The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K LeGuin (1971)
‘George Orr is in most respects a mild and unremarkable man, but he has an ability with which he can transform the world around him, for George’s dreams alter reality. His psychiatrist, William Haber, at first sceptical, cannot resist using George’s powers once he sees their effects – initially just to advance his own career, but then, gaining confidence, to try to change their overcrowded world into a more attractive place.’
Blurb from the 2001 Gollancz SF Masterworks paperback edition. (no 44)
George Orr discovers a strange gift, a gift he has been in denial about since he was young, since George has the power to change reality with his dreams.
Finding himself in the midst of an apocalyptic nuclear war, George dreams of a new world and changes all of recent history. However, the new world in which he finds himself is not perfect and George is caught taking unprescribed drugs to stop himself dreaming and is referred to a therapist.
The therapist however, at first dubious of George’s claims of reality-changing dreams, is convinced when, under hypnosis, George is triggered into an ‘effective dream’ and changes the painting on the therapist’s wall from a landscape of a mountainous scene to one of a horse.
Soon George finds himself a virtual slave to the therapist, who employs a brain-scanning machine and his regular hypnotic sessions to gradually change the world into what the therapist considers to be a perfect society.
In some ways this can be considered a re-telling of other dangerous fables of wishes come true, such as the ancient tale of the genie in a bottle or the more recent ‘Monkey’s Paw’ where one has to word one’s wish precisely to avoid ambiguity. When the therapist asks George to dream of a less overpopulated world the new reality becomes an earth which was, some time ago, devastated by a terrible plague and is now entering into a new World war. Again, the therapist asks for a dream of a world in which humans are not fighting each other nd the outcome is a reality where hostile aliens have set up a base on the Moon and Humanity has united to war with them.
Somehow a reality is established where the aliens have been misunderstood and wish only peace, but George’s therapist will not let go his egomaniacal desire to continue reshaping reality.
It’s a very Dickian idea, stylishly constructed and told, with LeGuin’s amazing gift for telling compelling human stories in a fantastic and unearthly way.
There’s also the Kafka-esque idea of a man trapped by the system into a form of mental slavery, unable to convince anyone (apart from ultimately a female lawyer) of the incredible truth, and the word ‘truth’ in this context is itself an unstable concept.
It’s a novel about power and greed, absolute power corrupting absolutely, about the nature of society and whether, ultimately, a utopia would be a good thing to desire or achieve.