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Literature / The Lathe of Heaven

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

George Orr is a perfectly ordinary man with one problem. Namely, when he wakes up from dreams, he knows that things are different. His dreams change the past and present, leaving him with the memories of the old and new realities, but 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. 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:

  • Alternate Universe: Each time Orr dreams, the world is shifted into one.
  • Anti-Villain: Haber, although YMMV
  • Apocalypse How: Of various sorts. All of the following are involved in at least one reality: global climate change due to pollution, overpopulation and food shortages, a third World War, nukes, widespread radiation sickness, global plague which kills upwards of 5 billion people, aliens (complete with space battles, a moon base, and an invasion), a goddamn volcano, and whatever weirdness The Break is.
  • 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.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The world is at peace. While Orr's not married to Heather in the final reality and Dr. Haber is in a mental institution, at least she exists in this world and he has the opportunity to pursue a relationship with her. He's also happy at his job working for an alien designing household goods and is free from Haber's influence.
  • Caught in the Ripple: When Reality Warper George Orr has an "effective dream" and changes the world, no one remembers what the original world was like except him and anyone who was present when he had the dream.
  • 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.
  • A God Am I: Haber comes to believe it, though he doesn't really have any power of his own.
  • 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.
    Haber: I'm sure she's out there somewhere.
    Orr: I doubt it. She was brown, not grey.
    • To clarify: Heather's mixed race parentage was so fundamental to her personality that she seems to be philosophically incapable of existing. More mundanely, without race issues, the story of how her parents met isn't possible.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Haber pounds some bourbon after Orr's dream about overcrowding results in six billion people, some 6/7 of the human race, vanishing into nonexistence. As he drinks he thinks about how in the previous reality there was no liquor, because all grain was required for food on the overcrowded Earth.
  • Literal Genie: Orr's subconscious. When another characters wishes the aliens off the moon, they get off the moon, all right.
  • Living Dream
  • Mind Screw: Is Orr delusional? Dying in a nuclear-blasted wasteland? A god? A figment of Dr. Haber's imagination?
  • 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.
  • Reality Warping Is Not a Toy: The novel. The whole point of the story is that nobody has the intelligence or wisdom to remake the world according to their own desires. The harder Haber tries, the worse things get.
  • 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.
  • Starfish Aliens: They invade the Earth... and then, thanks to a just-in-time dream, they turn out to be peaceful.
  • Strawman Political: If Haber is meant to represent utilitarianism and Western rationalism.
  • 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.
  • Totalitarian Utilitarian: Haber creates a world state that regulates every aspect of people's lives, among other things.
  • Wham Line: "[H]e had done just what she had told him to do. She had told him to dream that the Aliens were no longer on the Moon."
  • White-and-Grey Morality: Between Orr and Haber.