The Lathe of Heaven: SF Masterworks 44
by Ursula K Le Guin
(Victor Gollancz, £6.99, 184 pages, paperback; first published 1971; this edition 9 August 2001.)
No-one stays at a peak of creativity forever. Even those who burn the brightest will finally be judged from the output of a few years, a decade maybe. Before then would have been apprentice work, after that peak a tailing off due to comfort, hunger or the lack of it or any number of personal reasons. Major work may be published then, but it doesn't quite match up to that of the peak period. Ursula Le Guin's purple patch -- one of the richest in the SF/Fantasy genre -- lasted from 1967 to 1974. It began with the publication of A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness and ended with The Dispossessed, three novels which gathered a clutch of awards between them, major works by any standard. In between fell the remainder of the original Earthsea trilogy, plus major short fiction such as "Nine Lives", "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas", "The Day Before the Revolution" and "The Word for World is Forest". And the novel being reviewed here.
The Lathe of Heaven was first published in 1971, the same year as the middle Earthsea novel, The Tombs of Atuan. It has always been the odd one out amongst Le Guin's novels. Unlike the others, set on other planets, it takes place on Earth in the (then) near future of 1998. In theme and subject matter it reads as if Le Guin was staking a claim on the turf of a contemporary major SF writer, namely Philip K. Dick. Le Guin's protagonist is a Dickian "little man", George Orr. He's somebody you wouldn't notice in the street, but his dreams have the power to alter reality. Orr comes to the attention of William Haber, a psychiatrist. Haber begins to make use of Orr's ability with the best of motives: he's trying to make the world, overcrowded as it is, a better place. But things don't quite work out as planned.
This is a short novel, occasionally playful in style. Though not a comic novel, it certainly uses its fair share of irony and doesn't always go in the direction you might expect. Maybe not a Masterwork, as Gollancz's packaging states, but an engaging diversion in the career of one of the great SF/Fantasy writers.
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© Gary Couzens 24 November 2001