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The Lathe of Heaven
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Book Discussions > The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K Le Guin

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message 1: by G33z3r, The Old Guy (new) - rated it 5 stars

G33z3r | 5735 comments This is the discussion for our chosen April Classic SF/F Novel read and discussion is:


The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

(1972 Hugo and Nebula Award Nominee.)


message 2: by G33z3r, The Old Guy (last edited Apr 29, 2013 07:27AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

G33z3r | 5735 comments     Mt. Hood OR


message 3: by G33z3r, The Old Guy (last edited Apr 04, 2013 09:49AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

G33z3r | 5735 comments I hadn't read this since the 70's, so I pulled it off the bookshelf and blew off the dust and dug in again.

This was written as a "near future" novels, set about 2002. While its major premise is fantasy, it also has elements of science fiction. So, a few observations from the fictional period in the 30-year prediction department:

- "Global warming" wasn't a vogue phrase in the 70's, though "greenhouse effect" was known. Novels featuring increased temperatures weren't very common until the dystopian cyber-punk stories of the 80's. So, Le Guin is a bit ahead of her time here.

- On the other hand, overpopulation was a common concern.

- It's amazing Le Guin picked Afghanistan for the focus of a global crisis. In the 70's, Americans were preoccupied with Vietnam. Afghanistan was one of those places most Americans couldn't find on a map. "Lathe of Heaven" predates the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by decade, and the US invasion a decade ago by even longer.

- And speaking of the "Soviets", like almost all science fiction writers, nobody foresaw the dissolution of the USSR. (Also missed the Nelson Mandela - de Klerk accord for peaceful transition to majority rule in South Africa.) Not that either is significant for the story.

- Le Guin really underestimated inflation. I chuckled when George bemoaned the fact that a cabin on an acre of wilderness with an ocean view could cost almost $100,000, as if that was an absurd price. :)


message 4: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim (JimMacLachlan) | 1293 comments Excellent observations. As I recall, back in the 70's a lot of scientists thought we were going to create global cooling due to pollution. Different particulates in the air or just a different popular theory?

ZPG was a very big deal. In the US, we've about done it, too. Pretty amazing considering the figures I heard bandied about back then.

I really liked this as a movie, too. It was quite true to the overall story, as I recall. Great soundtrack.

I got this as an audio book & plan to listen to it soonish, although I still have my old paperback of it around.


message 5: by G33z3r, The Old Guy (new) - rated it 5 stars

G33z3r | 5735 comments Jim wrote: "I really liked this as a movie, too. It was quite true to the overall story, as I recall. Great soundtrack."

The 1980 PBS movie, or the 2002 remake with James Caan? I greatly preferred the older version, myself. It more accurately reflects the book.


message 6: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim (JimMacLachlan) | 1293 comments I've never seen the 2002 one. Didn't know it existed & now I really don't want to see it. Thanks for the heads up.


message 7: by Brenda (new)

Brenda Clough (BrendaClough) | 289 comments I loved the 1980s version.


Ernest (ErnLilley) | 5 comments I loved the 1980 film, and back in 2000 did an article on it for SFRevu. I've just updated that and reposted it if anyone's interested. There are some (hopefully) interesting facts about why it went missing for two decades and other stuff. - Ern

http://www.sfrevu.com/php/Review-id.p...


message 9: by Brenda (new)

Brenda Clough (BrendaClough) | 289 comments Agh, is it really that rare?!? I am horrified. I was hoping it was in discount bins in every Big Lots and Best Buy across America. Life is SO not fair.


message 10: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim (JimMacLachlan) | 1293 comments Excellent write-up, Ernest! Thanks.


Ernest (ErnLilley) | 5 comments I had a discussion with someone once who was convinced that the title referred to the structure of heaven, as in "Lath," though as it took place in a canoe before smartphones, we were hampered by the lack of a dictionary, which would have made it a shorter topic.


message 12: by G33z3r, The Old Guy (new) - rated it 5 stars

G33z3r | 5735 comments Ernest wrote: "I had a discussion with someone once who was convinced that the title referred to the structure of heaven, as in "Lath,"..."

