Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Lathe of Heaven

Ursula K. Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven reads like a Philip K. Dick novel. I found myself checking the cover page more than once to verify the author's name. It has all the PKD elements, you see: the main character, George Orr, can't trust reality and is nervous and anxious about it. So he seeks psychological counseling. But it immediately becomes clear that he doesn't need counseling for delusions, because his anxiety is completely rational: his dreams occasionally edit reality. In major ways. And they are uncontrollable, as products of his subconscious, but imbued with a pervasive power to change all of history, and everyone else's memories of it.

Of course (and in a style I can only characterize as "twistedly PKDickian") the psychiatrist, Dr. Haber, who is treating Orr becomes subtly manipulative, both disbelieving him and simultaneously using his power to manipulate reality through hypnotic suggestion, all the while buffaloing him with torrents of pompous psychology babble. It's these meta-conversations that seem extremely Dickian, where one character questions the nature and permanence of reality and his interlocutor tries to convince him of one thing, while throughout maintaining a cognitive dissonance (of which the readers are aware) about an intricate web of lies.

Early in the book, when the world is overpopulated, dirty, and at war, Dr. Haber muses that "The only solid partitions left were inside the head." (p.9) Of course this kind of sentence, appearing in the middle of a description of how thin the walls are and how neighbors can hear everything about each other, set off all kinds of readerly alarm bells in my mind. It's a literary Chekhov's gun: its appearance foretells that even thoughts will not be private later in the book. And of course, with a power-hungry hypnotist psychologist controlling an anxious omnipotent dreamer, the invasion of one man's head becomes a central feature of the story, alongside the invasion of Earth.

By aliens.

Because dreams are not predictable.

This interplay between the two main characters: a shy and compliant and nervous Orr, and an overbearing, blustery Haber, fills most of the book, but the readers aren't meant to simply deplore Haber's ill-undertaken schemes and sympathize with Orr's helplessness and fear.
If Haber was afraid, of course Orr must be. He was suppressing fear. Or did he think, Haber suddenly wondered, that because he had dreamed the invasion, it was all just a dream? What if it was? Whose? (p. 104)
Part of the delight of the book, for me, was exactly the PKD effect: the novel made me wonder what I'd do with the power, and be thankful that my reality doesn't (apparently) suffer all the vagaries and discontinuities of causality evinced here.

I solidly recommend this book. It's mostly a psychological trip into one man's unspooling mind (which is a description of basically any PKD work, I know), with very little set-dressing of spaceships, or unusual societies, or a giant cast of hundreds of characters. It's a great addition to the genre of "be careful what you wish for" tales.

This post's theme word is kwashiorkor, "a form of malnutrition caused by protein deficiency." If all you ask is that kwashiorkor be eliminated, you might get a virulent childhood plague instead, so no children live long enough to develop it.

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