The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin

A fantastic example of classic science fiction.
The Lathe of Heaven book cover

Book of the Year 1971 (see all)

George Orr is a mild and unremarkable man who finds the world a less than pleasant place to live: seven billion people jostle for living space and food. But George dreams dreams which do in fact change reality and he has no means of controlling this extraordinary power.

Psychiatrist Dr William Haber offers to help. At first sceptical of George’s powers, he comes to astonished belief. When he allows ambition to get the better of ethics, George finds himself caught up in a situation of alarming peril.

Focused on the extraordinary unconscious abilities of a very quiet, unimpressive man called George, we slowly begin to uncover the infinite potential that he possesses. He can dream things into reality, and completely change the course of history.

He can’t do this himself however – his ‘effective’ dreams as he calls them are random – but once he ends up put into the hands of dream specialist Dr William Haber after overdosing on an illegal amount of prescriptive drugs to try and stop himself from dreaming altogether, this incredible tool now has a wielder. Whereas George has no ambitions or wants, Haber has vast ambitious and self belief and he wants to change the world. However, unable to control exactly what George dreams whilst under the influence of his experimental Augmenter, Haber’s benevolent ideas to end all suffering inflicted upon the world’s populace become skewed in vast and sometimes horrific ways. But does the end justify the means? Does anybody have the right to wipe billions of people from the face of the planet in order to solve the problems of overpopulation and make life better for the few who are left? And if Haber manoeuvres himself into increasingly important positions of power each time history is changed, surely that isn’t a bad thing? After all, he’s making the world a better place for everybody… isn’t he?

Published way back in 1971, what is so impressive about The Lathe of Heaven is how undated it is, and un-datable. This is an exploration of human nature on both a very personal level, and as an entire species - after all, the problems of overpopulation, war and climate change have been caused by humanity itself. Can you change human nature? By trying to make everybody the same, are you making humanity something it was never meant to be? When do you stop - is there such a thing as a perfect world? This is very much a book which makes you sit back and think – what would I change if I could change the world and what then do you do if a worse situation is created in an attempt to solve a lesser issue? It’s a never ending spiral and Le Guin weaves a spider web of interlinking and mutating histories where plagues come and go, people live and die in a dozen different ways, and entire cities never exist. Haber is a prime example of absolute power corrupting absolutely – he isn’t evil by any means, but how can be he be stopped when he’s the only one who can control George’s dreaming? If he isn’t in control, what sort of horrific nightmare of a world might otherwise be dreamt into being by George’s fracturing mind?

This is a fantastic example of classic science fiction – a fascinating moral conundrum focusing on the question: Just because you can do something, does it mean you should?

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