I assume your companion had seen the movie but not read the book?
"Those whom heaven helps we call the sons of heaven. They do not learn this by learning. They do not work it while working. They do not reason it by using reason. To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven” — Chuang Tse (Zhuang Zhou)
Le Guin quoted that at the start of chapter 3, though it was subsequently determined that it was from a very poor translation of Chuang Tse. (Something about there not being any lathes in 300 BC China.) Anyway, Le Guin sticks by her title, if not the source.


Ernest (ErnLilley) | 5 comments Point taken. I'd forgotten that. Actually, I liked the idea that it might be about the lath, a structure that forms the structure of heaven.


message 14: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim (JimMacLachlan) | 1293 comments I'm pretty sure lathes were used earlier than 1000 BC, although not where & how. The basic lathe is pretty simple, obvious, & super handy, but historic use of such devices is filled with oddities. Who would have thought the horse collar or the spinning wheel would take so long?


message 15: by G33z3r, The Old Guy (last edited Apr 06, 2013 06:41AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

G33z3r | 5735 comments Jim wrote: "I'm pretty sure lathes were used earlier than 1000 BC,...."

Wikipedia cites Chinese historian Joseph Needham (Li Yuese) for the "bad translation / no lathes in China in 300 BC" information, as well as Le Guin. I got my info from there and the Le Guin interview on the DVD extras of the PBS (1980) movie.

That could all be just a rather technical question of what is a lathe and what is some other rotating tool (such as a pottery wheel.) The meaning of the quote, "To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven” is clear either way. So. I think. is what Le Guin meant by making it the title Of her novel.


Ernest (ErnLilley) | 5 comments I actually built a wooden spring powered lathe in college once upon a time. It's just a board you step down on, a springy plank of wood above and a rope wrapped around the piece you're working on. Dead simple tech, but quite effective. Of course, I didn't build it alone. I had a little help from some friends.


message 17: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim (JimMacLachlan) | 1293 comments It's a great title, no matter how it came into being. I was just making a comment on the lathes. I have a few, have made a couple; one like the Ernest made, another just for bowls. I've read they are one of the oldest woodworking machines & it makes sense to me, but that has little bearing on reality.

I don't particularly trust historians or history when it comes to technology. The former are often guessing outside their area of expertise while people can do the damdest things, hence my comment about horse collars. They had yokes & all kinds of tack for horses to drag things around for more than a thousand years before someone got the bright idea to pad a yoke & make a few simple design changes? One that revolutionized the amount of work a horse could do. If it was in a fiction book, I'd call it bad fiction! But it's a fact.

Spinning wheels took 300 years to catch on in Europe according to one book I read. Since they speed up the spinning process by 3 to 4 times & are pretty easy to make, I find that similarly mind boggling. I made mine in about a day without any plans. My Ashford is a lot nicer, but my homemade one works OK. Call it a moral victory, I guess. I learned a lot doing it, even though I don't use it since I got the store-bought one.
;-)


message 18: by Brenda (new)

Brenda Clough (BrendaClough) | 289 comments Knitters have a term "unvent" for a trick or technique or stitch that you invent. And then you discover that somebody else was doing it in Wisconsin in 1954, and some totally unconnected knitter was doing it in Latvia in 1874.


message 19: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim (JimMacLachlan) | 1293 comments I finally started listening to this. I like the reader.


message 20: by Xdyj (new) - rated it 4 stars

Xdyj | 418 comments I just did some Googling & it seems that the traditional inteperation of 天钧 is "balance of nature", while "spinning wheel of heaven" is one of the several minority opinions, maybe that's where the "lathe" translation comes from.


message 21: by G33z3r, The Old Guy (new) - rated it 5 stars

G33z3r | 5735 comments Back to the book. "The Lathe of Heaven" is a story of two contrasting characters:

George Orr is gifted/cursed with an awesome power to alter reality, but he can't control it.

Dr. Haber has no power, but does have the tools of science to (try to) control George.

Together, Dr. Haber attempts to harness George's incomprehensible power with his technology to use it.

But the difference between these two characters doesn't stop there:

Dr. Haber believes it's his duty and right to use power to "make things better" (both for the world and for himself personally.)

George doesn't feel he has the right to wield such power, and at almost each iteration, he would rather accept the current world rather than try to alter it. "He stood and endured reality."

