Book Recommendation: The Lathe of Heaven

Two weeks ago I went to hear Ursula K. Le Guin speak at the University of Oregon, and I bought an autographed copy of her classic book The Lathe of Heaven. I figured since we share the same first name, it’s time I familiarized myself with her work.

Today I finished reading The Lathe of Heaven. It was a quick and entertaining read. It’s a sci-fi book about George Orr, a man who has the ability to change reality retroactively through his dreams. He is afraid of this ability, called “effective dreaming,” and has been taking drugs to prevent himself from going into REM sleep. When he’s ordered into therapy to treat his drug use, the therapist, Dr. Haber, quickly discovers George’s ability. Dr. Haber begins using George to change the world by suggesting dream topics to him under hypnosis. Unfortunately, George’s unconscious is not entirely predictable. When Dr. Haber asks him to solve the overpopulation problem, George dreams about a plague that kills 6 billion people. When Haber asks George to end racism, he dreams of a world where everyone has the same grey skin tone.

According to Merriam-Webster, a lathe is “a machine tool that performs turning operations in which unwanted material is removed from a workpiece rotated against a cutting tool.” In this book, Haber is essentially using George as a lathe. He is using George’s dreams as a tool to shape the world according to his desires.

The strongest theme that stood out to me was that humans should not attempt to play the role of God. Sometimes scientists can create technology that allows them to intervene in things that they should not be intervening in. In the book, Dr. Haber is perfecting a machine that will allow anyone to have effective dreams — and the consequences are disastrous. There is an order to the natural world, and it can be dangerous to meddle in that. Just because a scientist has the ability to create a technology does not necessarily mean that they should do so. Today we have GMOs in our food supply. We have nuclear weapons. We have the ability to detect whether a woman is pregnant with a Down’s syndrome baby and then terminate that pregnancy. Who knows what kind of technology we may have 20 or 30 years from now?

Still, I wouldn’t recommend this book if it didn’t end up being hopeful. In spite of all the difficulties of this world, we are resilient, and through it all — there is love.

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