“The Lathe of Heaven” is a 1971 novel by the acclaimed science fiction author, Ursula K. Le Guin. The novel was nominated for two of sci-fi’s biggest awards, the Nebula and the Hugo awards, in 1971 and 1972, respectively.
The title of the novel is derived from the writings of ancient Chinese philosopher, Chuang Tzu and it refers to a “lathe” as a tool for rotating an object on it’s axis so that it can be worked on.
The novel is set in the future year of 2002 and revolves around a protagonist named George Orr, a man who has the ability to change reality with his dreams. George hates his ability, and is arrested while trying to obtain more pharmacy cards to receive medication that will keep him awake at all times. George is sentenced to visits with a sleep doctor, named Haber. Upon realizing that George is telling the truth about his magical dreams, Haber begins using the dreams to improve the situation in their dystopian society and improve his own life in the bargain.
Two television adaptations have been made of the novel, the first for the BBC in 1980 and the second for American television in 2002.
The novel begins with the description of a jellyfish being borne along by the currents of the ocean. Suddenly, land begins to break through the water and continents rise up. The author wonders what the jellyfish will think of the new world it lives in.
After a scene change, the reader is introduced to a man who seems to be in two places in once. He is experiencing both a post-apocalyptic nightmare world, where his eyelids have been burned off from radiation and a long, linoleum corridor where he is being escorted by a guard. The guard asks the man if he is high or drunk but the man can only babble about dreams. The man confesses that he has been taking more than his ration of drugs illegally. Medics treat him and the man, George, is sent to therapy.
George refuses to reveal the name of the friends whose medical “pharm” cards he used to get more prescription, and the medic begins to get angry. A guard named Mannie lies and says that George used his card. Mannie tells George that it doesn’t matter, since people swap pharm cards all the time and it’s only his first offense. Mannie talks about a sickness in a nearby facility. The name of the sickness is “kwashiorkor”. He says that he has been attempting to get minimal protein rations for the children who are suffering from malnourishment but it has been difficult to get the government to agree.
In the next chapter, the reader is taken to the office of a doctor named William Haber. Haber is looking at a picture of the famous mountain, Mt. Hood and wondering when it was taken. He thinks that the picture cannot be recent, since the greenhouse effect of the modern world has destroyed snowy peaks and blue skies all over the earth.
Haber looks away from the painting when George Orr is escorted into his office. A description is finally given of George. He is thin, fair haired, and fair eyed. He seems to be a very ordinary man. Dr. Haber begins speaking to George and trying to put him at ease by offering him a cigarette. Dr. Haber is a sleep doctor, and he quickly guesses that George has been trying to stop his dreams with the medication he stole. Haber tells him that this is very dangerous, as his body not only needs sleep but also dreaming sleep to function normally.
George admits to the doctor that he has been terrified of dreaming. He believes that his dreams are capable of changing things. Not that his dreams are prophetic or capable of predicting the future, but that they actually change and shape the future to mimic themselves. George says that the first time this happened, he had a dream that an aunt who had been attempting to sexually abuse him as a teenager had died in a car crash. When he awoke, he realized that the dream had retroactively come true. That is, his aunt had been dead for years even though he remembered her being alive the day before.
George says that no one else seems to notice when he changes the past like this. No one else besides him is aware that a change has occurred. In order to test this, Dr. Haber tells George that he is going to put him in a machine that will put him to sleep and make him dream. He tells George to dream about a horse.
George falls asleep and dreams of a horse. When he wakes up, the picture of Mt. Hood on the wall has changed to a picture of a horse. George tells Dr. Haber this, but in Dr. Haber’s mind the picture has always been a horse, so he only thinks that George is insane. Dr. Haber requests that George start up a weekly course of visits to his office.
The next day, George leaves work at 3:30 and returns to Dr. Haber’s office. On the way there, more is revealed about George’s world. George takes the subway, which is one of many as the world has become overpopulated by a large margin. Global warming has made it so that the sky is no longer visible through a thick layer of smog and it is rainy and hot constantly. There is also a terrible war going on in the Middle East. New cities have sprung up in former deserts as people are trying to escape the rain.
Portland, the city that George lives in, has become somewhat of a wasteland with sickness and and malnourishment taking over. George returns to Dr. Haber’s office and sees everything a bit differently. He thinks that everything in the office is fake and cheap and that Dr. Haber is lying about how he really is. George and the doctor talk about the war in the Middle East and the doctor asks if it worries him. George says that it does. The doctor puts George to sleep again and tells him to dream about horses. George dreams that he sees horses who have defecated in the shape of Mt. Hood. When he wakes up, the picture on the wall is of Mt. Hood again.
