Rich Erlich, Science Fiction                    1991/97, 1998, 2000

StGd Lathe of Heaven

 

 

 

The Lathe of Heaven (Novel and TV Film)

 

 

     Ursula K. Le Guin's novel The Lathe of Heaven (1971), opens in a manner similar to that of City of Illusions (1967) and "A Trip to the Head" (1970), with coming into consciousness.  In The Lathe of Heaven, however, the forest of being has been replaced by the ocean as the symbol for being (170; ch. 11); the human mind is imaged as a jellyfish; and we are reminded that this figurative jellyfish gets stranded on a dry beach every morning when people awake (7; ch. 1). 

     In one sense, we are in a much more famililar world than Fomalhaut II in Rocannon's World or Werel of Planet of Exile or the far-future America in City of Illusions: the setting in Lathe is mostly Portland, Oregon, in the near future.  But even as Le Guin has made strange—"defamiliarized"—the familiar act of waking up, even so this is a Portland that will be made very strange indeed.  Among its inhabitants is George Orr, an abnormally normal man (dead center on all the graphs) with only one rare trait. 

     In April of 1998, the human world came to an end.  Among the people dying of radiation sickness after this nuclear apocalypse was George Orr.  Orr passes out, or falls asleep, and has a dream, and the dream he creates is the world of the story.  And in the world Orr made, Orr can dream effectively.  That is, when he has very powerful dreams, his dreams change reality for everyone: change reality completely, radically, from its roots, all the way back into the past, so only Orr (and people very near him during the change) even notice.  For everyone else there is one single, coherent, new reality, complete with appropriate memories: on this new continuum, that which is has always been this way.  Orr does not want to change the world (18; ch. 2), so he tries to avoid dreams by borrowing Pharmacy Cards and getting more than his allowed number of uppers and soporifics from an automated drug supply store (12).  Some time in 2002, Orr has a very bad drug episode, gets caught and has to undergo "Voluntary Therapeutic Treatment," with the psychologist, Dr. William Haber, an oneirologist, a dream specialist (13; ch. 2).  Orr tells Haber his problem, and Haber comes to believe Orr; and then Haber uses Orr (assisted by the Augmentor, a machine to augment dreams) to improve the world, to create Haber's idea of a Utilitarian utopia. 

     And that's the basic plot: a series of dreams induced by Haber on an ever more reluctant Orr until Haber can coerce Orr to have one last effective dream to produce a world in which Orr doesn't dream effectively, and Haber does (159-61; ch. 10).  Orr, though, has found marriage with Heather Lelache, his attorney in the initial world of the novel, and he gets a little help from his wife and other friends—including some aliens he has literally dreamed up.  When Haber tries to dream effectively, the nightmare out of the hollowness of his being threatens disaster for at least the Earth.  Orr turns off the dream machine—what he sees as his one real action—and saves the world (165-68, 170; chs. 10, 11).  Haber ends up mad and institutionalized, and the world ends up in a mess; indeed, it's a mess where Heather Lalache had not married George Orr but a man killed in the war in the Near East, and the novel ends with Orr moving toward renewing his marriage with Lelache, a return to a true relationship (172-75; ch. 11). 

     Basically, a simple plot; the complexity of the narrative, film as well as novel, derives from some fourteen significant effective dreams, each dream changing the reality of the world of the story.  And the complexity comes in with the ethical implications of the conflict between Orr and Haber.  Haber is an active man, a mover and shaker: an idealist of sorts, with a vision of the way the world ought to be and a desire to play hero and savior and make it that way.  When he discovers Orr's talent, he has a way to make the world as it ought to be, to make everything right.  In many narratives (stories and films for liberals and/or the young, anyway), Haber would be a hero.  In a conservative film of the 1950s, Haber might be a villain, but not because he's overactive and intellectually macho but because he's a scientist and an intellectual, period—and a utopian; in such a film he would probably be defeated by a military man even more aggressive than he is.  Orr is a passive sort, a dreamer, the "uncarved block" of the Taoists.  In most stories he'd be a minor character, and a major wimp. 

     Le Guin both uses and mocks the idea of Haber as the cliched Mad Scientist using demonic technology (47; ch. 4).  In the late 1960s, when Le Guin was writing Lathe, Haber could be read as a more immediate threat: a reduction to the grotesque of corporate liberals like Robert McNamara who were demonstrating dramatically the costs of "nation building" in Viet Nam and other exercises in American "toughness."  The fall of William Haber was a fable for Le Guin's time. 

