THE LATHE OF HEAVEN – Ursula Le Guin (1971)

Lathe Of HeavenI came to this with high expectations, since I loved The Left Hand of Darkness, and I loved all the interviews and talks with Le Guin I’ve read or seen. This short book seems almost universally loved by the reviewing community too, and many people report that there is lots of food for deep thought in it.

For sure Le Guin has a vivid imagination, spelled out in beautiful prose. There’s great lines to be found throughout the 182 pages.

Do you feel you relate satisfactorily to other people, that you have a niche in the emotional ecology of your environment?

Or

Darkness lay softly on the bare pine floor, unpolished, unswept. George Orr lay down in that mild darkness, full length, face down, the smell of the dusty wooden floor in his nostrils, the hardness of it upholding his body.

But I’m sad to say The Lathe Of Heaven left me frustrated by its sloppy content. The entire book reads like a rant against utilitarianism, Malthusianism and the likes. The story is set in a more or less dystopian 2002, wherein the protagonist George Orr discovers that his dreams can literally transform reality. His psychiatrist, William Haber, cannot resist using George’s powers to change the overcrowded world into a better place. Of course, predictably, things don’t turn out for the better – classic King Midas, like W.W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw.

The entire book seems to be written to advocate non-intervention, in favor a more Eastern way of thinking, with quotes by Chuang Tse, a tao master, sprinkled throughout the book.

Those whom heaven helps we call the sons of heaven. They do not learn this by learning. They do not work it by working. They do not reason it by using reason. To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.

There is a lot to be said for Acceptance as a way of being, and my beef is not with Taoism. My beef is with a few false dichotomies Le Guin introduces, and a caricatural treatment of utilitarian, pragmatic politics. 

A first false dichotomy is to be found in the following quote – admittedly very well written.

Orr was not a fast reasoner. In fact, he was not a reasoner. He arrived at ideas the slow way, never skating over the clear, hard ice of logic, nor soaring on the slipstreams of imagination, but slogging, plodding along on the heavy ground of existence. He did not see connections, which is said to be the hallmark of intellect. He felt connections – like a plumber.

Obviously, seeing is a form of feeling too, and plumbers do think when using their hands to fix the pipes below the sink. Pretending intellect and feelings (or sensory experience) are different, separate things don’t advance human understanding, but only cloud it. These metaphors seem deep, but actually don’t amount to much, when thought through.

Le Guin very explicitly uses a kind of parable to make her stance clear. She does this in two stages. First Haber asks the question whether one should help a young women, lying on your path in the jungle, dying of snakebite. You have serum in your kit, plenty of it. “Do you withhold it because ‘this is the way it is’ – do you ‘let her be’?” At first, Orr answers as follows:

It would depend. (…) If reincarnation is a fact, you might be keeping her from a better life and condemning her to live out a wretched one. Perhaps you cure her and she goes home and murders six people in the village. I know you’d give her the serum, because you have it, and feel sorry for her. But you don’t know whether what you are doing is good or evil or both…

Later on in the story, Orr changes his answer:

But that analogy with snakebite serum was false. He was talking about one person meeting another person in pain. That’s different. (…) You have to help another person. But it’s not right to play God with masses of people. To be God you have to know what you’re doing. And to do any good at all, just believing you’re right and your motives are good isn’t enough. You have to…be in touch.

The question is, where to draw the line between 1 person and masses. What about 10 people? 100 people? And why, suddenly, doesn’t it matter anymore to know what you are doing if it’s only about one person? Orr’s initial reservations (possible reincarnation, the women being a possible murderer) remain fully in place, but are simply discarded saying it is ‘false’ because it’s all of a sudden a simple, straightforward answer: one person has to help another. Should one person help 36 people, if it seems just as straightforward? Apparently not, because just believing your motives are good isn’t enough. Why is that enough when administering the serum? Again, these are false dichotomies: helping one vs. helping many; believing your motives are good vs. “being in touch”.

Le Guin also talks about the difference between means and ends. She stresses we only have means, and striving for an end isn’t the way to go. She must have realized the paradox of her writing a book to achieve an end (communicating a Taoist message). Later on, Le Guin does admit that her main beef is mainly with certain means (uncontrollable dreams are not the most stable way to get world peace) and certain methods (one guy – Haber –  deciding everything, instead of communal deliberations).

A final false dichotomy I’d like to point out is to be found in this quote:

A person who believes, as she did, that things fit: that there is a whole of which one is a part, and that in being a part one is whole: such a person has no desire whatever, at any time, to play God. Only those who have denied their being yearn to play it.

