Book review: “The Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula K Le Guin

Science fiction has never really been my thing but, ever keen to push my reading boundaries, I included it as a theme for my Facebook Reading Challenge in October. It’s a genre I know little about, so picking an author or title might have been tricky, but I had in fact known for some time who I would select, having become aware of Le Guin after she died in January last year at the age of 88. The obituaries talked about how she had for years been under-rated, the inference being that as a woman she was overlooked in this male-dominated genre, but that she had a devoted critical following and has been cited as an influence by the likes of Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman and Iain Banks.

She was prolific, producing nineteen novels, as well as short story collections, poetry and non-fiction during a writing career that spanned six decades. (I note that her first full-length novel was published when she was 37, which gives me some hope!) Many of her novels form part of her Earthsea series, so I chose The Lathe of Heaven as it is a stand-alone novel.

the lathe of heaven imgThe Lathe of Heaven was written in 1971, but was set in ‘the future’ – Portland Oregon in 2002. This future world is one in which the global population is out of control, climate change has wrought irreparable damage and war in the Middle East threatens geopolitical stability. The most alarming (and engaging) thing about the book, for me, was how prophetic it was; in 1971 did readers think this was some dystopian world? Worryingly, many of the problems envisaged by Le Guin are recognisable features of our environment in 2019.

The main character is George Orr who has an unusual affliction – he is able to change reality through his dreams. It is a difficult concept to get hold of, but when he dreams a new situation, all history is also altered to facilitate the revised present and no-one but he is able to recall how it was before. For example, in 1998, a nuclear war virtually destroyed life on earth, but George ‘dreamed it back’ and in the new iteration the nuclear war never happened.

George is disturbed by these dreams and turns to prescription drug abuse to stop himself from entering deep sleep when these ‘effective dreams’ happen. He has to break the law to get sufficient supplies, however, and when he is caught he is forced to see a psychiatrist, Dr William Haber, to help him wean off the drugs. When George explains his problems to Haber, the ambitious but under-achieving doctor quickly sees the potential for using hypnosis to ‘suggest’ dreams to George which will organise the world the way Haber wants it. Haber’s intentions are not entirely malign; he wants world peace and widespread good health, for example, though he is careful also to ensure he benefits financially and in terms of academic status as a side-consequence. The problem is, Haber’s suggestions are not always interpreted by George’s brain in the way Haber intended. So, when Haber suggests a dream for the elimination of racism, the result is not, as Haber thought, that people become universally open-minded and accepting, rather everyone’s skin colour changes to grey, ie there is no longer any visible indicator of race.

Events become ever more bizarre and George, desperate and realising that Haber is using him for his own ends, which George is worried will have devastating consequences, ultimately, turns to a lawyer to try and get out of the therapy and stop Haber. The lawyer, Heather, becomes George’s ally and partner and he ultimately falls in love with her. But as realities keep changing, she is at times, farther and farther away from him.

It is a fascinating story and I enjoyed the philosophical journey, the question of the extent to which we are in control of our destiny, as well as the very relevant themes of global warming and the locus of power in society. I won’t give away any spoilers, but the ending lost me a little – at that point it felt more ‘of its time’, though I can also see where Le Guin was coming from. Don’t forget this was published not long after the moon landing so the concept of outer space, whether there was anyone else out there, were, I imagine seen somewhat differently than they are today.

Recommended, if you’d like to try something a little different.

If you are a fan of science fiction, what other authors would you recommend?

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Dipping into science-fiction

I’m not a huge fan of science-fiction, but the friend who recommended this book assured me that I would enjoy the theme of pharmaceutical meltdown and the emergence of a post-apocalyptic society that it examines. This novel was the winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award for Science Fiction in 2015, so it is acclaimed in its field.

station-eleven-imgThe book is set in Canada and the United States just 20 years after a catastrophic virus seemingly wipes out about 99% of humanity in a matter of days. The consequences of this are that, within a short space of time, electricity, running water and all the other basic services we take for granted, cease to exist. Vehicles are abandoned on motorways as their passengers leave their homes, to escape to…where? These people then die. Aircraft no longer fly and people are stranded pretty much wherever they happened to be at the moment the virus struck. And then mostly die. Whilst reading I recalled all those diseases in recent years that seemed to prefigure cataclysmic consequences (AIDS, Swine fever, SARS, Avian ‘flu, Ebola) fights which, for the most part, we eventually won; in this novel it is the disease (Georgian ‘flu) that prevails. And that’s scary.

The central character is Kirsten, who was 8 years old at the time of the disease, and was performing in a production of King Lear. The character of Lear was being played by Arthur Leander, a renowned celebrity actor, who dies on stage (not from the ‘flu). This seems to be a catalyst for chaos as that very evening the ‘flu takes hold and people start dying very quickly and in vast numbers.

“Hell is the absence of the people you long for.”

Station Eleven

The plot of the novel is complex. Kirsten survives the pandemic and we follow her in Year 20 as she becomes part of a travelling orchestra/theatre company bringing Shakespeare to remote and unconnected communities in the central states of North America. There is also Arthur Leander’s story – recollections of his childhood on a remote island off British Columbia, his early life as an actor before he became famous, then his acquisition of celebrity status, life in LA and, most significantly, his three marriages and relationship with his son.

There are two further significant characters: Clark, an old friend of Arthur’s, who survives the virus, but finds himself stranded in an airport, which becomes a significant community in the post-apocalyptic scenario. And Miranda, Arthur’s estranged first wife, who, when unable to cope with the trappings of fame and the effect this had on their marriage, sought sanctuary in writing a graphic novel (called Station Eleven) which envisaged a frightening future world controlled by an evil megalomaniac. Her graphic novel, a copy of which Kirsten treasures, provides a motif for the events of the book.

station-eleven-img-2The author has quite a task managing this complexity: each of the four characters’ stories are told separately and in a non-linear way, but they are like pieces of a jigsaw gradually being pieced together until the overall picture becomes clear. The novel jumps back and forth in time and I found this quite difficult to follow. Also, for me, the drawing together of the strands was a little too contrived; it just did not seem entirely plausible that a tiny number of survivors could have such a connected past. I think this has been my problem with science-fiction generally (but perhaps I haven’t read enough); I get that you have to suspend disbelief but it’s too much for me when that means suspending credibility.

Despite my reservations about the plot, I think the themes explored are very interesting: firstly, our vulnerability – technology has brought us so much but without it we are lost. Secondly, how we have so many communication tools at our disposal, but we don’t use them to say the things that really matter. And, thirdly, how society organises itself (or not!) when the usual social structures which keep us under control disappear. What is also interesting is that we take for granted that time equals progress, but in Year 20, so much ‘progress’ has been lost that things like engines and antibiotics seem like science-fiction. People can die of a cut from a rusty blade.

So, I enjoyed this aspect of the book, and it is well-written, but for me the plot did not work particularly well and the time-shifts were a bit frustrating and confusing. One to read if you like being a bit scared!

 

Do you love science fiction? Can you recommend a title for this reluctant sci-fi reader that I might enjoy?

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