     Opposed to Haber is Orr, emphatically the hero, if an unlikely one, in both novel and film.  In the novel he is the hero because the novel accepts a Taoist world-view and ethic.  The Lathe of Heaven, as novel, is an attack not only on Haber and his immediate political implications but also on most of what Haber stands for: including much of the ethics and ideal of heroism of "the Judaeo-Christian-Rationalist West" (82; ch. 6).  The PBS film is courageous, but nowhere near that courageous.  In the film Haber is still not the Mad Scientist, but, as in one place in the novel, a man who would play God with whole populations (150; ch. 10), a victim of immoderation—yet another dramatic example of the danger of overweening pride.  Thus he comes across in the film's dialog and much of its imagery.  He is, in the film, not a SciFi villain but an SF builder of Moloch-machines that engulf and metaphorically devour people, finally engulfing their inventors.  The film Haber is the direct descendent of the builders of great cities like Sodom and Gommorah, and of great buildings such as the Tower of Babel.  But there is more to the film than just excellent use of such familiar motifs and prejudices; the film also picks up some important dialog and much of the imagery of the novel and thereby suggests, fairly subtly, the Eastern ideal of balance against not only the immoderate urge to tinker with society and the universe, as if they were machines, but also against the gray mediocrity of "moderation in all things"—a very nonTaoist, Greek-rationalist slogan Orr uses in the film. 

     In the dialog of the film, Orr makes explicit his charges against Haber.  They include a rather daring and vigorous assertion of passivity on Orr's part and his denial of human purpose—ideas Le Guin stresses; most of the accusations, however, are more familiar in Western narratives: Haber is playing God in using Orr; Haber is messing around with those famous Powers Beyond Our Ken; Haber is immoderate; Haber refuses to take responsibility for his actions; Haber misunderstands the place of humans in the universe; Haber is overconfident in the power of reason; Haber is much too much into will and power and control. 

     Orr in the film is quite correct in his accusations, and his accusations are reinforced by the imagery of coerced containment within a mechanism, the Augmentor, and by Haber's utopian building.  When Orr (or Haber) is within the Augmentor, we have an image of the superimposition of the mechanical not only upon Orr or Haber but the superimposition of the mechanical and electronic upon the unconscious—dreams—and, in effective dreaming, the superimpostion of the machine upon the world.  The Augmentor by itself changes nothing, but its augmenting aids Haber in making hypnotic suggestions that change the world.  In a sense, then, as Haber augments the Augmentor by having Orr dream him bigger and better machines (a process stressed in the film) he puts more and more of his world effectively within the machine he controls. 

     In novel and film, the utopias Haber creates have problems.  Most spectacularly, Haber tells Orr to eliminate overpopulation, and Orr's subconscious takes a very direct route: a Plague dream that kills some six billion people.  When Haber becomes more accomplished at instructing Orr, the results are much less brutal, but still decidedly depressing. 

     Haber's accomplishments are good things, mostly—even if his genetic improvements to the human stock are chilling in their Nazi associations—but the cost has been too high.  It is a better world, in many ways, but a gray, lifeless world, bureaucratized and unfree, what we would expect from the imposing of hubristic rationalism, via a machine, upon the stuff of dreams.  Haber's last Utopia in the film is also a world without Heather Lelache.  Lelache is African-American, brown in color; she cannot exist in a gray world—literally a gray world for human beings: Haber tells Orr to solve the race problem, and Orr's subconcious produces a human species with bodies "the color of a battleship" (127; ch. 9). 

     But Haber will not be satisfied with any version of utopia.  As the narrator in the novel tells us, the essence of the Nietzschean will to power is growth.  As power grows, the appetite for power grows still faster (128; ch. 9).  To improve the world until it is really right, Haber needs a better tool than Orr.  So he cures Orr and prepares to substitute the obvious choice, Dr. William Haber. 

     For Le Guin, Haber is preeminently unsuitable as a dreamer perfecting the world: any dreamer who would want to exert such control is disqualifed from both dream analysis and any legitimate control because he radically misunderstands the nature of dreams.  Haber is especially unsuitable because for Le Guin the dream goes to the heart of our being, and Le Guin's narrator makes clear that Haber is like a dried onion; at his center there is a void (127-28, 82; chs. 9 and 6).  Just as bad, Haber is out of touch with the world (150; ch. 10): a loveless loner, someone who sees people only as things to be used or dependent clients to be helped—and used (112, 32; chs. 8 and 3). 