As I said, I’m all for Acceptance myself. But that goes both ways: one has to accept that some humans’ nature (‘being’) is, among other things, to control and manipulate the whole they are part of. That is no denial of their being at all. Humans are part of a whole for sure, but humans are inherently a species that tries to shape its surroundings. There is no denying that. In advocating acceptance, it hardly pays off to demonize or blame people following impulses that have been with humanoids at least since the rise of Homo Habilis. There is no necessary opposition between humans that accept they are part of a whole, and humans that deny themselves because they have desires to influence that whole.

I have nothing against novels of ideas. I do have something against novels with ideas that aren’t scrutinized fully. Tao-quotes, certain metaphors and descriptions and the general subject matter make this book seem deep, but ultimately, Le Guin makes a problem where there is none…

Should world leaders try to advance the happiness of our planet’s population – the biggest amount of humans there is? Undoubtedly. Do they have to think things through, consult lots of people and beware of quick fixes? Of course. Will things turn out differently on occasion, with unforeseen side effects? You betcha. Do those leaders need a poetic story about a mad, power-hungry psychiatrist manipulating a passive magic dreamer to understand that they should be careful, always? Not so much.


On top of all this slipshod thinking, at certain key moments of the story, some of the characters behave in a totally unbelievable way. Long after it has become clear that the dreams have unpredictable side effects one of the characters still manages to ask of a dream in which “the Aliens aren’t there on the Moon any longer”, and for sure, two pages later they are obviously not on the moon any more, but wreaking havoc on Earth itself. Orr wants Haber to stop, but doesn’t confront him at all. He does go to a lawyer though! And Haber simply assumes this lawyer won’t notice what he’s doing, and meddles with Orr’s dream right in front of her, instead of holding out one session. All these actions do get some justification afterwards, Le Guin is surely no idiot herself, but these justifications don’t feel adequate at all. Pretty early in this novel it becomes clear that the characters don’t behave as such and such because of who they are or because of what happens in the story, but they behave so and so because Le Guin so clearly wants to CONVEY MESSAGES. Hardly ever a good idea in my playbook. Write good characters and a good story, and you might get an interesting message as a side effect or an afterthought. When a message becomes obvious and upfront, when it becomes the end in itself, it’s often about as effective as a megaphone to preach to infidels.

The book also suffers from the typical post-World War 2 pessimism about science: there’s the fear of nuclear war, and in the beginning of the 70ies the negative side effects of human development (greenhouse gasses, carcinogenic pollution, overpopulation,…) started to become clear. I wrote about the intellectual myopia in blaming science in my review of Way Station.

Pessimism about science might not be the best reaction to problems, Le Guin rightfully tried to warn about climate change. The Lathe of Heaven has an ecological message too, and Le Guin should be applauded for her role in the early warning system that is the Arts.

I’ll read more of Ursula K. Le Guin in the future, and consider The Lathe of Heaven the result of a youthful flirt with alternative thinking. There’s nothing wrong with falling in love with Tao, and at the same time being afraid for the future of our planet, and seeing politicians fail, and wanting to write a book to help. But it is ironic, to say the least.

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4 responses to “THE LATHE OF HEAVEN – Ursula Le Guin (1971)

  1. I, too, loved The Left Hand of Darkness (its sharp division into two halves was very neat and could have so easily result in unevenness or formlessness) only to be underwhelmed by The Dispossessed, but for quite different reasons than those you list for The Lathe of Heaven. It did not feel didactic for the most part, and the issues it addresses remain relevant today, but after a while it became tiresome as a novel – the cards were on the table, the themes established, but the characters’ inner lives and their interactions with each other had yet to be wrapped up. In other words, the conceptual aspect of the novel was over quite some time before the plot, despite the fact that there is, again, an interesting twofold structure to the book and that there is a lot of well-written scenes.

    All in all, I feel that, today, the book is best-suited to undergrad seminars (which is not the scathing criticism it might appear to be). Your article confirms my fears that some of early Le Guin might be too ideologically driven, but I definitely intend to explore more of her work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The same is true for Lathe: pretty early the cards are on the table indeed. It might have worked better as a short story. Then again, also in Lathe the themes remain relevant, but the way Le Guin approaches them felt caricatural to me – the short story form wouldn’t have fixed that. Maybe it would have been more interesting to have a larger canvas. As it is, Lathe only has 3 characters. A larger caste could have been more interesting and deepened the emotional scope. I’m curious what I’ll think of The Dispossessed. And Wizard of Earthsea too.

      Like

    • I misread your comment totally, now that I’ve noticed that, I edited my initial reply.

      Like

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