Although he does not remember the picture being a horse, Dr. Haber is excited by George’s response to the machine (the “augmenter”) and wishes to work more with George. Reluctant, George tries to talk the doctor into stopping their sessions but the doctor refuses.
George is put back to sleep and dreams of John F. Kennedy carrying an umbrella. In the dream Kennedy bumped into Dr. Haber, who told him that he would not need the umbrella any longer and took it away from him. At that point, the rain stopped and the sun came out. When George wakes up, the constant rain outside is no longer going. George returns home. He has trouble remembering what he’s dreaming when he is with Dr. Haber after he leaves the building and he wonders if the doctor is causing this somehow. He thinks that the doctor is instructing him to dream about very specific things.
He realizes suddenly that Dr. Haber must have told him to put Mt. Hood back into his dream and if he told him that, he must have remembered when the picture on his wall was Mt. Hood. If this is true then the doctor is the only other person besides George to remember how the world was before one of George’s dreams. However, George begins to wonder why Dr. Haber hasn’t said anything if he does know.
The next day, George visits a lawyer named Heather Lelache for help. He tells her that he thinks that Dr. Haber is making him dream very specific things. Lelache informs him that there is nothing technically illegal about this. George tries to explain the situation further and explains that the machine that Dr. Haber uses is experimental. This intrigues Lelache. She tells him that if this machine hasn’t been approved for use, she may be able to get a court order stopping his therapy sessions. George and Heather make a plan for her to attend one of his sessions without Dr. Haber realizing that she is there for him.
In the next chapter, Dr. Haber enters his office. It’s changed a great deal, going from a smaller, modest clinic to a large-scale operation with a lobby and a beautiful view of Portland. Dr. Haber meets with Heather and explains to her how the machine works in exhaustive detail. He explains that he is attempting to teach George to dream without being afraid.
George arrives for his appointment, which Heather is sitting in on. Dr. Haber uses the machine on George, but does not tell him specifically what to dream about, instead using a vague suggestion as Heather is watching. He suggests that George dream about overpopulation. The doctor and Heather watch the machine’s recordings.
Suddenly, outside the window, the city begins to change. Buildings disappear right before the eyes of Heather and Dr. Haber. Portland’s population dwindles down to the hundred thousands. Both Heather and Dr. Haber are fully aware that this is happening and able to watch the change. Heather is terrified but Dr. Haber is only concerned that Heather has witnessed the change and not by the change itself.
For a moment, he considers killing her to keep her quiet. However, after another moment, Heather seems to forget what she has witnessed. Dr. Haber calms down and tries to talk with Heather to further convince her that everything is normal. George wakes and says that he dreamed about the plague. Before he dreamed of it, there was no plague, but now he has created it and it has been prevalent for years.
Dr. Haber tries to calm him and shows him out, assuring Heather that George is just insane. Heather soon leaves and Dr. Haber sits down to drink a glass of bourbon, which he uses to toast the death of the millions of people that George just got rid of in Portland. Upset, George returns to his apartment. He finds it changed as well. It is also newer and fancier just like Dr. Haber’s office.
George is terrified of his dreams and unsure of how to get away from Dr. Haber’s sessions. He also feels that perhaps Dr. Haber only wants to help mankind and that he shouldn’t try to get away. After all, Haber has been solving the problems of overpopulation and global warming. Heather calls and makes a date to meet with George over lunch on Monday. George tries to prod Heather to see if she remembers what happened during his dream, but she seems to remember nothing.
After he hangs up, George sleeps for a long time. When he wakes, he goes to his fridge and realizes that is is packed full of more food than he has ever seen at one time in his life. He thinks about his former wife, Donna. In his past reality, he and Donna had a ‘trial marriage’, which could be ended at any time. In this reality, the plague has created a death rate so high that trial marriage is not a law. Only full marriage is real. In this reality George only lived with Donna for a while before the two separated.
George proceeds to eat a very large meal and feels somewhat better afterward. He returns to Haber’s office for his next appointment. At the appointment, George point blank asks the doctor why he is using the dreams to change everything. Dr. Haber tries to deny that he is doing this, and tries to convince George that he is crazy. Dr. Haber puts George back in the machine and tells him to dream about peace. However, George dreams about stars exploding in space. He wakes screaming to find that reality has changed again. George’s dream translated into a reality where aliens have taken control of the moon and are threatening earth. Despite this terrible change, Dr. Haber insists on seeing George again.
After George misses his date with Heather, she attempts to track him down by going to his house and his work. She finally manages to track him to a small cottage in the woods outside the city. George has not slept in days and has gone half-insane from the sleep deprivation. Heather realizes that she cares for him and the two talk for a while about her husband who died in the war against the aliens. Heather begins to get confused when recalling the beginning of the war and during this conversation she realizes that the war didn’t used to exist. She asks George if he dreamed it up.
