“A Peculiar State of Poise”: Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Lathe of Heaven’

Noah Berlatsky / December 9, 2020

Ursula K. Le Guin is generally thought of as a progressive, even as a radical, on the strength of her utopian novels. Her 1974 classic The Dispossessed imagines a functioning anarchist society; 1969’s The Left Hand of Darkness is set on a planet where everyone is a hermaphrodite, which means it is a world without patriarchy. Yet Le Guin was always ambivalent about revolution, and especially about revolutionary violence. 

The clearest statement of her counter-revolutionary side is the 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven. It’s a book that is generally discussed primarily as a tribute to Philip K. Dick, and it certainly picks up that author’s obsession with the construction and breakdown of reality, and with the distinction between sanity and insanity. But less discussed, and just as important, is Le Guin’s debt to anticommunist dystopian imaginings—books like George Orwell’s 1984 and Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day, in which the utopian strivings lead to regimented, life-crushing dystopias. Like those novels, The Lathe of Heaven warns that even dreaming of a better future can result in nightmare. In doing so, it shows how Le Guin’s most famous fictions were inspired by the Cold War, and how they were constrained by it.

The Lathe of Heaven is set in Portland, Oregon in a future dystopia of 2002. The world is overpopulated and impoverished; life is grimy, run-down, and hemmed in. The protagonist, George Orr, is an inconsequential draftsman. At the beginning of the novel he is arrested for borrowing another’s rations of drugs in an effort to keep himself from dreaming. He is assigned to mandatory therapy with psychiatrist and sleep researcher William Haber.

George explains to Haber that he wants to stop dreaming because his dreams can alter reality; when he dreams an “effective” dream, George alleges, he remakes the world. Haber doesn’t believe him at first, but after hypnotizing George he gets him to use his dreams to change a picture on Haber’s wall. Usually no one but George remembers the previous reality, but being present at the instant of dreaming allows Haber to see and retain the change. He quickly decides he can use George to transform the world for the better.

But George’s dreams are an imperfect tool, and whenever Haber hypnotically suggests a dream, that dream goes awry. When he tells George to reduce overpopulation, George dreams a plague that kills billions. A request for peace between humans results in a devastating alien attack, which unites the world against the invaders. A command for racial harmony leads to a world of grey people, who unleash their aggression in ritualized, bloody sports events, rather than through prejudice.

Even so, Haber is unconvinced. He is a determined, remorseless do-gooder, asking Orr: “Isn’t that man’s very purpose on earth to do things, change things, run things, make a better world?” His gusty, bearish good humor metastasizes into a kind of ominous mechanical benevolence. At first he really wants to help George overcome his fear of dreams. But as he gains power to do good, means and ends become tangled until it’s impossible to separate the quest for power to do good from the quest for power. Each time Haber changes reality he gives himself more status and influence—a bigger office, more influence with the government—until he is one of the most important men in the world. And in his relationship with George, he becomes increasingly aggressive and sadistic. “To dominate [George], to patronize him was so easy as to be almost irresistible,” Haber thinks.

Haber’s research eventually allows him to simulate George’s effective dreaming so that he can do it himself. “There will be none of this tension between your will to nihilism and my will to progress, your Nirvana wishes and my conscious, careful planning for the good of all,” he exults. But when he tries to dream a better world, the result is nightmarish chaos. Existence melts and changes; buildings turn to jelly. The revolution undoes organic connections, and everything loses form and meaning. “It was the presence of absence: an unquantifiable entity without qualities, into which all things fell and from which nothing came forth. It was horrible, and it was nothing. It was the wrong way,” Le Guin writes. Or, to quote another reactionary vision of a hollowed-out modernity that has discarded the past: 

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

If changing the world inevitably unmakes and destroys the world, the only alternative is quietism—and George is in fact a kind of inaction hero. “I don’t want to change things!” he tells Haber early on. “Who am I to meddle with the way things go?” Haber views George’s refusal of responsibility and action as a flaw; in his eyes George is a “meek, characterless man.” But Heather, a lawyer who becomes George’s wife in some realities, sees him differently: “he was the strongest person she had ever known, because he could not be moved away from the center.” The dreamer who can change the world is strong because of his Buddhist-like commitment to not change the world. George won’t meddle with karma. 

Refusing to change the world doesn’t just mean that George doesn’t want to implement grand revolutions. He balks even at minor acts of personal kindness. When Haber asks George if he would help a woman bitten by a snake by giving her antivenom, George hesitates. “If reincarnation is a fact, you might be keeping her from a better life and condemning her to live out a wretched one. Perhaps you cure her and she goes home and murders six people in the village.” A fear of inorganic revolution slides helplessly into a reactionary taboo on lifting a finger to help a neighbor in immediate need. George might as well be a Republican official denouncing the socialism of mask mandates.

