The Lathe of Heaven

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The Lathe of Heaven
Cover of first edition (hardcover)
Author Ursula K. Le Guin
Country United States
Language English
Genre Science Fiction
Publisher Charles Scribner's Sons
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover & Paperback)
Pages 184 pp
ISBN ISBN 0-684-12529-3 Parameter error in {{isbn}}: Invalid ISBN.

The Lathe of Heaven is a 1971 science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin. The plot revolves around a character whose dreams alter reality. It has been adapted into two television films. The novel was nominated for a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award, and won the Locus Poll Award for best novel in 1972. It first appeared serialized in the magazine Amazing Stories.

Plot summary

Template:Spoiler The novel is set in Portland, Oregon. The 'real world' had been destroyed in a nuclear war and George Orr has dreamed it back into existence as he lay dying in the ruins. This places him in the first of many realities we encounter in the book, where he is a draftsman and has long been abusing sleep deprivation drugs to prevent himself from dreaming.

It is set approximately 30 years in the future, relative to when the book was first published, and overpopulation, famine, malnutrition, global warming, urban blight, and massive wars in the Middle East are a commonplace. Orr is forced to undergo "voluntary" psychiatric care for his drug abuse, under threat of being placed in an asylum.

He begins attending therapy sessions with an ambitious psychiatrist and sleep researcher named William Haber, who discovers Orr's power to dream "effectively" and seeks to use it 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 alternate worlds, based on an assortment of utopian (and dystopian) premises familiar from other science fiction works:

  • 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 75% of humanity.
  • 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 late in the book where 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. He becomes increasingly frightened by Haber's lust for power and delusions of Godhood. He seeks out a lawyer to represent him against Haber, and while he falls in love with her and even marries her in one reality, this effort is unsuccessful in getting him out of therapy.

Eventually, Haber becomes frustrated with Orr's resistance 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 the Earth completely. He is stopped by Orr through pure force of will. Reality is saved, but distorted, and Haber's mind is left broken.

Though technology plays a slight 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 alternate realities, it has often been described as Le Guin's homage to Philip K. Dick.

The book is very critical of psychiatry. 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.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

The 1979 adaptation—generally faithful to the novel—was produced by the public television station WNET, directed by David Loxton and Fred Barzyk. It starred Bruce Davison, Kevin Conway, and Margaret Avery. Due to rights issues surrounding the use of a clip from the Beatles tune "With a Little Help from My Friends" (the song is integral to one of the novel's plot points), it was never re-aired after the network's rights to rebroadcast the program expired in 1988. It would be another twelve years before it was released to home video in 2000 (in fact, the home video release is remastered from a tape someone recorded from the original broadcast; PBS, thinking the rights issues would dog the production forever, did not save a copy of the production in their archives). The rights issue was solved by replacing the original Beatles tune with a cover version of the same song.

A second adaptation, retitled Lathe of Heaven, was produced for the A&E network in 2002 and directed by Philip Haas. It starred James Caan, Lukas Haas, and Lisa Bonet. This adaptation discards a significant portion of the plot, some essential characters, and much of the philosophical underpinnings of the book and the original PBS production.


The title is taken from the writings of Chuang Tzu—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.

Other epigrams from Chuang Tzu appear throughout the novel. The translator is uncredited, and may be Le Guin herself; she has published her own translations of another Taoist writer, Lao Tzu.

Translated editions have titled the novel differently. The German title, Die Geißel des Himmels, means literally "the scourge [or whip] of heaven". The French and Swedish titles, L'autre côté du rêve and På andra sidan drömmen, translate as "the other side of the dream".


The 2004 film The Butterfly Effect has a very similar premise, in which the title character discovers that he has the ability to change the present world by, essentially, dreaming an alternate past.

Release details

File:The Lathe of Heaven (book cover).jpg
Modern book cover from Harper Academic
Editions in English
Audio recording in English

External links