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The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin (1971) (read in 2018)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This is the story of George Orr, a man whose dreams change reality. He lives in a world where he’s required to visit a psychiatrist to address his affliction. Soon, though, the world no longer requires him to do so—because his psychiatrist is manipulating him into changing the world to the doctor’s benefit. Orr’s effective dreams are not without side-effects—anyone who lives through one ends up with multiple memories, remembering both the way the world was and also the way the world is (including the history leading up to the world in which they now live). Doctor Haber invents a machine called the Augmentor that focuses Orr’s power.

Orr’s dreams don’t change reality so much as shift himself and those around him into different timelines. Eventually, he chooses a timeline in which aliens invade the planet—ostensibly with the goal of finding him, the one capable of bending reality. The aliens don’t try to stop so much as try to get him to control himself, to get out from under Dr. Haber’s thumb. Orr is OK, but Haber is dangerous.

Philip K. Dick worked very much in this vein, where the line between observed and actual reality is blurred into nothingness. The story is a mix of various potential realities, composed of the dreams of Haber and Orr as well as strands of the original reality. Read the Wikipedia article for a more in-depth description of the plot.


“Those whom heaven helps we call the sons of heaven. They do not learn this by learning. They do not work it by 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 : XXIII”
Page 26
“There were nine train and truck tunnels under the Willamette, sixteen bridges across it, and concrete banks along it for twenty-seven miles. Flood control on both it and its great confluent the Columbia, a few miles downstream from central Portland, was so highly developed that neither river could rise more than five inches even after the most prolonged torrential rains. The Willamette was a useful element of the environment, like a very large, docile draft animal harnessed with straps, chains, shafts, saddles, bits, girths, hobbles. If it hadn’t been useful, of course it would have been concreted over, like the hundreds of little creeks and streams that ran in darkness down from the hills of the city under the streets and buildings.”
Page 37
“Above the heads of those now riding the GPRT train in the Broadway Tunnel were tons of rock and gravel, tons of water running, the piles of wharves and the keels of ocean-going ships, the huge concrete supports of elevated freeway bridges and approaches, a convoy of steamer trucks laden with frozen battery-produced chickens, one jet plane at 34,000 feet, the stars at 4.3 + light-years.”
Page 37
“Nothing endures, nothing is precise and certain (except the mind of a pedant), perfection is the mere repudiation of that ineluctable marginal inexactitude which is the mysterious inmost quality of Being. — H. G. WELLS, A MODERN UTOPIA”
Page 41
“Orr stood up, but didn’t head for the door. “Did you ever happen to think, Dr. Haber,” he said, quietly enough but stuttering a little, “that there, there might be other people who dream the way I do? That reality’s being changed out from under us, replaced, renewed, all the time—only we don’t know it? Only the dreamer knows it, and those who know his dream. If that’s true, I guess we’re lucky not knowing it. This is confusing enough.””
Page 71
“Not quite night yet: late twilight on the fields. Clumps of trees looked black and moist. The road he was walking on picked up the faint, last light from the sky; it ran long and straight, an old country highway, cracked blacktop. A goose was walking ahead of him, about fifteen feet in advance and visible only as a white, bobbing blur. Now and then it hissed a little. The stars were coming out, white as daisies. A big one was blooming just to the right of the road, low over the dark country, tremulously white. When he looked up at it again it had already become larger and brighter. It’s enhuging, he thought. It seemed to grow reddish as it brightened. It enreddenhuged. The eyes swam. Small blue-green streaks zipped about it zigzagging Brownian roundianroundian. A vast and creamy halo pulsated about big star and tiny zips, fainter, clearer, pulsing. Oh no no no! he said as the big star brightened hugendly BURST blinding.”
Page 83
“He never spoke with any bitterness at all, no matter how awful the things he said. Are there really people without resentment, without hate? she wondered. People who never go cross-grained to the universe? Who recognize evil, and resist evil, and yet are utterly unaffected by it? Of course there are. Countless, the living and the dead. Those who have returned in pure compassion to the wheel, those who follow the way that cannot be followed without knowing they follow it, the sharecropper’s wife in Alabama and the lama in Tibet and the entomologist in Peru and the millworker in Odessa and the greengrocer in London and the goatherd in Nigeria and the old, old man sharpening a stick by a dry streambed somewhere in Australia, and all the others. There is not one of us who has not known them. There are enough of them, enough to keep us going. Perhaps.”
Page 100
“You’ll be the greatest benefactor humanity has ever had in spite of yourself. All the time and energy humans have wasted on trying to find religious solutions to suffering, then you come along and make Buddha and Jesus and the rest of them look like the fakirs they were. They tried to run away from evil, but we, we’re uprooting it—getting rid of it, piece by piece!””
Page 130

Actually, no, not according to Haber’s own theory. If they’re just jumping continua, the suffering continues, but they don’t live with it. They’re just fine-tuning their own experience, changing nothing.

““I am tired,” he said. “I did a lot today. That is, I did something. The only thing I have ever done. I pressed a button. It took the entire willpower, the accumulated strength of my entire existence, to press one damned OFF button.” “You have lived well,” the Alien said.”
Page 178
“He lay back. He clearly sensed the pity and protective compassion of the Alien standing across the dark room. It saw him, not with eyes, as short-lived, fleshly, armorless, a strange creature, infinitely vulnerable, adrift in the gulfs of the possible: something that needed help. He didn’t mind. He did need help. Weariness took him over, picked him up like a current of the sea into which he was sinking slowly. “Er’ perrehnne,” he muttered, surrendering to sleep.”
Page 178
“Orr slept. He dreamed. There was no rub. His dreams, like waves of the deep sea far from any shore, came and went, rose and fell, profound and harmless, breaking nowhere, changing nothing. They danced the dance among all the other waves in the sea of being. Through his sleep the great, green sea turtles dived, swimming with heavy, inexhaustible grace through the depths, in their element.”
Page 178