The two come up with a plan where George will dream about Dr. Haber and make him a good person. Heather talks to George about her heritage, saying that her father was black and her mother was white, a parentage that has caused her to feel like she is straddling two worlds for her whole life. George tells Heather that she is the color of the earth.
George asks Heather if she remembers April of 1998. She says that she does not and he tells her that April of ’98 was when the world ended. Before the first reality that she remembers– the one with millions more people in Portland vying for limited supplies– there was a nuclear war that decimated most of the earth. George was one of the few survivors left but he nearly died of hunger in the aftermath. As he was dying, he had a dream that the war had never happened and when he awoke he realized that it hadn’t.
As George is telling the story, he falls asleep. Heather tells him to dream that Dr. Haber is a good man and that the aliens never arrived. As George sleeps, Heather cleans the cabin and reads a book. Things being to shift and change outside. Heather thinks that she hears the river singing and a sunrise happens in the middle of the night. When George wakes up, they realize that the aliens have landed. Only the state of Oregon is invaded by the aliens. They use a device to take control of earth’s missiles and detonate them all over the state. Dr. Haber, stranded in the city by the devastation, tries to find George so that he can reverse it.
George arrives at Dr. Haber’s office bloody and limping, carrying Heather in his arms. Dr. Haber tells George that he has figured out how to fix everything with one dream. Dr. Haber hooks George up to the machine and attempts to keep him asleep and dreaming while chaos goes on around them.
An alien ship crashes into Haber’s office while George is sleeping and Haber covers the machine with his body to protect it.
An alien that looks a bit like a giant turtle emerges from the ship and points at a terrified Dr. Haber. The alien tells Haber that they are trying to make peace and that the air force is being contacted. The alien asks Haber about the machine and Haber tells him that it records electrical activity from the brain. Assured that Haber is alright, the alien leaves quickly in order to attend to other people who might be harming themselves or others in their panic. The explosions cease and George wakes up. George tells Haber that they need to call the White House to inform them that the aliens are peaceful and Haber agrees.
In the next chapter, it is revealed that George has continued to see Dr. Haber and has now dreamed so many different worlds into existence that he no longer knows which is real. George is now a bureaucrat, Portland is the capital of the earth and Heather does not even exist. Everyone on earth is now a gray color which precludes Heather from existing since George remembers her skin as being brown. Dr. Haber is a man of extreme power now, his office is located in the biggest skyscraper in the city. Dr. Haber seems to be not as concerned with George anymore. He tells him that he is performing normally on all of the tests that have been administered and hooks him up to the machine. However, this time, George is kept awake while he is in the machine.
Dr. Haber and George argue about changing the world. George visualizes one of the turtle-like aliens telling him to use an alien phrase to help with his dreaming. George uses the phrase and seems to draw power from it. He stands up to Dr. Haber and tells him that he won’t be used anymore.
Dr. Haber says that he is on the verge of perfecting the augmenter so that everyone will be able to use it. Haber says that if he can accomplish this then men will be like gods on earth.
Leaving Haber’s office, George goes downtown to an antique shop run by one of the aliens. George asks the alien about the dreams but the alien only hands him an old music record. George takes the record home and listens to it while he falls asleep. During this sleep, George dreams a wonderful dream. He dreams that Heather is back and that she is his wife.
George and Heather go back to Haber’s office for George’s last appointment. Haber puts George in the machine and tells him to dream that he is a completely normal man, assuming that this will make it so. In order to test the machine first, Haber tells George to dream of Mt. Hood again. However, for the first time George wakes instead. George warns the doctor again about the danger of the augmenter and he and Heather leave.
George and Heather are going to dinner when suddenly things begin to change around them. Buildings start melting before their eyes. They realize that Dr. Haber must be using the machine.
A whirlpool appears and George uses it to teleport over to Haber’s office. The whirlpool then beings swallowing up everything, including Heather and disappearing them. Haber’s office is chaotic and reminds George of a Salvador Dali painting. George must struggle to keep his reality in his mind as he searches for Haber and rips the machine off of him. Dr. Haber still refuses to wake up.
Outside, George wanders through the wreckage and thinks about Heather, who is gone now. An alien finds him and takes him to his home, telling him to go to sleep. George sleeps and dreams and nothing happens.
A few months later, things are returning to normal in Portland. Dr. Haber has gone insane and has been put in an asylum. George is working for the aliens in a small business that sprung up after the economy collapsed. While working one day, Heather comes into the shop. George invites her out for tea.