So, are you a technologist, ready to tinker with the forces of nature? Shall we try a little genetic engineering on our food supply? On ourselves, to make ourselves healthier or live longer? Shall we try a little geo-engineering to counteract global warming? Do we build an artificial intelligence to make ourselves obsolete? Where does our understanding stop at what cannot be understood?


message 22: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim (JimMacLachlan) | 1293 comments The bird has flown on most of your examples of tinkering, G33z3r. If it wasn't for genetic tinkering, we wouldn't have the wheat crops we have & need now. There has been quite a ruckus over grant money for biofuel pulling money from wheat research. Apparently we're a bare step ahead of rust & other blights.

You've certainly pegged the central theme though. In a lot of ways, I share Haber's frustration with Orr, but I can certainly understand Orr's fear & reluctance. His 'solutions' often aren't an improvement, just like many of ours haven't been.

A friend is reading Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku. My son was telling me computers will approximate the complexity of the human brain in very short order. Obviously people will try to become immortal by transferring their consciousness to these machines. Scary stuff & discussing now while I'm reading The Lathe of Heaven really puts a sharp point on it.


message 23: by G33z3r, The Old Guy (new) - rated it 5 stars

G33z3r | 5735 comments Jim wrote: " There has been quite a ruckus over grant money for biofuel pulling money from wheat research. Apparently we're a bare step ahead of rust & other blights."

Thanks for the book recommendation. You might be interested in the scifi novel The Windup Girl, which speculates on those bio-tech issues and their consequences in the context of a future Thailand.


Ernest (ErnLilley) | 5 comments so, G33z3r, does this look like a faceoff between Taoist and Confucian thought?


message 25: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim (JimMacLachlan) | 1293 comments Ernest wrote: "so, G33z3r, does this look like a faceoff between Taoist and Confucian thought?"

As in whether there is a driving force behind this or just regular old human messiness? That's the question, isn't it? The Black Widow & Orr start discussing this in the cabin. She's a great character, although I don't recall her being confused about her race in the movie. I'm not to that part in the book yet.

Orr's 'gift' reminds me of "The Monkey's Paw" & other stories of this sort. Nothing ever goes right, there's always a twist, usually nightmarish. This is one of the most complex & best takes on the theme that I've ever read, though.


message 26: by G33z3r, The Old Guy (new) - rated it 5 stars

G33z3r | 5735 comments Ernest wrote: "so, G33z3r, does this look like a faceoff between Taoist and Confucian thought?"

I was thinking more traditional Eastern philosophy versus West's belief that it is master of technology, rather than technology's slave.


message 27: by Sue (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sue | 39 comments I'm not quite finished yet, but this is my first read of this book and I'm enjoying it. I'm not sure how I missed it when I was younger, actually.

This is such a great example of classic sci-fi. It has a message, a cautionary warning, a statement about modern society, or whatever you want to call it. The book makes you think.

G33Z3r, you did a good job summing up some of the predictions she got right, and some she got wrong. I did find it amusing that the first, overcrowded world had a population of 7 billion people. Aren't we already there?

I also liked the pharm card prediction. I can see that easily becoming reality.

George is definitely Taoist. Haber, on the other hand, is a little harder to label but he definitely believes that power is good, and the ends justify the means. He wasn't phased when 6 billion people ceased to exist, simply because the remaining world seemed to be an improvement. The fact that he kept tinkering with the world through George's dreams, after essentially accidentally killing billions of people, says a lot about his motivations.


message 28: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim (JimMacLachlan) | 1293 comments I finished this last night. Wow. Excellent, even though I remembered it so well. My review is here:
http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...

I know the overall story is pretty well spoiled, but the following discusses specifics.
(view spoiler)


message 29: by Brenda (new)

Brenda Clough (BrendaClough) | 289 comments I'll tell you what I ust realized, which is so cool. George Orr? short for George Orwell. You think?


message 30: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim (JimMacLachlan) | 1293 comments Brenda wrote: "I'll tell you what I ust realized, which is so cool. George Orr? short for George Orwell. You think?"

I thought so & put it in my review, Brenda. George is 'every man' & Orwell certainly championed them in his most famous books.


message 31: by Fredrik (last edited Apr 15, 2013 02:59PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Fredrik Garmannslund | 33 comments I just finished the book last night. My first impression is that if the name of the author had been Philip K. Dick instead of Ursula K. Le Guin, I wouldn't have noticed. This kind of story with dreams interchanging with reality would be right up his alley.