     No film can get into such complexities of psychology as Le Guin's analysis of Haber; but The Lathe of Heaven as film does suggest Haber as a loner, and it certainly shows that Haber's effective nightmare is a disaster for the world.  The film shows quite well how different Haber is from Orr, who is capable of love, and therefore capable of saving the world.  Twice: first in his dream in April 1998 and again in his one conscious act of turning off the Augmentor and ending Haber's effective nightmare. 

     The film, then, unlike the novel, does not explicitly condemn, generally and forcefully, the ethics and heroic ideal of the "Judaeo-Christian-Rationalist West" but instead uses explicity some of our Western norms to justify Orr and condemn Haber.  Some dialog and visuals, however, do condemn the busy-ness of Western utopianism and the ethical superficiality of a doctrine of improving the world: When we see a large sign with what is clearly Haber's favorite slogan—"THE GREATEST GOOD FOR THE GREATEST NUMBER"—we can be sure there is a satiric attack against the doctrine of Utilitarianism that promulgated that slogan as philosophy (see LoH 132; ch. 9).  Indeed, several shots suggest our need to accept and go with the world, to find our way from Haber's over-bright, Utilitarian ways back to the Great Way of Being, of the Tao.  "When the Great Way is lost, we get benevolence and righteousness" Le Guin quotes from ch. 18 of the Tao te Ching (headnote to LoH ch. 5).  Personally, I would add that we get benevolence and righteousness if we're damn lucky.  Le Guin's point, though, is clear, and it comes across in the film: Haber has lost the Way, and his attempts at benevolence and righteousness will not yield good. 

     Quite appropriately, the film develops these points visually.  Le Guin's image for Being, when it's not a forest, is often the standard one of the sea; and opposed to the buildings and machinery (and a couple of thugs) we see with Haber is a series of images associating Orr and Lelache with water.  To oversimplify, water—especially in the film, dark, sparkling, and/or misty water—stands for the Tao, at least for Nameable Tao: Being, the One.  Out of the sea (in the film) comes Lelache.  Out of one in Taoist theory comes two: Yin-Yang, all opposites in dynamic equilibrium, represented schematically at their instant of exact balance: the Yin-Yang figure of black and white, centrally (perhaps) female and male in balance—embodied in the film in the image of Lelache and Orr making love. 

     In the novel, Lelache is gray when she and George make love, but Le Guin has Lelache dream she hears a rushing creek and Orr looks into the sea (153; ch 10), getting the cosmic associations in that way.  The social and political implications Le Guin handles when Lelache first meets Orr, and they shake hands and immediately fall into like.  She reaches out with her brown hand, and he meets it with his white, and they repeat the image on a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee button her mather had from the 1960s: the famous SNCC button of the Black hand joined together with the White.  Black and White together, we shall overcome—plus the Yin-Yang symbol (52; ch. 4). 

     The Lathe of Heaven is part of Le Guin's "marriage group" and a rather somber romantic comedy: at the end of the action, a new and chastened world coalesces around Orr and Lelache as they exit to woo again, and I think it's that basic romantic pattern that comes through most clearly in the film.  We may read the film as a love story featuring a triangle with Orr at the apex, contested over by Lelache who loves him and Haber who wants to use him.  For good and for ill, esthetically, what comes through more strongly in the novel is the ongoing debate between the men, both literal debates and a comparison and contrast between two radically different—truly "Either/Or"—approaches to life.  And it's a familiar challenge in Le Guin's work: we have come out of the forest, climbed out of the sea, and we ask with that urExistentialist Koheleth, the Speaker in Ecclesiastes, What is good for the sons of men to do in our few days under the sun? (2.3).  Except that here the answer is the very nonExistentialist, nonWestern one of Taoist wu wei: Ordinarily, do nothing.  And in the novel there is a third point of view character: Heather Lelache.  In The Lathe of Heaven the ideal is not the masculinist one of having and acting but the more traditionally "feminine," Taoist one of "unaction"—doing nothing unnatural, nothing against the Tao, nothing aggressive, nothing to push things around, nothing to control others and the world. 