George’s weasily ethics-professor excuse for leaving a woman to die seems strikingly at odds with, say, passages in The Dispossessed about the exploitation of the poor, or the anti-slavery commitments of Le Guin’s 1995 Five Ways to Forgiveness. But it’s notable that throughout her work Le Guin very rarely puts herself or the reader in the perspective of an actual revolutionary. Even the anarchist Shevek, in The Dispossessed, who makes political speeches to mass rallies, does so only after traveling to a neighboring planet, where he is an outsider. He parachutes into a Cold War-like conflict between a capitalist and a totalitarian Communist nation to offer a third, non-binary option for peace via technological deus ex machina. Similarly, in Five Ways to Forgiveness the most vivid scenes of revolution are presented from the perspective of Le Guin’s beloved Star Trek-Federation-like Hainish interplanetary ambassadors and observers.  They are people who have a distance from the oppressions and injustice they are describing. They’re people who don’t have to take sides.

The contrast with Le Guin’s contemporary Joanna Russ is striking. Russ criticized Le Guin for mostly choosing to use male protagonists. Russ herself always wrote from the perspective of women—not least because she wanted to describe patriarchal oppression at ground level, as it is felt by those who experience it. Where Le Guin’s protagonists observe, and regret, and avoid violence, Russ’s revel in it. In novels like The Female Man (1975), We Who Are About To… (1977), and The Two of Them (1978), women turn to revolutionary violence not as a last resort or a regrettable necessity, but as a fierce joy in itself—an assertion of power, of revenge, of relief. When a wise man says, Orr-like, in Russ’s The Two of Them, “I am beginning to wonder about the wisdom of remaking culture, or even people’s lives,” the female hero considers his words carefully, then shoots him and liberates her sister.

That’s not to say that Russ is right and Le Guin is wrong. The latter is hardly a mindless counter-revolutionary, even in her most counter-revolutionary novel. George returns to the story about the snakebite victim and recognizes that the analogy—and his own arguments—were “false.” “You have to help another person,” he thinks. “But it’s not right to play God with the masses.” And even there, in extremis, sometimes playing God is in fact the right thing to do. The world George grew up in ended in a nuclear holocaust. He dreamed the overpopulated world into existence at the last moment before his death, creating not a good world, but a slightly better one.

Haber also is not, notably, just a stand in for communists and radicals. Most of his political commitments—antiwar, antiracism—are recognizably left. But his motivations are rooted in good old American exceptionalism, white saviorism, and pulp. “I frequently daydream heroics. I am the hero,” he tells George with gusto. “I’m saving a girl, or a fellow astronaut, or a besieged city, or a whole damn planet. Messiah dreams, do-gooder dreams. Haber saves the world! They’re a hell of a lot of fun—so long as I keep ’em where they belong.” 

Those Messiah dreams really have caused harm; Hitler’s piles of corpses and Stalin’s piles of corpses and (closer to home for Le Guin) Lyndon Johnson’s smaller but still horrific piles of corpses all lay in mute testimony to the potential dangers of Haberism, and the deadly imposition of happy endings. 

Still, it’s striking to see a dreamer write a tract against dreams, and a utopian thinker write a novel warning against utopians. You could see it as a sign of Le Guin’s depth and ambiguity, her ability to see every side. George, Haber reports, is “so sane as to be an anomaly,” his psych profile in the exact middle of extroversion/introversion, dominance/submissiveness—“a peculiar state of poise, of self-harmony.” Le Guin is clearly drawn to that centrist anti-extremist view from nowhere. The Cold War demanded side taking. Her writing shaped by that imperative, Le Guin in The Lathe of Heaven searches for a perspective with neither sides nor violence. She could only find it in dreams.

Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics.Patreon Button

7 thoughts on ““A Peculiar State of Poise”: Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Lathe of Heaven’

  1. It’s not quetism that’s represented in this book, it’s Taoism. Le Guin was a staunch Taoist and this book is a well crafted exploration of the Tao and the concept of wu wei. I can’t imagine any useful reading of the book that doesn’t at least mention Taoism.

  2. 1. Why do you read Le Guin as a utopian?

    In the 1st paragraph you seem to reference Dispossessed and Left Hand of Darkness as “utopian novels”; I’m not sure it’s accurate to characterize them in that way.

    Both novels depict societies that are troubled at best; your description of Left Hand of Darkness as a utopia because it depicts “a world without patriarchy” seems especially shallow – we explore a variety of social dysfunctions in that novel – do you really read this novel as a “utopia”?

    I feel you’re simplifying these novels to strengthen your conclusion: “it’s striking to see a dreamer write a tract against dreams, and a utopian thinker write a novel warning against utopians.”

    This isn’t striking. Le Guin has written other novels “warning” (I would say “complicating”) against utopias (at least one of which you reference as a utopia). The subtitle of The Dispossessed IS “An Ambiguous Utopia”.

    2. I’m uncomfortable with the repeated insinuations here that Le Guin is somehow writing or thinking as a “counter-revolutionary”.