After reading The Road which really isn't SF in the classic sense, The Lathe of Heaven was the real thing. It had all the ingredients of a classic SF: The strange phenomenon (dreams interchanging with reality), the predictions of the future with focus on how mankind has f***ed it all up, and as a bonus even two contrasting personalities (one who can but wont, and one who will but can't).

I liked this book and I'm glad I was made aware of it throught this group! :)


message 32: by Vera (new) - rated it 5 stars

Vera Maslow Just finished my reread through this. Hadn't read it since a long time ago! Liked it then, like it now. I read this probably about the time I had an obsession for things like planet of the apes. So what Fredrik said about the predictions of the future with the focus on how mankind had f-ed it all up was about on par with what I was trying to read then. It's a great illustration of cause and effect. He can dream to change reality but his mind has to find a cause for the change.
We all would love to make things better in our personal lives and in the world. Yet, there is always a balance, a cause and effect. Would we be prepared for the consequences? What is the cost and is it really better if we had the knowledge of that cost?


message 33: by Bev (new) - added it

Bev (Greenginger) | 116 comments Read this years ago and methinks that I must read it again soon. Thanks for the cool reviews and info. I am salivating as we speak.


Siobhan | 4 comments I really enjoyed reading this & read it in a couple of days (much to the annoyance of my ignored other half).
A lot of the issues were really pertinent. For me, the over population issue was a really interesting one as this is at the forefront of our politics (in England) at the moment. Le Guin made me think a lot of our politicians would quite happily get rid of a few million across the country / world.
I have to admit I didn't like the George Orr reference, it was just too obvious. I don't know if he'd have liked it either? Didn't lack the lack of women either to be honest & while I understand this was written in the 1970s, i would have thought Le Guin would have been able to see women in more powerful roles by 2002. Forexample, it was disappointing that Haber's secretary was female & the solicitor Orr goes to see seems to perform a more secondary role to that of the big male bosses.
I do agree with an earlier reviewer (Frederick?) who said it was very Philip K Dick-completely agree. Some elements reminded me especially of Do Androids Dream? Did you think this?
Overall, an excellent choice. I'm on to reading The Blazing World (Margaret Cavendish) now & then going to try some more of Le Guin! xxx
Sorry for the long post!


message 35: by G33z3r, The Old Guy (last edited Apr 28, 2013 05:08AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

G33z3r | 5735 comments Siobhan wrote: "Didn't lack the lack of women either to be honest & while I understand this was written in the 1970s, i would have thought Le Guin would have been able to see women in more powerful roles by 2002. For example, it was disappointing that Haber's secretary was female & the solicitor Orr goes to see seems to perform a more secondary role..."

This is one of the curiosities (seeming contradictions?) about Le Guin. She is widely regarded as the first author of feminist science fiction for her book The Left Hand of Darkness. (It introduces an alien race who are usually gender-less but periodically each individual randomly becomes either male or female to engage in procreation. Le Guin explores a society where everyone will play both male and female roles at different times.)

And yet in her Earthsea, only men can become wizards (attend school to learn the true names of everything) while females can at best be village witches, versed in a few useful charms. (Still, in The Tombs of Atuan & especially Tehanu she places Tenar in Earthsea as an extremely strong woman who just doesn't happen to use spells or swords.)

Of course, in The Lathe of Heaven, Dr. Haber has no incentive to "improve" gender equality (and considering how well his improvements work, that's probably a good thing. :)
Siobhan wrote: "then going to try some more of Le Guin!..."
I highly recommend anything and everything she's written. Earthsea is the lighter work (the original trilogy is often classified as YA), while The Left Hand of Darkness is generally considered her most "serious" book.


message 36: by J.D. (new)

J.D. Hallowell | 72 comments Ernest wrote: "so, G33z3r, does this look like a faceoff between Taoist and Confucian thought?"

