The Lathe of Heaven (1971) by Ursula K. Le Guin

TheLatheofHeaven1One of the most radical, yet unradical, ways of thinking.

Fundamentally paradoxical, yet still, fundamental.

Both the thesis and antithesis for change.

(One of most difficult concepts to teach to a classroom of 9th graders scratching themselves in their uniforms on that one day of the year when state-mandated teaching objectives cross into the territory of “Eastern Philosophy.”)

The Tao. The Way.

George Orr is the embodiment of The Way.

In The Lathe of Heaven, George Orr visits a therapist to deal with his lifelong problem of affecting reality with his dreams, what he calls “effective dreaming.” But when the landscape of reality starts changing, steady Orr is not sure he can trust the ambitious Dr. Haber with his powerful mind. Can a passive, compliant person like Orr take back control of his dreams, and reset the world?

The dualism of personality, symbolized in the style of a PKD novel.

But, really, a celebration of a particular personality.


TheLatheofHeaven2At first, it may seem like a tale about two undesirable opposites, vain wit versus witless passivity. Le Guin pulls no punches with her quarry, the arrogant therapist Dr. Haber, who was “no being, only layers” [81], and who “was not… really sure that anyone else existed, and wanted to prove they did by helping them” [28].

(Ouch, says the woman who practices the same profession.)

But Le Guin also drops a few judgmental remarks on her protagonist Orr, who is “unaggressive, placid, milquetoast…” [7], and “meek, mild, stuttering” [42]. George Orr is “like a block of wood not carved. [96]

But it turns out Le Guin likes blocks of wood. And so does Lao Tzu:

The way goes on forever nameless.
Uncut wood, nothing important,
yet nobody under heaven
dare try to carve it.

[“Sacred Power,” Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way by Ursula Le Guin, p. 48]

In the notes of her demystified translation of the Tao Te Ching (2009), Le Guin expounds on that “block of wood”:

Uncut wood—here likened to the human soul—the uncut, unearned, unshaped, unpolished, native, natural stuff is better than anything that can be made out of it. Anything done to it deforms and lessens it. Its potentiality is infinite. Its uses are trivial. [83]

Not an attack on the passive personality. This is the celebration, perhaps exploration, of one. A personification of The Tao.


TheLatheofHeaven3There’s other good stuff, too. Le Guin, as always, is funny, with “enhuging” and “enreddenhuged” being only two examples of hilarious attempts at short and concise, Tao-like humor. She also addresses vainglorious ambition, the expert pretense of therapy, Orwellian dystopia, PKD-style wibble-wobble of dreaming, interracial relationships, the gray tedium of an ethnic melting pot, among other things.

But Lathe also arouses curiosity about Le Guin’s lifelong relationship to Taoism. A woman who tells it like it is, who dissects books with an unforgiving blade, who unleashes snappy comebacks at fellow authors, and who turns humble acceptance speeches into defiant criticism. Ursula Le Guin is no George Orr.

But The Lathe of Heaven is a lot like The Tao.

Simple. Short. Sweet. Funny.

Mystical and whole.

Like the stanzas of a Tao verse.

22 thoughts on “The Lathe of Heaven (1971) by Ursula K. Le Guin

  1. Kate says:

    I think I tried reading this at age 12 or so, hoping for more Earthsea, and retired, baffled. I’m not sure I’m ready for it yet even now.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I have not read the Earthsea novels, but Lathe is very scifi, and very different from the fantasy subgenre. I used to love fantasy, but I find I prefer the more mind-bendy stuff now. I do need to explore Earthsea, though.


  2. Jesse says:

    I assume from the review you read Le Guin’s “translation” of Daodejing. What did you think? Do you have other versions to compare it to?

    I was personally a bit disappointed with the liberties Le Guin took with the renowned text. Her notes are great, and the use of language is also a pleasure. But for me, she did something akin to what Peter Jackson did with The Lord of the Rings: shifted things here and there to create a desired product, that is, rather than trying to adhere as close to the source material as possible. The Lathe of Heaven, on the other hand, I think gets it right.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      My only “real” encounters with Lao Tzu were back when I was a fresh-faced high school teacher trying to “cover the material.” I always used supplements, usually from online, but I have no idea what translations I used. I probably mixed a few translations, completely ignorant of the variety.

      I picked up Le Guin’s version after reading Lathe because I knew about the mistranslated title, I knew she had a book on The Tao, and much of what she says in Lathe sounded very Tao-like.