 

 

     The narration of The Lathe of Heaven as novel is third person omniscient from the points of view of George Orr (chs. 1, 3, 6, 9, the first part of 10, and 11), William Haber (chs. 2, 5, and 8), and Heather Lelache (4, 7, the second part of 10)—a division of points of view perhaps most closely paralleled in The Word for World Is Forest (1972), where roughly speaking, Selver is to Davidson as Orr is to Haber; Lyubov is to Selver and Davidson as Lelache is to Orr and Haber.  In general, Le Guin uses the divided points of view to ensure a positive image of Orr and a negative view of Haber.  Orr's thoughts are generally attractive; Haber's are not.  Lelache has a relatively positive view of Orr at first, and a strongly positive view later; her view of Haber is negative.  Lelache's view of herself starts negative—spider, coward (45, 91, 94; chs. 4, 7)—and seems to improve.  Indeed, it's arguable that Heather Lelache is the only character in the novel to really change.  In the novel, Orr returns to what he essentially is, and Haber works out the logic of his villain role, finally (in the dried onion image) having the last layers stripped from him to reveal the void at his core.  But such an argument for change in Lelache gets complicated in a world where realities keep changing; different realities produce different Heather Lelaches. 

     The constants are Orr and Haber, and the novel form allows a good deal of elaboration of what they stand for—aided by Lelache's point of view and gnomic comments by the narrator.  In the manner of the Germanic scops, Le Guin's naarrators sometimes pause to insert a pithy assertion summarizing the "moral" of the preceding episode. 

     For a central and highly instructive example, consider the narrator's comments speaking of Lelache, that "A person who believes, as she did, that things fit: that there is a whole of which one is a part, and that in being a part one is whole: such a person has no desire whatever, at any time, to play God.  Only those who have denied their being yearn to play at it" (106; ch. 7).  Such a statement aids Lelache's credibility in her judgments of Orr and Haber, and in its immediate context the comment helps us approve of Lelache even when she's about to move the plot along by making what seems to be the mistake of giving Orr a hyppnotic suggestion on what to dream.  More important, the comment should make us see that when Le Guin says "play God" she has something different and perhaps more basic in mind than just "act arrogantly" or "commit the sin of pride." 

     God isn't, the Tao is, in the universe of The Lathe of Heaven: Tao is the ultimate Whole of which people are parts and only as part of the Tao, and in touch with other people, can one achieve personal wholeness, know one's being.  Those who try to exist outside of Nature deny human nature, their human being.  Such people need to invent a transcendent God—and will always be tempted to play at the God-role themselves.  Such people necessarily will be more or less out of contact with themselves, and therefore, when in authority, dangerous. 

     When Haber still won't admit he knows Orr dreams effectively, Orr suspects that Haber is separating his mind into halves sealed off from each other, so that he both knows (and uses) and doesn't know Orr's power.  Given his own wholeness, Orr has trouble understanding how Haber might have gotten so out of touch with himself.  Like anyone who grew up in America during the Vietnam War, however, Orr must recognize the possibility of people high in the hierarchy with compartmentalized minds: When he was a child, the rulers of his country sent pilots to bomb cities with children in them to ensure a world "safe for children to grow up in" (87; ch. 6).

     Orr doesn't know the word, Tao, or Eastern philosophy (83; ch. 6), but he is in contact with the Tao and with human touch.  Indeed, his dreams may aid Tao in the process by which reality is constantly "replaced, renewed" (71; ch. 5); certainly, when Orr and Lelache make love, they aid in the remaking of love in the world.  Like the Tao and Taoist reality, love is made "like bread," constantly to make again, renewed (153; ch. 10).  Being in and in touch with the world, Orr can appear to Heather Lelache—and be—the Taoist ideal, the uncarved block, whole, "only himself," and, therefore, "everything."  As for all such insights in Le Guin, this one is momentary in immediate duration, and with Western readers usefully strange.  For Heather Lelache, who frequently sees herself as a black widow spider, what is most impressive about her insight into the mild-mannered Orr is Orr's strength: Orr is centered and he will not be moved from his "center" (95; ch. 7). 

     In Le Guin's earlier Rocannon's World and City of Illusions, there was something of a fair debate between the still and active lives.  Le Guin does not demonize Haber in LoH (or, she gives this devil his due), but she isn't about to give him a fair chance.  By the time of The Lathe of Heaven, the danger of men like Haber had become far too clear (most spectacularly in Indochina) for responsible writers on the Left to stage a dispassionate, "objective" confrontation between two legitimate approaches to life.  By the time we reach their crucial philosophical confrontations in chapters 7-9, we know that Orr will be right, Haber mostly—but not entirely—wrong. 

     Shortly before she really sees him, Heather Lelache had thought of Orr with the inevitable pun on Either Orr (90; ch. 7), from Soren Kierkegaard's Either/Or (1843), and Fear and Trembling (1843).  Moving into the center of their debate, Haber talks about Orr's test results in the now loaded terms of "Both, neither.  Either, or."  Wherever there's a polar antithesis, Orr is in the middle of the scale, "at the balance point."  Haber doesn't see Orr's scores as indications of balance or harmony, but a kind of "self-cancellation" that accounts for what Haber sees as Orr's social failure (134; ch. 9). 

