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Ursula Le Guin's "The Lathe of Heaven"


In Ursula K. Le Guin's famous sci-fi book The Lathe of Heaven (1971), the protagonist George Orr is a Portland, Oregon man who discovers that he has the peculiar gift to dream things into being—for better or for worse. Because of his prescription-drug abuse, he is court-ordered to consult a psychotherapist, Dr. William Haber, who promises to help him—but who, as it soon turns out, has his own plans for George's “effective dreaming.” The novel is a dark vision with a philosophical warning—an enigmatic story about uncontrolled and uncontrollable power, which became the basis of a popular 1979 PBS film and a 2002 remake produced by the A&E Network—both appearing under the same title as the novel. Le Guin's sci-fi fable is a truly prescient and startling view of the moral frailty of humanity and the unintended consequences of playing God. Among other literary awards, The Lathe of Heaven won the Locus Award for Best Novel in 1972.

As part of George Orr's prescribed “Voluntary Therapeutic Treatment,” a “dream” experiment is conducted to ease his mental anxiety about the world's “overpopulation” and the “overcrowding” of his own city of Portland, Oregon. This EEG experiment is using the patient's uniquely special talent for “effective dreaming” (where his dreams turn into reality) but all goes catastrophically awry when George dreams about a devastating global Plague. As an unanticipated result of George's “bad” dream, the world population is suddenly reduced from seven billion people to just one billion. At the same time, his “nightmare” nearly depopulates “the city of Portland, which had had a population of a million people before the Plague Years but had only about a hundred thousand these days of the Recovery” (Le Guin 62). Under the infamous law of unintended consequence, the so-called “perverse effect” is an unanticipated outcome which is contrary to what was originally intended or when the attempted solution makes an existing problem (like George's anxiety about “overpopulation”) in fact much worse.

One question comes to mind stemming from the plot of The Lathe of Heaven: isn't Dr. William Haber, the sleep-and-dream researcher (“oneirologist”) and George's psychotherapist, very similar to Professor Henry Hassel—the “conventional mad professor” and evil “time-machine” genius playing God in Alfred Bester's famous sci-fi short story “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed”? Isn't Dr. Haber just another “Mad Scientist with an Infernal Machine”—as George's black lawyer, Miss Heather Lelache, jokingly calls the HEW Control's overambitious psychotherapist and his “Augmentor” machine (Le Guin 43)?

It is the novel's hero George Orr himself who always warns Dr. Haber about all the changes his “effective” dreams have wrought upon reality during their joint sessions. For example, at the end of their first “Voluntary Therapeutic Treatment” session, George asks the good doctor: “Dr. Haber, does anything about that picture strike you as...unusual?” Dr. Haber tells George that there's nothing unusual about the horse in the picture, it's only “[a] life-size sex symbol right opposite the couch!” But George disagrees about the “horse”: “Was it there an hour ago? I mean, wasn't that a view of Mount Hood, when I came in—before I dreamed about the horse?” The good doctor is shocked: “Oh Christ it had been Mount Hood the man was right.... It had not been Mount Hood it could not have been Mount Hood it was a horse.... It had been a mountain.... George, do you remember the picture there as being a photograph of Mount Hood?” George replies: “Yes, I do. It was. Snow on it.... You don't?” Dr. Haber cautiously replies: “No, I'm afraid I don't. It's Tammany Hall, the triple-winner back in '89” (Le Guin 22-23). It is only when finally convinced of his patient's special talent for “effective” dreaming that Dr. Haber tries to take advantage of George's dreams for his own benefit. That's why George's lawyer Heather Lelache refers to Dr. Haber and his “Augmentor” as “a Mad Scientist with an Infernal Machine” (Le Guin 43).

“When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers”—says Sir Robert Chiltern in Act 2 of Oscar Wilde's comedic play An Ideal Husband. It is a clear warning about the great danger of having one's most ambitious dreams fulfilled. Dr. Haber makes hypnotic suggestions as to what George should dream about during their sessions, but even he can not control the practical results of his patient's “effective dreaming.” At the doctor's ambitious suggestion to dream about world peace, George dreams that Aliens have seized the Moon and are threatening mankind, thereby uniting all nations “to fight” in defense of the planet Earth: “He made me dream about peace. Peace on earth, good will among men. So I made the Aliens. To give us something to fight” (Le Guin 98).

