&E in 2002.


This novel provides examples of:

  • A God Am I: Haber comes to believe it, though he doesn't really have any power of his own.
  • Alternate Universe: Each time Orr dreams, the world is shifted into one.
  • Anti-Villain: Haber, although YMMV
  • Apocalypse How: of various sorts
  • Author Tract: the plot was informed fairly heavily by Le Guin's Taoist beliefs: whereas Haber tries to make the world better by forcing change through Orr's dreams, Orr tries his very best to stop anything from changing. The aliens counsel Orr to just "go with the flow" and be content with the reality that he has.
    • Le Guin also clearly dislikes utilitarianism: in a reality where Haber essentially rules the world, his philosophy is summarized as "the greatest happiness for the greatest number," a utilitarian phrase, and the effect is terrifying.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Haber's attempts to "perfect" the world continually go wrong because Orr's mind invokes this trope. Wish for the world to be united? They'll be united by an Alien Invasion of the moon. Wish for the aliens to leave the moon? Fine, they leave the moon... in order to invade Earth.
  • Dying Dream: Strong possibility: the entire story is hallucinated by George as he is dying in a nuked Portland. This eliminates all fantastic elements of the story, and drives Haber insane when he finds out that, both, he and the new world he was building aren't real.
  • Dystopia: Many of the worlds Haber makes Orr create. This is partly an excuse to explore the various "big ideas" that were floating around the social science fiction community at the time.
  • Exact Words: this messes up quite a few of the intents of people trying to get Orr to dream things (perhaps the clearest example of this was when Heather tells Orr to dream the aliens "off the moon" and because of that they invade the Earth)
  • Funetik Aksent: An Alien that George Orr meets is convinced that his name is Jor-Jor.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Possibly what breaks Haber in the end: He found out that the world ended in nuclear war years ago, and he and everyone else are only alive due to Orr's dream.
  • Gone Horribly Right: To varying degrees, combined with Be Careful What You Wish For. The clearest instance would be when Haber decides to remove racism, which results in a world where everyone has dull grey skin, and Heather ceases to exist as she was of mixed race.
  • Living Dream
  • The Other Rainforest: Takes place in Portland. Haber begins to believe Orr when he dreams that it hasn't rained there for two years.
  • Population Control: Haber feels the world is too crowded, so he gets Orr to dream about the world having fewer people. So a plague wipes out most of the world's population.
  • Punny Name: Orr = Or.
  • Reality Warper: George Orr, though not consciously.
  • Retconjuration: What Orr is doing.
  • Ret Gone: Heather in one reality, until Orr dreams her back into existence.
  • Ripple Effect-Proof Memory: Orr remembers all the past realities he's been through. But no one else does. Unless they were with Orr when Orr is ordered to change reality. When Haber orders the changes, Haber remembers also. And when Heather is there, Haber, Heather and Orr all remember.
  • Time Crash: At the end of the book, Haber figures out a way to acquire George Orr's power for himself. When he tries it, the result is a world that's a chaotic mess.
  • Starfish Aliens: They invade the Earth... and then, thanks to a just-in-time dream, they turn out to be peaceful.
  • White and Grey Morality: Between Orr and Haber.

Alternative Title(s):

The Lathe Of Heaven