There’s a good reason this book has recently been republished, and that’s because it’s a brilliant and original work of fiction with a small cast of well described and memorable characters and a unique thought-provoking story.
BUT! Having said that, I’ve really struggled to finish this book, I’ve taken a long time to read it and very nearly abandoned it on several occasions.
First things first though, the story.
In principle, the story is a simple one. George Orr has dreams. Dreams which he believes change reality as he knows it. He can’t decide what to dream about, when he has them or how many he has, his dreams come just like everyone else’s. . . but some of them he believes are ‘effective’ dreams, dreams which change the world.
In order to try and avoid the terrible consequences of his own dreams, George tries to avoid sleeping for long periods of time by taking drugs to keep him awake, or at the very least to prevent him from reaching deep-sleep.
Unfortunately, his drug taking results in him coming to the attention of the authorities, who send him for compulsory psychiatric help, where he meets Dr Haber, who while naturally sceptical, suggests hypnotising George in order to direct what he will dream about when he sleeps. This he proposes will serve as a simple proof that George’s belief in his ‘effective’ dreams is nothing more than a delusion.
Haber is of course the one who is mistaken, and after performing his hypnosis, he realises that George is in fact capable of changing the world via his dreams.
This is the backdrop for the story proper, in which under the pretext of trying to cure George, Haber starts to use George’s power to change the world. But of course, each change Haber tries to make never turns out quite as he hopes, as the unconscious mind of the sleeper interprets the instructions in odd and often unforeseeably damaging ways.
So begins the story written by Le Guin in 1970, which she set in her then near future, a world which would have been recognisable to her readers from the 1970s, and which is still recognisable to the reader of today in 2017.
The problems faced by this now slightly old fashioned but futuristic version of our world are still with us today, and in the story, have therefore credibly just gotten steadily worse, with over-crowding and the reliance on the motor car featuring amongst the problems which Haber tries to fix.
This is where the story could’ve gone in one of several familiar directions. Le Guin could have turned this into a simple morality tale focused on the perils of absolute power, or a disaster / survival story as the characters try to respond to the unpredictable changes happening around them. Alternatively, she could’ve chosen to explore the nature of humanity’s subconscious in much the same way it was treated in the fabulous 1956 film ‘Forbidden Planet’ or more recently in the blockbuster hit ‘Inception’.
But Le Guin instead chooses to follow a different and subtler path focusing on the personal and social impact of the increasingly disastrous changes, and the often-understated ways in which the society we live in, shapes and changes who we are as individuals.
Here, we start to get to the root of why I found this such a difficult book to read, though perhaps not for the obvious reason: Namely that this is a subtle yet complex book, which has few of the traditional high impact, high octane scenes so common in many modern science fiction books and films.
Why then did I struggle to read this book? It’s entirely because of the 1980 film adaptation of this book, starring Kevin Conway, Bruce Davison and Margaret Avery.
I’m not sure when I watched this film, it certainly wasn’t recently, but it also wasn’t in the 1980s. Whenever it was, as soon as I got a chapter or two into the book my memories of what is now a fairly mediocre and dated film came flooding back, almost spoiling the book for me.
Is the film as bad as my memory tells me? Perhaps not, but it’s certainly not good enough to merit another watch, and most importantly it definitely lacks the subtle and complex qualities of the novel. Instead trying to change the story into a psychological thriller, which it definitely is not, and adding in additional tense action scenes, which it just doesn’t need.
This is a great book which will appeal to anyone who enjoys science fiction that demands the reader does a little more work to understand the consequences and implications detailed in the story. So if you’re a reader who has perhaps enjoyed books like Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ or Wyndham’s ‘Midwich Cuckoos’ or perhaps even Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep’, then this is a title which you will surely also enjoy.
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin, published by Gollancz
Reviewed in paperback format from my local Waterstones book store
UK Price £2.99 Kindle – £8.99 paperback
US Price $3.81 Kindle, or $7.59
First on the list is ‘The King of Elfland’s Daughter’ by Lord Dunsany, which as the name suggests is a pure fantasy story originally penned in the 1920s, right at the birth of the fantasy writing genre, and a book I’ve been meaning to get around to for quite some time.
After that I was intending to read Catherine Valente’s ‘Radiance’, but I’ve recently been seduced into buying several other fantastic books, including Philip K. Dick’s ‘The Man in the High Castle’, John Wyndham’s ‘Plan for Chaos’, and Walter De La Mare’s ‘Out of the Deep – and other supernatural tales.’
I’ll decide which book to move on to once I’ve finished ‘The King of Elfland’s Daughter’, but as I will be publishing a couple of my own vintage style supernatural tales a bit later in the year (available for free in eBook format to anyone on my mailing list), Walter De La Mare’s book might well be just what I’m in the mood for.