Nor can Heather Lelache—in spite of her good intentions—escape the Law of Unintended Consequences or its so-called “perverse effect”—an unanticipated result which is contrary to what was originally intended or when the attempted solution makes an existing problem (like the Alien occupation of the Moon) even worse. A very sympathetic Heather hypnotizes George and suggests to him that “you'll dream that the Aliens aren't out there on the Moon any longer” (Le Guin 107). But her benign plan backfires when George dreams that the Aliens have now landed on Earth. The U.S. military reacts to the news of the extraterrestrial invasion by nearly destroying Portland and killing many locals, even though it turns out in the end that the invading Aliens are unarmed, peaceful, and harmless creatures.

Doesn't The Lathe of Heaven contain perhaps a bit too much of the sci-fi “sense of wonder”? Don't all its many sci-fi “wonders” render Le Guin's philosophically-oriented novel rather unpredictable, chaotic, and prone to “unintended consequences” (random accidents due to which outcomes are not the ones foreseen or intended by the characters' plans and purposeful actions)? According to The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (2003), “if science fiction does have an immediately recognizable narrative it is centered on what has been termed the 'sense of wonder'.... The sense of wonder is the emotional heart of science fiction” (p. 1). This “sense of wonder” is said to be “the emotional heart of science fiction...the appreciation of the sublime whether natural...or technological” (ibid.).

Dr. Haber misuses George's “effective dreaming” talent to pursue radical, far-reaching changes in the real present-day world (not the imaginary distant past), including population control, international peace, ecology, racial relations (now absolutely everybody's skin is grey in color), and other personal preferences and ambitions of his own. Somehow, the results of his tinkering with the present always seem to include a bigger and better-equipped office, a taller and more sumptuous office building, and far more personal power for George's overambitious psychotherapist. Seeing that Dr. Haber is grossly and dishonestly abusing his own power and the misplaced trust of his patient, Heather Lelache, the malpractice lawyer, comes to George's help after the latter desperately turns to her for help. Heather tries to use George's special talent for “effective dreaming” to make the evil psychiatrist into a really good man who will genuinely treat and cure George, not misuse and abuse his special talent. But she ultimately fails in changing Dr. Haber. For, how could William Haber ever be a good person after he practically kills six billion people overnight? In comparison, Dr. Hassel in “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed” kills absolutely nobody, not even his unfaithful wife and her lover. Le Guin (1929-) demonstrates her negative attitude to the evil doctor by virtually destroying him at the end of her novel.

In this connection, George muses sarcastically: “For Haber is a benevolent man. He wanted to make the world better for humanity. The end justifies the means. But what if there never is an end? All we have is means” (Le Guin 82). But does the supposedly “noble” end (making the world a better place)—if it's real at all—justify the less than “pure” means (a psychiatrist's dishonest manipulation of his unwilling patient)? Le Guin seems to dislike Dr. Haber so much that she consigns him to cataleptic oblivion and a living Hell at the end of her novel. But is she right or wrong in her harsh judgment of Haber?

Having just advanced himself to “[t]he directorship of a Government-sponsored research institute” (Le Guin 75), our modern Dr. Faustus uses some highly moralistic “speechmaking” to justify his world-transforming activism and self-promoting reformist zeal: “But in fact, isn't that man's very purpose on earth—to do things, change things, run things, make a better world?” (Le Guin 81). Haber's selfish exploitation of George's “effective dreaming” gift pretends to be for the purpose of achieving “the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people” (the main tenet of Jeremy Bentham's philosophical Utilitarianism).

But, in fact, he is just playing God—far more so than the jealous hero of Bester's “The Men Who Murdered Mohamed.” Because Dr. Haber is deciding the collective fate of all mankind, not just a couple of individuals known to him. That's why a reluctant George objects to Haber's “hypnotic suggestions” and “desiderata”: “Dr. Haber, I can't let you use my effective dreams any more.... Because the longer you go on the worse it gets. And now, instead of preventing me from having effective dreams, you're going to start having them yourself. I don't like making the rest of the world live in my dreams, but I certainly don't want to live in yours” (Le Guin 144, 146).

