Sunday, July 08, 2012

55. The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin

Urusla K. does it again.  Man, she does not play.  I would say that this book, along with the Earthsea books and The Left Hand of Darkness are her best-known works.  I point that out because I'm impressed how all 3 are so different and have such different styles.  They share some themes (the abuse of power, exploration of human relations) and some motifs (environmental degradation) and you can hear her voice in all of them.  But these are three very different books.

The Lathe of Heaven feels like classic silver age sci-fi.  It almost could have been written by Philip K. Dick (except that the cohesion holds through to the end here).  It feels very modern and future sci-fi (where the Earthsea are true fantasy, almost lyrical and The Left Hand of Darkness is much more of epic other world sci-fi).  It's just so impressive how she can write such different books, but all of them be really good.

The story here starts out in Portland, Oregon in a mildly dystopic near-future.  The environment is bad, the economy is poor and society is less free.  George Orr gets arrested for using someone else's PharmCard.  He's buying drugs to stop himself from dreaming.  Because it's his first offense, he's sent to see a psychiatrist, who is also a dream expert.  Orr doesn't want to dream, because when he does, his dreams change reality.   The psyciatrist is at first interested and then when he realizes reality really is being changed, he starts trying to manipulate and harness Orr's unwanted ability.  Things get crazy.

The book progresses in a series of reality shifts, each one getting slightly worse than the last.  In a way, it is like a novel-length version of The Monkey's Paw.  Each dream request that the doctor tries to get Orr to dream about, ostensibly for the betterment of mankind, has unexpected results, either as filtered through Orr's personality or just because that's the way the world works.

There is a lot going on in this book. Humanity does not come off well.  It deals with life's purpose, morality and power.  The philosophical stuff is thought-provoking, but also, as always (at least so far) with Le Guin, deftly and subtly done.  The multiple futures are awesome fun.  We really get multiple disaster and apocalyptic scenarios as well as giant social experiments (what happens if we get rid of race?).  I lived in Portland for four years and though it's been a while, it was still cool to read all the specific changes it goes through.  Mt. Hood really gets the treatment.  Interesting that this book was written a decade before Mt. St. Helens blew her top!

Awesome book, super-entertaining, quick, lively and intelligent read.  There is a reason it is a classic.  Check it out.

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