The Lathe of Heaven

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The Lathe of Heaven
Cover of first edition (hardcover)
AuthorUrsula K. Le Guin
CountryUnited States
GenreScience fiction
PublisherAvon Books
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardcover and Paperback)
AwardsLocus Award for Best Novel (1972)

The Lathe of Heaven is a 1971 science fiction novel by American writer Ursula K. Le Guin. The plot concerns a character whose dreams alter past and present reality. The story was first serialized in the American science fiction magazine Amazing Stories. The novel received nominations for the 1972 Hugo[1] and the 1971 Nebula Award,[2] and won the Locus Award for Best Novel in 1972.[1] Two television film adaptations have been released: the PBS production, The Lathe of Heaven (1980), and Lathe of Heaven (2002), a remake produced by the A&E Network.


The title is taken from the writings of Chuang Tzu (Zhuang Zhou) — specifically a passage from Book XXIII, paragraph 7, quoted as an epigraph to Chapter 3 of the novel:

To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven. (知止乎其所不能知,至矣。若有不即是者,天鈞敗之。)

Other epigraphs from Chuang Tzu appear throughout the novel. Le Guin chose the title because she loved the quotation. However, it seems that the quote is a mistranslation of Chuang Tzu's Chinese text. In an interview with Bill Moyers recorded for the 2000 DVD release of the 1980 adaptation, Le Guin clarified the issue:'s a terrible mistranslation apparently, I didn't know that at the time. There were no lathes in China at the time that that was said. Joseph Needham wrote me and said "It's a lovely translation, but it's wrong".[3]

She has published her own rendition of the Tao Te Ching, The Book of the Way and Its Virtue by Lao Tzu, the traditional founder of Taoism (Daoism). In the notes at the end of this book, she further explains this choice:

The language of some [versions of the Tao Te Ching] was so obscure as to make me feel the book must be beyond Western comprehension. (James Legge's version was one of these, though I did find the title for a book of mine, The Lathe of Heaven, in it. Years later, Joseph Needham, the great scholar of Chinese science and technology, wrote to tell me in the kindest, most unreproachful fashion that Legge was a bit off on that one; when the book [Tao Te Ching] was written the lathe hadn't been invented.) [4]

Translated editions have titled the novel differently. The German and first Portuguese edition titles, Die Geißel des Himmels and O Flagelo dos Céus, mean literally "the scourge [or whip] of heaven". The French, Swedish and second Portuguese edition titles, L'autre Côté du Rêve, På Andra Sidan Drömmen and Do Outro Lado do Sonho, translate as "the other side of the dream".

Plot summary[edit]

The book is set in Portland, Oregon, in the year 2002. Portland has three million inhabitants and continuous rain. It is deprived enough for the poorer inhabitants to have kwashiorkor, or protein deprivation. The culture is much the same as the 1970s in the United States, though impoverished. There is also a massive war in the Middle East, with Egypt and Israel allied against Iran. Global warming has wrought havoc upon the quality of life everywhere.

George Orr, a draftsman, has long been abusing drugs to prevent himself from having "effective" dreams, which change reality. After having one of these dreams, the new reality is the only reality for everyone else, but George retains memory of the previous reality. Under threat of being placed in an asylum, Orr is forced to undergo "voluntary" psychiatric care for his drug abuse.

George begins attending therapy sessions with an ambitious psychiatrist and sleep researcher named William Haber. Orr claims that he has the power to dream "effectively" and Haber, gradually coming to believe it, seeks to use George's power to change the world. His experiments with a biofeedback/EEG machine, nicknamed the Augmentor, enhance Orr's abilities and produce a series of increasingly intolerable alternative worlds, based on an assortment of utopian (and dystopian) premises:

  • When Haber directs George to dream a world without racism, the skin of everyone on the planet becomes a uniform light gray.
  • An attempt to solve the problem of overpopulation proves disastrous when George dreams a devastating plague which wipes out much of humanity and gives the current world a population of one billion rather than seven billion.
  • George attempts to dream into existence "peace on Earth" – resulting in an alien invasion of the Moon which unites all the nations of Earth against the threat.

