Caleb's Reviews > The Lathe of Heaven

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
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's review
Jun 10, 2010

really liked it
Read from May 19 to June 02, 2010

When engaging in those frustrating discussions in which interlocutors use terms like "genre fiction" and say things like, "I don't spend much time reading genre fiction," Ursula K Le Guin is one of those authors I love to bring up. Whether it is in the political philosophizing and social theory mixed up in "The Dispossessed" or the queering and multigendering of the rich characters in "The Left Hand of Darkness," it is a cinch to argue the depth with which Le Guin crafts her stories, ideas, and characters. "The Lathe of Heaven" is another such book I can introduce into the discussion, but for slightly different reasons.

The style and prose of "The Lathe of Heaven" is less finely tuned than in the previous two works mentioned--which are surprisingly published on either side of "Lathe," 1969 for "Left Hand" and 1974 for "Dispossessed"--but that isn't to say it is poor. The work feels much more like Philip K Dick than I expected, pronounced both in its often more straightforward style as well as its surreal and delightfully paranoiac substance. Telling this story is decidedly more difficult, but it is assuredly well worth the effort. The difficulty arises from not only the multiple perspectives--George Orr, Heather Lelache, and Dr. Haber--but the multiple continuities or memories (Haber refers to them as continua) that these characters undergo. As I feel is the case with many Philip K Dick stories, the author attempts to portray the internal conflicts of the characters through the storytelling itself, which can make for a rough but potent ride.

Nearing the end of "The Lathe of Heaven," and more and more upon reflection, I wished almost for annotations and footnotes/endnotes on the text. In order to articulate a metastructure to the plot mechanisms at play, le Guin deftly incorporates vague references to mysticism, traditional beliefs--especially Australian Aboriginal folklore--and likely psychoanalytic and sociological theories. Such allusions, highlighted all the more by the introductory quotes in each chapter, shape the narrative but do not the least bit hinder the telling.

My gripes are few, but I could not set them aside, particularly having been so engrossed in other le Guin works. I cannot escape an alarming flatness in George Orr through most of the book; albeit, George Orr's apparent flatness is addressed in the thoughts and actions again and again, which is inevitably overturned by a more sympathetic reading and listening to his person. All the same, his inability to react with any real decisiveness until the axe blade is on his neck is rather painful. Similarly, Dr Haber's character is distressingly familiar, but the reader is forced to only ever identify him as a well-intentioned villain, a doctor with a shiny scalpel with which to reshape the world. An attempt to more finely humanize Haber would have made his character and his quest more sympathetic and his methods more unpleasantly palatable.

"The Lathe of Heaven" is indubitably successful. It comes with that characteristic le Guin panache, not to mention a delicious touch of SF inside joking. She tells a story rich with social concerns and the manic attempts to resolve them, but weighing in most on the impacts such endeavors have on the human spirit and personal identity. I cannot help but expect slightly more, but it does leave only very little to desire.

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