      Le Guin is very upfront about it being her interpretation and not an authoritative text, and her notations (“so much for capitalism”) are most enjoyable. While I enjoy the concepts of Taoism, but I mostly picked it up just for another excuse to traipse around Le Guin’s head.

      I notice you are saying “Dao,” which is what I called it when I taught. Now I’m saying “Tao” because of Le Guin’s influence. I assume the difference is just based on phonetic interpretations?


      • Jesse says:

        The difference between ‘dao’ and ‘tao’ is simple. It’s possible to render Chinese characters into Latin characters to get an approximation of the sound. In the 19th and 20th centuries, several Western anthropologists and philologists created their own, differing versions of Latinized Chinese, and a few years later Mao Zedong ordered his own scholars to do the same. ‘Tao’ is from a Western system called the Wade-Giles, whereas ‘dao’ is from the Chinese system, which is called pinyin. Same character, just differing Latinization. Mao Tse-tung is the same person as Mao Zedong, as are Laozi and Laotzu. There is Peking/Beijing, and many, many others.)

        I lived in China for 4 years (4 years!!) and learned quite a bit of the language – much more than I ever thought possible – and can say the Chinese system is more comprehensive. It therefore pains me when I see Western scholars, like Le Guin, using other systems which are not as coherent, not to mention they are not “Chinese”. Why use an outdated system when a better one is available that comes directly from the horse’s mouth? This is why I call it Daodejing, not Tao Te Jing. I guess Laozi wouldn’t have cared, though. 🙂


        • Jesse says:

          I forgot to mention, this book was made into a film. Mystery Science Theater 3000 material, if you ever have an hour or two to kill and want a laugh, it’s available for free on youtube.


          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            I found out about the movie when I saw the video cover online, but it didn’t interest me. But when you mention MST3K…


        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          I had the impression from your blog that you had lived in China, so I figured you might provide a satisfying and comprehensive answer, which you did, thank you 🙂 Haha, no Laozi wouldn’t have cared, but Mao Zedong certainly did, and it’s a forehead slap for me to not have assumed that one of the systems would be a result of that.


  3. I’ve only read three of the Earthsea novels, but I love Le Guin’s writing. This sounds great. Glad I got it for my Kindle a month or so back. 🙂


  4. The PKD-esque questioning of reality and use of the Tao is a fascinating element of the novel that I didn’t really touch on, so I’m glad your review had more of a Tao focus. Gives me something to think about 🙂

    I’m a huge fan of this novel, as it’s something of an underdog—everyone reads Left Hand and Dispossessed, and they get all the praise. Yeah, they’re good, but so is this one. Happy to see you enjoyed it.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      George Orr is such an unlikely hero, but I think she had fun drawing up a Tao-like character. I’m so structured and opinionated, but I’ve always been fascinated by the relaxed nature of Taoism. It makes me wonder if Le Guin, as opinionated as she is, designed Orr as a way to explore her idea of an ideal Tao being. A state of being she can’t quite attain, either.

      I just love Le Guin’s insights and humor. She’s so clever, yet plainly so.

      I need to re-read your review this weekend.


  5. mjdunstan says:

    I enjoyed reading your essay on “The Lathe of Heaven”; it brings back memories of reading this book.


  6. Joseph Nebus says:

    This is actually the book responsible for getting me into Philip K Dick; I knew it was Le Guin’s effort to write a Dickian novel, and I liked this, so I supposed that maybe Dick’s books would be up my alley too.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I picked up on that PKD quality easily, even though I’ve only read one of his books. The reality-questioning premise is always associated with him. I think The Man in the High Castle will be my next PKD.


  7. Rabindranauth says:

    I really enjoyed reading about Orr largely because of the personality le Guin gave him, this very peaceful, centered look on things. I actually had it pegged as Buddhism or something of the sort (just wild guesses, no evidence to support) when she had this part saying how George was nearly the perfect being, with all his contradictory sides almost perfectly balanced. I’m with Chris, compared to The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, this is a dramtically underlooked one by her. Glad you enjoyed it!


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I did enjoy it! And I had the same appreciation for the anti-hero Orr. Before I picked up Lathe, I already knew that the title was a mistranslation of a line from The Tao, and she also opens some of the chapters with quotes from the Tao. She grew up with Taoism as an influence in her household, so it’s no wonder that we both picked up on that sense of peaceful centeredness in this book.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. unsubscriber says:

    Very intriguing review, I must track down a copy. The first cover is fantastic by the way!


  9. […] I went all Taoist in my review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven (1971), which was really just a cop-out because I never feel up to reviewing Le Guin, and I just […]


  10. […] This review originally appeared on From couch to moon. […]


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