Each effective dream gives Haber more wealth and status, until he is effectively ruler of the world. Orr's economic status also improves, but he is unhappy with Haber's meddling and just wants to let things be. Increasingly frightened by Haber's lust for power and delusions of Godhood, Orr seeks out a lawyer named Heather Lelache to represent him against Haber. Heather is present at one therapeutic session, and comes to understand George's situation. He falls in love with Heather, and even marries her in one reality; however, he is unsuccessful in getting out of therapy.

George tells Heather that the "real world" had been destroyed in a nuclear war in April 1998. George dreamed it back into existence as he lay dying in the ruins. He doubts the reality of what now exists, hence his fear of Haber's efforts to improve it.

Portland and Mount Hood play a central role in the setting of the novel

Heather has seen one change of reality and has a multiple memory – remembering that her pilot husband either died early in the Middle East War or else died just before the truce that ended the war in the face of the alien threat. She tries to help George but also tries to improve the world, saying that the aliens should no longer be on the Moon. George dreams this, but the result is that they have invaded the Earth instead. In the resultant fighting, Mount Hood is bombed and the dormant volcano starts to erupt again.

They go back to Haber, who has George dream another dream in which the aliens are actually peaceful. For a time there is stability, but Haber goes on changing things. His suggestion that George dream away racism results in everyone becoming gray; Heather, whose parents were of different races, never existed in this new reality. George manages to dream up a gray version of her, who is married to him and has a milder personality. Mount Hood continues to erupt and he fears the world is losing coherence.

Orr has a conversation with one of the aliens, suddenly comes to understand his situation, and thereby gains the courage to stand up to Haber. In their final session, Haber "cures" George of his ability to dream effectively - simply by having George dream that his dreams no longer affect reality. Haber, frustrated with Orr's resistance, uses what he has learned from studying George's brain during his sessions of hypnosis and controlled dreaming, and decides to take on effective dreaming himself. Haber's first effective dream represents a significant break with the realities created by Orr, and threatens to destroy reality altogether. Orr is able to shut off the Augmentor – even as coherent existence is dissolving into undifferentiated chaos – reaching the "off" switch through pure force of will. The world is saved, but random bits of the various recent realities are now jumbled together. George now works as a designer at a kitchen store run by one of the aliens. Haber survives, but with his mind shattered by his knowledge of the unreality of the world, which had been destroyed in a nuclear war years before - and which only exists because George's dreams had restored it. Heather, presumably her original self, exists, though with only a slight memory of George. George resigns himself to the loss of the Heather he had loved, but is hopeful he can win this new Heather's affections. The story ends as the two leave to have coffee together, as his inscrutably alien employer looks on.


Theodore Sturgeon, reviewing Lathe for The New York Times, found it to be "a very good book," praising Le Guin for "produc[ing] a rare and powerful synthesis of poetry and science, reason and emotion."[5] Lester del Rey, however, faulted the novel for an arbitrary and ineffective second half, saying "with wonder piled on wonder, the plot simply loses credibility."[6]


"One of the best novels, and most important to understanding of the nature of our world, is Ursula Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven, in which the dream universe is articulated in such a striking and compelling way that I hesitate to add any further explanation to it; it requires none."

Philip K. Dick

Though technology plays a minor role, the novel is largely concerned with philosophical questions about our desire to control our destiny, with Haber's positivist approach pitted against a Taoist equanimity. The beginnings of the chapters also feature quotes from H. G. Wells, Victor Hugo and Taoist sages. Due to its portrayal of psychologically-derived alternative realities, it has often been described as Le Guin's tribute to Philip K. Dick.[7] In his biography of Dick, Lawrence Sutin described Le Guin as having "long been a staunch public advocate of Phil's talent". According to Sutin, "The Lathe of Heaven was, by her own acknowledgment, markedly influenced by his [Dick's] sixties works."[8]

The book is critical of behaviorism.[9] Orr, a deceptively mild yet very strong and honest man, is labeled sick because he is immensely frightened by his ability to change reality. He is forced to undergo therapy whether he wants to or not. His efforts to rid himself of Haber are viewed as suspect because he is a psychiatric patient. Haber, meanwhile, is very charming, extroverted, and confident, yet it is he who eventually goes insane and almost destroys reality. He dismisses Orr's qualms about meddling with reality with paternalistic psychobabble, and is more concerned with his machine and Orr's powers than with curing his patient.