I'm not G33z3r, but I think that sums it up, without a doubt. It's the contrast between the worldview that sees wisdom in harmonizing with the flow of things as they are and the worldview that sees a duty to intervene, to act to bring things into alignment with an ideal. LeGuin comes down pretty hard on the Taoist side of the fence, IMO. Not that my opinion counts for much.


message 37: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim (JimMacLachlan) | 1293 comments Lack of women? There were only 4 characters; 2 men, a woman, & an alien. Considering Haber's personality, he pretty much had to be a guy & Orr was his contrast, so it was much easier to keep him the same sex to keep the contrast cleaner.


message 38: by Xdyj (last edited Apr 28, 2013 09:40PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Xdyj | 418 comments G33z3r wrote: "Siobhan wrote: "Didn't lack the lack of women either to be honest & while I understand this was written in the 1970s, i would have thought Le Guin would have been able to see women in more powerful..."

Idk, maybe they're the products of their times or something. Women's experience tend to be featured more explicitly in LeGuin's more recent works. Before LeGuin some 1st wave feminists like Roquia Sakhawat Hussain & Charlotte Gilman also wrote some sf.


message 39: by Brenda (new)

Brenda Clough (BrendaClough) | 289 comments There are male readers who will not read books by female writers (Still quite a few). There are male readers who will not read books that have female protagonists (fewer every year).
Female writers have always contended with this, balancing the work they wanted to write with the kind of work that would be read or would sell. LeGuin didn't write the story "The Women Men Don't See" but it was a story from around this exact time period. And the author of that story was James Tiptree, whose real name was Alice Sheldon.


message 40: by Xdyj (last edited Apr 28, 2013 09:53PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Xdyj | 418 comments Yeah, even JK Rowling was told to use gender-neutral pseudonym by her publisher, which was decades after CL Moore, Andre Norton, Tiptree & CJ Cherryh started their career. Also I think Tiptree aka. Sheldon was probably one of the best sf short story writers of all time.


message 41: by Bev (new) - added it

Bev (Greenginger) | 116 comments Xdyj wrote: "Yeah, even JK Rowling was told to use gender-neutral pseudonym by her publisher, which was decades after CL Moore, Andre Norton, Tiptree & CJ Cherryh started their career. Also I think Tiptree aka...."

Well if there are still men out there who won't read books written by women, I wonder if that is why some women only read chick lit type books written by women??


message 42: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim (JimMacLachlan) | 1293 comments Bev wrote: "Well if there are still men out there who won't read books written by women, I wonder if that is why some women only read chick lit type books written by women?? "

I doubt it is why. People probably read what they're comfortable with. If a woman is reading chick lit or I'm reading an action mystery/thriller, we probably aren't looking for something to stretch our brain, just to relax with. In either case, we don't need discordant notes.

Really good writers can do the opposite sex well. Many writers can't. My wife & I often notice that's the difference in how well we like a book. The way a male author portrays a female character will bother her, while I don't notice & vice versa.
--------------

I still say LeGuin did just fine with the sex of characters in this book. There weren't enough to make it a problem.


message 43: by Bev (new) - added it

Bev (Greenginger) | 116 comments Jim wrote: "Bev wrote: "Well if there are still men out there who won't read books written by women, I wonder if that is why some women only read chick lit type books written by women?? "

I doubt it is why. ..."


Sorry Jim I typed too fast and didnt get my question right. What I meant is just as some men do not like books written by women perhaps there are women who will not read male authors? (for example women reading chick lit which is predominantly written by women).

I am not one of these as I personally think gender has no bearing on either characters, authors or stories.


message 44: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim (JimMacLachlan) | 1293 comments I was just teasing, I knew what you meant, Bev.

In a perfect world, gender shouldn't have any bearing, but authors aren't perfect & neither am I. IMO, it's rare that opposite sexes get all the motivations & thought processes right. Many do a good or acceptable job, but quite a few just don't do well at it all. The books may still be fun reads, but probably not to the opposite sex.

It can also depend on the type of book. If I'm reading heroic fantasy such as a Conan book, there's a fair amount of hyperbole. That thrives on our fantasies & often our prejudices. My wife doesn't care much for Conan while I love them. REH has many strong women, but Frazetta has made sure they're all scantily clad & curvaceous in my imagination. Fun escapism & not at all comparable to something like The Lathe of Heaven.


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Books mentioned in this topic

The Lathe of Heaven (other topics)
Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 (other topics)
The Windup Girl (other topics)
The Left Hand of Darkness (other topics)
A Wizard of Earthsea (other topics)
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Authors mentioned in this topic

Ursula K. Le Guin (other topics)
Michio Kaku (other topics)