The Lathe of Heaven


In his essay Man, Android and Machine, Philip K. Dick expounds at length on a vintage neurological point, the so-called “appositional mind” (what we now call the left and right brains). Dick loved the idea of a mind divided into two bilateral, distinct identities: one concerned with reason, and one devoid of it. What most thought of as the unconscious, Dick believed, was in fact a different consciousness, one that we don’t wholly trust or understand. Dick writes, “it is this other mind or consciousness which dreams us at night — we are its audience as it binds us in its story telling; we are little children spellbound..”

A “consciousness which dreams us at night:” a fair one-liner about Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe Of Heaven if I ever saw one. And, of course, it is: Dick follows this last statement with the note, “…which is why Lathe of Heaven may represent one of the basic great books of our civilization.”

In brief: its protagonist is a man whose dreams can change reality. Occasionally, troubled, he sleeps, has what he terms an “effective” dream, and, when he wakes up, finds that something in the world has changed. Not changed overnight, mind you: in the morning, the new thing, the changed thing, has always been that way. The only person who remembers how things were before is the dreamer himself, who increasingly finds himself floating along the tracks of endless parallel realities, bumping into invisible corners.

The dreams dream the dreamer, dream the world, in and out of existence. Maybe Dick loved The Lathe Of Heaven because he saw his own obsessive personal tics worked throughout it; the critic and Dick biographer Lawrence Sutin calls the book “markedly influenced” by Dick’s sixties work. I think that sells this novel short. It’s a wholly original work, and it’s very Le Guin, too: her books are dominated by themes of adversity-morality, of right choices being made in the face of formidable uncertainty and darkness. This is no exception. Her “dreamer” could remake the world in his image, but instead he feels immense culpability for his power, and guilt. In the dreams, reality melts into a mutable nothingness, a complete darkness, and the dreamer must force it back to existence, a tremendous effort of will just to see the sun rise safely each morning. Which it does, but only barely.

The book addresses one question more than any other: “What is reality?” This was another favorite question of Dick’s, who defined reality as that which doesn’t go away when you stop thinking about it. Which is to say, real reality is objective — it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re interfacing with it. The world exists, and will continue to exist, regardless of you. A room doesn’t blink out of being when you close the door. But what about a situation where reality itself is dreamt into existence? Is that the opposite, a subjective reality? Not exactly, not when the dreams in question concretely mold the world and everyone else in it — not when the dreams continue to exist after you stop dreaming them, and exist for others. It’s a new model: a subjective-objective reality, a conscious-unconscious, a dual real.

This is the triumph of The Lathe of Heaven, that it takes place on these variegated levels of the fuzzy real. The difficult reality of the dreamer’s world is not that it exists, but that it changes. He is not entirely sure, at first, if it actually does — or if he is going mad. It isn’t until his psychiatrist hypnotizes him into a dream-state, dictates to him a dream scenario, then suddenly sees, as a third person, one physical reality dissolve into another, that the power is proven to be “real.” That is to say, that it exists for another person, which is perhaps another definition of reality: that which exists for others as well as yourself.


On a related note, read my interview with the grand dame of science fiction herself here.

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One Response to The Lathe of Heaven

  1. Great review, Claire. Friends have been trying to turn me onto Le Guin forever, but I think you may have just said enough to bump Lathe of Heaven up to the top of my to-read list. I never thought of her as someone raising the weighty philosophical conundrums that Dick does — I was always put off by the suggestion of the fantasy trappings that I associate with here work (likely unfairly, not having read any of it) — so this was the perfect way to undo my prejudice.Look forward to seeing you at your talk here on Sunday!yours,Greg

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