The book is also critical of the philosophy of utilitarianism, satirising the phrase "The Greatest Happiness for the Greatest Number." It is highly critical of eugenics throughout and somewhat conflates it with utilitarianism in suggesting that it would be a key feature in a society which took the philosophy as its central doctrine.

Le Guin may have named her protagonist "George Orr" as an homage to British author George Orwell, as well as to draw comparisons between the dystopic worlds she describes in Lathe, and the dystopia Orwell envisioned in his novel 1984.[10]


An adaptation titled The Lathe of Heaven, produced by the public television station WNET, and directed by David Loxton and Fred Barzyk, was released in 1980. It was the first direct-to-TV film production by Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and was produced with a budget of $250,000. Generally faithful to the novel, it stars Bruce Davison as George Orr, Kevin Conway as William Haber, and Margaret Avery as Heather Lelache. Le Guin was heavily involved in the production of the 1980 adaptation, and expressed her satisfaction with it several times.[3][11]

PBS' rights to rebroadcast the film expired in 1988, and it became the most-requested program in PBS history. Fans were extremely critical of WNET's supposed "warehousing" of the film, but the budgetary barriers to rebroadcast were high: The station needed to pay for and clear rights with all participants in the original program; negotiate a special agreement with the composer of the film's score; and deal with The Beatles recording excerpted in the original soundtrack, "With a Little Help from My Friends", which is an integral plot point in both the novel and the film. A cover version replaces the Beatles' own recording in the home video release.

The home video release is remastered from a video tape of the original broadcast; PBS, thinking the rights issues would dog the production forever, did not save a copy of the film production in their archives. However, a home video has been uploaded and archived on YouTube (see external links).

A second adaptation was released in 2002 and retitled Lathe of Heaven. Produced for the A&E Network and directed by Philip Haas, the film starred James Caan, Lukas Haas, and Lisa Bonet. The 2002 adaptation discards a significant portion of the plot and some of the characters. Le Guin had no involvement in making the film.[12]

A stage adaptation by Edward Einhorn, produced by Untitled Theater Company #61, ran from June 6 to June 30, 2012, at the 3LD Art + Technology Center in New York City.[13]

Publication history[edit]

Editions in English
Audio recording in English
  • 1971, France: L'autre côté du rêve, Marabout; reprinted in 2002 by Le Livre de Poche, ISBN 2-253-07243-5
  • 1974, Germany, Die Geißel des Himmels, Heyne, München, 1974, ISBN 3-453-30250-8
  • 1975, Argentina, La rueda del cielo, Grupo Editor de Buenos Aires.
  • 1979, Sweden: På Andra Sidan Drömmen, Kindbergs Förlag, ISBN 91-85668-01-X
  • 1983, Portugal: O Flagelo dos Céus, Publicações Europa-América
  • 1987, Spain, La rueda celeste, Minotauro, Barcelona, 1987; reprinted in 2017 ISBN 978-84-350-0784-9
  • 1987, Serbia: Nebeski strug, Zoroaster
  • 1991, Finland: Taivaan työkalu, Book Studio, ISBN 951-611-408-3
  • 1991, Poland: Jesteśmy snem, Phantom Press, ISBN 83-7075-210-1 & 83-900214-1-2
  • 1991, Portugal: Do Outro Lado do Sonho, Edições 70, ISBN 972-44-0784-5
  • 1992, Hungary: Égi eszterga, Móra, ISBN 963-11-6867-0
  • 1994, Czech Republic: Smrtonosné sny, Ivo Železný, ISBN 80-7116-173-X
  • 1997, Russia: Резец небесный
  • 2004, Portugal: O Tormento dos Céus, Editorial Presença, ISBN 972-23-3156-6
  • 2005, Italy: La Falce dei cieli, Editrice Nord, ISBN 88-429-1360-X
  • 2010, Korea: 하늘의 물레.황금가지, ISBN 978-89-6017-242-5
  • 2011, Turkey: Rüyanın Öte Yakası, Metis Yayınları, ISBN 978-97-5342-791-3
  • 2013, Romania: Sfâșierea cerului, Editura Trei, ISBN 978-973-707-723-3