    You also imply that the Lathe of Heaven is a reactionary text when, after quoting Le Guin at length, you then introduce a quote from the Wasteland with: “Or, to quote another reactionary vision of a hollowed-out modernity”.

    I’m also not sure it’s justified to read Haber as a stand-in for “revolution”. I think Haber is more about critiquing top-down social control; programs like eugenics etc. If we take revolution to simply mean “remaking society” then I suppose – but that’s really not what is implied when you then refer to Le Guin as a “counter-revolutionary”.

    I can’t help but feel you’re making poorly supported claims here to create a spicier take.

    Some further points – Le Guin depicts revolution (and even violence) as an explicit good in the Word for World is Forest. At the end of Left Hand of Darkness, the planet’s governments are dissolved in a revolution, clearly for the better ( I think without violence? I forget).

    3. You don’t mention the Taoist aspects of this novel. Many of Le Guin’s novels involve aspects of Taoist thought but I feel this one is the most strongly influenced, so it’s a mistake to neglect this.

    Leaving this out is what leads to the misreading of Orr as a “quietist” (quietism is a common mischaracterization of Taoist principle).

    While Orr does begin the novel as a quietist, as you note, he grows from his passivity, noting one should help where one can, but not “play god with the masses”. More importantly he is able to perform a small but vital action in the final sequences of the novel.

    To claim this novel is itself “quietist”, which seems to be linked to the larger point attempted about Le Guin as a counter-revolutionary and centrist, you would need to argue that Le Guin is claiming the dreams themselves are “Bad”, because they remake reality (a revolution).

    She isn’t claiming this. The dreams are shown to be quite helpful; as you note, they saved the world from nuclear disaster. It’s made clear in the last few pages that the dreams are necessary – they should not (can not) be stifled & they should not be “forced”.

    This all stems from the Taoist concept of Wu Wei, to act without acting.

    The real binary here is not Left vs Right, or even Extreme vs Center, but rather Wu Wei vs whatever the opposite of Wu Wei is. Forced control. Unhealthy flailing attempts to coerce the wild elements into some shape we think suits us.

    While it is interesting to link that criticism of “control” to real-world authoritarian programs, is it really fair to portray this as Le Guin “search[ing] for a perspective with neither sides nor violence”?

    Thank you for writing this article. It was provocative and not uninteresting. I would be interested in a response with further support of your claims.

  3. Hi all! The connection between taoism and quietism is pretty common! I don’t think it’s a mistake to say it’s quietism; I think it’s just perhaps a more skeptical take on her approach.

    I don’t think the piece calls Le Guin a counter-revolutionary or a centrist; perhaps you’re just saying that to make your comments spicier! What it says is that she has concerns about communist revolution (reasonable concerns, in my view!) and fears about radical change, which play out in different ways in different novels. LOH is the one, imo, where she’s most conscious of the dangers of change and least attuned to the ongoing oppressions that result when there is no change. As such, I think it’s her most reactionary text, though she’s always nuanced and there’s certainly room for other interpretations.

    I think when you compare Le Guin to Russ, it’s just striking the extent to which she favors outside/observer protagonists. Russ’ characters are always scruffy dissidents under direct threat from patriarchal violence; Le Guin’s are generally calm, thoughtful, philosophical men who witness oppression and violence with more confusion and sadness than anger. Consider George, who shifts through different worlds without changing, to the protagonists in Female Man, who show how different oppressions profoundly affect identity. Le Guin looks for a stillness beyond or outside conflict as one ideal, I think, Russ not so much.

  4. Interesting take. Mine is a bit different, I think of Lathe as pointing out how both George, and Haber, have extremist positions that fail them. Haber’s passion for white saviorism almost destroys the world he’s trying to save, and George’s preference to NOT act, and in the end, he is forced to. In the end, he talks about how significant it was, that he pushed that “Off” button.

    I was lucky enough to meet LeGuin at a book signing, years ago, and hear her speak. Amazing author.

  5. @beverlydiehl
    I don’t think George had an extremist position that failed him. He was not dedicated to inaction at all costs. The novel’s action only happens at all because George dreamed the world back from nuclear holocaust before the novel ever started – he saved the world, which seems a pretty significant action to me.

  6. I perceived the characters as representing different varieties of moderate leftism: Teddy Roosevelt-style progressivism for Haber, and precautionary-principle conservationism for George. I think it’s not interested in the revolutionary frame of The Dispossessed one way or the other but trying to engage a different debate about how the kinds of “sensible” leftists who already are able to obtain power should wield it.

  7. Thanks for the interesting piece. Two quick things… First, the logic problem that Haber poses with the snakebit woman, even George himself comes back around to later saying that Haber’s framing of the question is wrong and that he would help the woman.
    Second, and I admit that I may be over interpreting here, I believe that George being in the middle of the charts on, well, everything, is not to say that George is completely average, but that George created the world, repeatedly, around his self. He would be completely average because the entire world has been fabricated from him out.

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