The problem with overambitious narcissists like Dr. Haber is that they always seek to be personally in control of their social-engineering experiments and society at large. In other words, he aspires to be nothing short of a little dictator—ostensibly for the sake of improving the lives of others: “This research must be finished. It is probably the most important scientific research that has ever been done. I need you to the extent that...I'm willing to compel you to serve a higher cause. If necessary, I'll obtain an order of Obligatory...Personal Welfare Constraint. If necessary, I'll use drugs, as if you were a violent psychotic. Your refusal to help in a matter of this importance is, of course, psychotic” (Le Guin 145). The Dr. Habers of this world always need to “achieve undisputed power” in order “to actually change the world for the better.” Dr. Samuel Johnson warned against personal ambition masked by noble goals: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

In later chapters, George confides in Heather, who is now his wife, that the old world had been annihilated in a thermonuclear war in April 1998. But George managed to dream it back into existence while lying mortally wounded among Portland's smoldering ruins. Because he doubts the reality of the current world, George is opposed to Dr. Haber's unscrupulous efforts to reshape mankind to his liking and create a perfect society: “But it's not right to play God with masses of people. To be God you have to know what you're doing. And to do any good at all, just believing you're right and your motives are good isn't enough. You have in touch. He isn't in touch...he sees the world only as a means to his end. It doesn't make any difference if his end is good.... He is insane.... He could take us all with him” (Le Guin 135).

Each of George's “effective dreams” gives Dr. Haber ever greater wealth and power, until the megalomaniacal psychiatrist finally becomes Director of HURAD (Human Utility: Research and Development) and, according to George, the effective ruler of the world: “HURAD really runs the world, as is. I can't help wondering why Haber needs any other form of power. He's got enough, God knows. Why can't he stop here? I suppose it's like Alexander the Great, needing new worlds to conquer” (Le Guin 160).

In his insane arrogance, Dr. Haber is using the Augmentor machine to duplicate George's EEG brain waves so that he can have his own effective dreams. In the end, the mad scientist's attempted effective dreaming nearly wipes out the entire world which is rescued at the last moment by George pulling the plug on the Augmentor. But the evil doctor incinerates his own brain in the process and becomes an insane invalid (that is why I'm quite shocked that some critics find Haber a “noble” man with “pure” intentions).

If Dr. Haber is George Orr's antipode and antagonist, how exactly does he differ from George? What precisely does the mad doctor stand for? Remember that George told his wife Heather that their old world was destroyed in a thermonuclear war which had broken out in April 1998. While George was lying half-dead amidst Portland's radioactive rubble, his effective dreaming brought the prewar world back into existence. Hence, George now doubts the reality of all these alternative worlds that his dreams are creating. Which is why he opposes Dr. Haber's attempts to reshape the “current” world to his liking and bring about a perfect utopian society. It is George's effective dreaming that has created the Aliens in the first place—in order to realize Haber's hypnotically-suggested idea of world peace: “it's not surprising that the Aliens are on my side. In a sense, I invented them…they definitely weren't around until I dreamed they were, until I let them be. So that there is—there always was—a connection between us” (Le Guin 134-135). But are all these psychic Aliens actually real?

Did the invading Aliens (the so-called “Alderbaranians”) who were conjured up in his effective dreaming have a direct influence on the course George is taking in his dreams, especially since their native element is supposedly “the dream time” itself. It is difficult to answer this question from just perusing Le Guin's enigmatic, unpredictable, and Twilight Zone-style novel. An Alderbaranian store proprietor recognizes George as iahklu, meaning that the Alien knows about his gift for effective dreams. The Alderbaranian store owner gives George a power word—“Er' perrehnne”—that the latter can use to call for “a little help from my friends,” in case something goes terribly wrong with his hypnotic dreams.

So, the Aliens in a way play a crucial part in resolving George's moral/ethical conflict with his autocratic therapist because they give George the power word which he can always use to survive any dream emergency involving Haber's Augmentor machine. That's why George advises his overbearing psychiatrist to talk with the Aliens about hypnotic dreaming and iahklu: “Dr. Haber, before you dream, you ought to talk with one of the Aliens…before you press the ON button” (Le Guin 167-168). But Dr. Haber ignores George's advice and fails most catastrophically to use the Aliens' power word in his own effective dreaming. This might be the extent to which the psychic Aliens (the Alderbaranians) are having a pivotal impact on the dream Twilight Zone world of George Orr and Dr. William Haber.

Works Cited

Bester, Alfred. “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed.” Science Fiction: The Science Fiction Research Association Anthology. Eds. Patricia S. Warrick et al. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. 274-284. Print.

James, Edward, and Farah Mendlesohn (Eds.) The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Cambridge and London: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Lathe of Heaven. Cambridge, MA: R. Bentley, 1982 (1971). Print.