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "1972 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-28.
  2. ^ "1971 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-28.
  3. ^ a b Issued as bonus material on New Video's 2000 release of The Lathe of Heaven, ISBN 0-7670-2696-9. The "lathe" discussion appears at 8:07—9:05.
  4. ^ Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching, A book about the Way and the power of the Way, Ursula Le Guin, p. 108 of the version edited by Shambhala Publications, Inc., 9/97
  5. ^ "If . . .?", The New York Times, May 14, 1972.
  6. ^ "Reading Room", If, April 1972, p.121-22
  7. ^ Watson, Ian (Mar 1975). "Le Guin's Lathe of Heaven and the Role of Dick: The False Reality as Mediator". Science Fiction Studies. SF-TH Inc. 2 (5): 67–75. See also: Ashley, Michael (2000). Gateways to Forever: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines, 1970–1980 (2nd ed.). Liverpool University Press. pp. 75–77. ISBN 1-84631-002-4.
  8. ^ Sutin, Lawrence (2005) [1989]. Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick. Carroll & Graf Publishers. p. 276. ISBN 0-7867-1623-1.
  9. ^ Bucknall 1981, p.90
  10. ^ Wilcox, Clyde (1997). Political Science Fiction. ISBN 978-1-57003-113-7. Retrieved 2010-10-23.
  11. ^ "Ursula K Le The Lathe of Heaven". Retrieved 2009-02-25.
  12. ^ "Ursula K. Le Guin: Note on the remake of Lathe of Heaven". Archived from the original on 2007-08-12. Retrieved 2013-12-07.
  13. ^ Untitled Theater Company #61
  • Barbour, Douglas (Nov 1973). "The Lathe of Heaven: Taoist Dream". Algol. Andrew I. Porter (21): 22–24.
  • Bernardo, Susan M.; Murphy, Graham J. (2006). Ursula K. Le Guin: A Critical Companion (1st ed.). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-33225-8.
  • Bloom, Harold, ed. (1986). Ursula K. Le Guin. Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. ISBN 0-87754-659-2.
  • Bucknall, Barbara J. (1981). Ursula K. Le Guin. Recognitions. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. ISBN 0-8044-2085-8.
  • Cadden, Mike (2005). Ursula K. Le Guin Beyond Genre: Fiction for Children and Adults (1st ed.). New York, NY: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-99527-2.
  • Cummins, Elizabeth (Jul 1990). "The Land-Lady's Homebirth: Revisiting Ursula K. Le Guin's Worlds". Science Fiction Studies. SF-TH Inc. 17 (51): 153–166.
  • Cummins, Elizabeth (1993). Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin (2nd ed.). University of South Carolina Press. ISBN 0-87249-869-7.
  • Franko, Carol S. (1996). "The I-We Dilemma and a "Utopian Unconscious" in Well's When the Sleeper Wakes and Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven". Political Science Fiction. University of South Carolina Press. pp. 76–98. ISBN 1-57003-113-4.
  • Huang, Betsy (Winter 2008). "Premodern Orientalist Science Fictions". MELUS. University of Connecticut. 33 (4): 23–43. doi:10.1093/melus/33.4.23. ISSN 0163-755X. Cite has empty unknown parameter: |coauthors= (help)
  • Jameson, Fredric (Jul 1982). "Progress Versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?". Science Fiction Studies. SF-TH Inc. 9 (27): 147–158.
  • Jameson, Fredric (2005). Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. Verso. ISBN 1-84467-033-3.
  • Malmgren, Carl D. (1998). "Orr Else? The Protagonists of Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven". Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. Idaho State University: International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts. 9 (4): 59–69. ISSN 0897-0521.

External links[edit]