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.