     And accounts for Orr's resistance to change—which Haber sees as central to the nature of things and Orr sees as but one aspect of the world; "The other is stillness."  Orr holds that "We're in the world, not against it" and refuses the attempt "to stand outside things and run them."  Orr knows that there is a way—the Tao—and that it must be followed: "The world is, no matter how we think it ought to be.  You have to be with it.  You have to let it be" (135-36; ch. 9). 

     After a kind of day dream of encountering an Alien who gives him good the good doctrine that Self and the universe are one—and the phrase Er' perrehnne! for summoning aid (138; ch 9), Orr moves into his direct confrontation with Haber, his just saying "No" 1960s style, challenging authority and force.  Orr prepares to face Chaos and Old Night but instead quietly returns to that which for him is normal: tranquility (139-40; ch. 9).  He had gotten a little help from his friends, from the other "gods," the other people in the universe (140, 145; ch. 9).  Orr then tells Haber, spontaneously, unreflectively, that he won't let Haber use his effective dreams any more (140). 

     Haber appeals to Orr's sense of guilt, without success (142).  Haber then tries an appeal to reason and notes all the good he and Orr have done.  Orr notes the evil, including the nonexistence in this world of Heather Lelache, which is fine with Haber, and he tells that to Orr: Haber finds both Orr and Lelache irresponsible; Orr lacks both a social conscience and altruism, acts the role of "a moral jellyfish" (143; ch. 9, with more meanings than Haber intends).  Haber's attitude toward Lelache makes him appear especially villainous here, and that is useful for Le Guin's point that in this book a social consciences is an ambiguous thing, and altruism rather negative: when we have lost the Tao, we try to become righteous and altruistic (53; ch. 5)  But also, altruism has been suspect as a motivation for political action since Niccolo Machiavelli's analysis in The Prince (1513), and is certainly suspect among the Left in general, including Anarchists.  When President Lyndon Johnson and others into the 1970s presented American warfare in Indochina as altruistic (helping the Vietnamese), it was clear to anyone thinking seriously that the personal virtue of altruism became a vice when applied impersonally: on a large scale and politically.  When applied on mass scale, "altruism" soon becomes just another word for pushing things (and people) around. 

     Opposing the benevolent busy-ness of Haber, Orr recognizes that he has a gift and a duty to it.  To use it only when he must (a key word in Le Guin: must); there is no must to what he and Haber are doing, so Orr refuses to continue  (143; ch. 9).  Haber, though, intends to go on, to make Earth like heaven and men (in a title by H. G. Wells) like gods.  Orr mutters quiety to himself that we are already gods (145; ch.9). 

     In the climactic chapter 10, Orr receives a gift from an Alien, the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends," drinks some weak cannabis tea and dreams back Heather Lelache.  The two of them go together to Haber's lab for one last dream: Orr dreams he's no longer capable of effective dreaming—Haber is.  Orr advises Haber to consult with the Aliens, creatures of the Dream Time, who are more experienced than we "At dreaming—at what dreaming is an aspect of." And here Orr makes his beautiful speech on how "Everything dreams"—and how dreaming is central to the mode of Being of the universe, the agent of evolution.  When mind becaomes conscious, though, "evolution speeds up," and we must learn our place, our art, our limits.  "A conscious mind must be part of the whole, intentionally and carefully—as the rock is part of the whole unconsciously." 

     It really doesn't mean anything to Haber.  For Haber, Orr's speech is all mysticism, and mysticism is not acceptable for rational people.  And saying Er' perrehne to get aid from others is not acceptable to an egoistic loner like Haber (161; ch. 10). 

     Using his Augmentor on his own dream, Haber dreams his effective dream—the nightmare Orr stops. 

     After Haber's nightmare, Orr tells an Alien that he had an active day: he pushed the OFF button on the Augmentor, and it took everything he had to do it.   The Alien replies, "You have lived well," and, indeed, Orr has, since that one action out of his stillness has saved the world (170; ch. 11). 

     Orr sleeps and has normal dreams, which the Narrator compares to waves far out at sea, coming and going, "changing nothing.  They danced the dance among all the other waves in the sea of being" (170; ch. 11).  Orr awakes to visit Dr. Haber at the insane asylum and then meet again Heather Lelache, to woo her again.