George Orr – the protagonist of the novel. George is a perfectly ordinary man with one extraordinary ability. His dreams have the power to change reality. At the beginning of the novel, George is arrested for stealing pharmacy cards in order to obtain more drugs to keep him awake. He seems to be attempting to avoid falling asleep so that he will not dream, a solution to his problem that is obviously unsustainable.
Throughout the course of the novel, George is used by Dr. Haber to improve his own life with his dreaming. George is a classic everyman character, who is faced with an insurmountable problem. However, the idea to bend reality to benefit himself never occurs to George and he is aware from the beginning that changing reality, even for the better must have some type of lasting consequences.
George’s relationship with Heather is the only concrete relationship that he has, despite the fact that it is always changing. He accidentally erases Heather from reality two times and both times his first object is to bring her back. George seems to love Heather a great deal and at the end of the novel his perfect world includes a relationship with her.
Dr. William Haber – Dr. Haber is the Oneirologist (or ‘dream doctor’) that George is assigned to when it is revealed that he has not been sleeping. When the reader first meets Dr. Haber, he is a low-level researcher in a small office. Over the course of the novel, Haber uses George’s ability to make himself one of the most powerful men on earth.
Haber has created a machine called the augmenter that measures the brain activity when a patient is sleeping and controls it. By measuring George’s brain, Haber is able to create almost an instructional manual for creating dreams that can change reality. He intends to use mass produce this machine so that he will be able to bring reality-changing dreams into the homes of everyone on earth. However, his plans are destroyed when he loses control of the machine and George must rescue him. Haber ends the novel in a mental asylum, having gone insane.
Heather Lelache – the lawyer that George contacts to try to get out of his appointments with Dr. Haber. Heather is initially skeptical of George’s abilities but becomes convinced after she witnesses them for herself. Heather’s biggest scene is the moment in which she finds George at the cabin and tells him the story of her former husband. At this time, Heather finally remembers the former world that George changed and seems to be able to keep it in mind for the rest of the novel.
Heather is a half black woman, who resents her dark skin. George however, loves her skin tone and associates it with her so closely that he is unable to include her in a world where everyone has turned gray. At the end of the novel, Heather returns but no longer remembers George. She does agree to go out on a date with him for tea, however.
Ursula K. LeGuin Biography
Ursula Kroeber was born in 1929 in California. She writes novels, children’s books and short stories. Most of her books are on fantasy and science fiction. She dives into an imaginary world of alternate politics, gender, religion, sexuality, and ethnography. Ursula used sociology, anthropology, and psychology to write her “soft science fiction.” She does not like this classification feeling that it is sexist. Throughout her books she brings up anarchism and environmentalism to bring her messages to light.
Born to an anthropologist and a writer, Ursula and her three older brothers were exposed to reading at a young age. Her father, The encouraging environment of her upbringing helped to build her career as a writer. Alfred Louis Kroeber, her father, became the director of the University of California Museum of Anthropology, and her mother, Theodora Kracaw, wrote the best seller, Ishi in two Worlds, about a Native American who was the acclaimed ‘last wild Indian.’ Being surrounded by the study and stories of Ishi and the Native Americans, prompted Ursula’s stories of cultural interactions. At the age of nine she wrote her first science fiction story and had it published in the magazine, Astounding Science Fiction when she was eleven.
During the school year the family lived in Berkeley and their summers in Napa Valley. Although she found math tough, Ursula liked biology and poetry. She received her B. A. in Renaissance French and Italian literature in 1951 at Radcliffe. She also earned her M. A. in the same subjects from Columbia University in 1952. She was the recipient of the Fulbright grant and studied in France from 1953 to 1954.
While in France, Ursula met her husband, Charles Le Guin. She married the historian in 1953, and they are still married. They had three children. Ursula dropped her doctoral studies and the couple moved to Atlanta, Georgia where Charles obtained his Ph. D. at the Emory University. In 1959 the family moved to Portland, Oregon where they still are. Charles is the Professor Emeritus of History at Portland State University and Ursula continued writing while raising their children.
In the ten years between 1951 and 1961 Ursula wrote five novels. All five were rejected by publisher. She continued writing fantasy and science fiction stories that were published in such magazines as Amazing Stories and Fantastic Stories of Imagination.
“The World of Unbinding” was published in 1964 and was the beginning of her Earthsea fantasy series. In 1970 she won the Hugo and the Nebula awards for her book, “The Left Hand of Darkness”. Her next book, “The Dispossessed” also won the Hugo and Nebula, which made her the first writer to win both awards for the same two books.
In 1979 Ursula began to work with film, and contributed to “The Lathe of Heaven”. A PBS film based on her novel by the same name. She also worked on “Rigel 9”, with David Bedford. Ursula, Ken Kesey, Brian Booth, and William Stafford started the Literary Arts in Portland in 1984. She follows Taoism and leans towards Anarchism.