The Lathe of Heaven

Dated Sep 17, 2021; last modified on Sat, 25 Sep 2021

Premise: Orr can have “effective” dreams that retroactively change reality for everyone else, except those who are aware of him dreaming. See for a refresher on the plot.

Notable Plot Points

Prodded by Haber to dream of the end of overpopulation, Orr dreamt of a plague that killed 6B people. But Orr tries to convince himself that the world that was was fiction in his head, so he didn’t really kill anyone.

[Orr] You said, no killing of humans by other humans. So I dreamed up the Aliens. Your own ideas are sane and rational, but this is my unconscious you’re trying to use, not my rational mind.

[Orr] Things are more complicated than he’s willing to realize. He thinks you can make things come out right. And he tries to use me to make things come out right, but he won’t admit it; he lies because he won’t look straight, he’s not interested in what’s true, in what is, he can’t see anything except his mind - his ideas of what ought to be.

This characterization of Dr. Haber makes him a multi-dimensional villain. One can sympathize with his intentions. Haber’s guiding principle was utilitarian: The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number.

[Haber, on Orr’s objection to the killing of a cancer patient via citizen arrest] You haven’t yet fully accepted the use of controlled violence for the good of the community. We need health. We simply have no room for the incurables, the gene-damaged who degrade the species; we have no time for wasted, useless suffering.

Utilitarianism taken to extremes. Before this book, I didn’t really think of the drawbacks of utilitarianism. However, LeGuin showcases how utilitarianism can be used against a marginalized group. The concept of a “greater good” seems to suggest that someone somewhere is receiving the shorter end of the stick.

[Haber] But until I’m ready, I need you. This research must be finished. It is probably the most important piece of scientific research that has ever been done. I need you to the extent that - if your sense of obligation to me as a friend, and to the pursuit of knowledge, and to the welfare of all humanity, isn’t sufficient to keep you here - I’m willing to compel you to serve a higher cause. If necessary, I’ll obtain an order of Obligatory Ther—of Personal Welfare Constraint. If necessary, I’ll use drugs, as if you were a violent psychotic. Your refusal to help in a matter of this importance is, of course, psychotic.

[Haber] Eliminated overpopulation; restored the quality of urban life and the ecological balance of the planet. Eliminated cancer as a major killer. Eliminated the color problem, racial hatred. Eliminated war. Eliminated the risk of species deterioration and the fostering of deleterious gene stocks. Eliminated - no, say in process of eliminating - poverty, economic inequality, the class war, all over the world. What else? Mental illness, maladjustment to reality: that’ll take a while, but we’ve made the first steps already.

Memorable Style

The office didn’t have the platinum-and-leather assurance of financial success, nor the rag-and-bottle assurance of scientific disinterest.

He knew that insofar as one denies what is, one is possessed by what is not, the compulsions, the fantasies, the terrors that flock to fill the void. But the void was there. This life lacked realness; it was hollow; the dream, creating where there was no necessity to create, had worn thin and sleazy. If this was being, perhaps the void was better.

She loved him violently. If Haber hurt him again she would go in there and tear Haber into little bits.

In fact it was, the endless warm drizzle of spring - the ice of Antarctica, falling softly on the heads of the children of those responsible for melting it.

He came over to her again; she wished he would really ignore her instead of pretending to talk to her.

“No where,” the Alien replied, its toneless voice dividing the word into two equally significant wholes.

References

  1. The Lathe of Heaven. Ursula K. Le Guin. 1971. ISBN: 0-684-12529-3.
  2. The Lathe of Heaven > Plot Summary. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lathe_of_Heaven#Plot_summary . Accessed Sep 17, 2021.