47 pages 1 hour read

Ursula K. Le Guin

The Lathe Of Heaven

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1971

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Summary and Study Guide


The Lathe of Heaven is a speculative science fiction-fantasy novel written by Ursala K. Le Guin. Originally published as two parts in the pulp science fiction magazine Amazing Stories in 1971, the novel centers around an ordinary man, George Orr, who lives in overpopulated, perpetually rain-soaked Portland, Oregon, in 2002. When authorities force George to accept psychiatric care for his substance use disorder, he falls under the care of Dr. William Haber, a dream-analysis specialist. Haber discovers that George’s dreams trouble him because some of them come true, thus altering the real world. An ambitious man, Haber intentionally uses George’s dreams to create change, often resulting in additional, unintended consequences. George seeks the help of an ACLU attorney, Heather LeLache, who becomes his close ally as he struggles with the control Haber gains over his dreams. The author uses the contrast between the two main characters, George and Haber, to examine the distinction between the driven, purposeful utilitarianism of Haber and the simple, accepting Taoism of George. The Lathe of Heaven was adapted for film twice, and the novel was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Awards and won the 1972 Locus Award for Best Novel. Le Guin is often regarded as a pioneer of women’s speculative fiction and a major contributor to the groundbreaking group of science-fiction authors who emerged in the mid-20th century.

This guide refers to the 2023 Scribner paperback version.

Content Warning: This guide contains references to a nuclear holocaust, military attacks involving great destruction, and human suffering caused by violence, starvation, drug use, and sexual harassment.

Plot Summary

The novel begins with a description of a man dying of radiation sickness in a collapsed building; he is suddenly rescued from a drug overdose by first responders. The patient, George Orr, is told he must attend counseling sessions with a psychiatrist to deal with his substance use disorder.

George visits Dr. William Haber, the only dream-specialist psychiatrist in Portland. Haber consoles George, telling him that he will only need a few counseling sessions. George explains that some of his dreams come true, so he uses drugs to repress them. Haber displays his dream “Augmentor” [sic]. Haber hypnotizes George, telling him what to dream before placing him in deep sleep. George says he dreamed of a horse, just like the photo on Haber’s wall. George says that, before he slept, the picture was of Mount Hood. Haber says the picture has always been of a horse, though he suspects George is right.

The next day, Haber immediately puts George under, and George wakes to see that the horse photo is now a mural of Mount Hood. Haber refuses when George suggests that he not have “effective dreams” that alter reality. Haber does not tell George what dreams he suggests while George is hypnotized. During hypnosis, George sees sunshine in Portland for the first time in years. George realizes that Haber knows his dreams do change things, and he questions Haber’s motives.

George visits an attorney, Heather LeLache, seeking to dissolve his legal obligation to attend Haber’s sessions; Heather tells him it will be almost impossible to get a different psychiatrist and asks why George wants to switch. He tells her the truth, and while Heather does not believe him, she grows interested in Haber’s process because it is experimental and unauthorized. Heather agrees to attend a session as an observer.

When Heather arrives at Haber’s office, it has grown from a small, windowless room to the Oregon Oneirological Institute; Haber is the director, only working personally with one patient, George. Heather says she wants to understand the Augmentor. Haber hypnotizes George and suggests that he dream about overpopulation. Heather and Haber watch George dream, and Heather feels the changing of things. Outside the window, the vast suburbs of Portland disappear. When George wakes, six billion people have vanished from the Earth after a great plague. He insists there was no plague when he went to sleep, which Haber denies. Heather is in disbelief.

George is horrified to have depopulated the world. George returns to Haber’s office and confronts him with the reality that he is using George’s dreams to change things. Haber denies this, putting George to sleep again. Under hypnosis, Haber tells George to dream about peace on earth. When George wakes, aliens have landed on the moon and destroyed a human base, uniting the world in a space against the aliens. George cannot bear to think of what new horrors he might create with his dreams.

When George misses their appointment, Heather tries to reach him for several days, tracking him to the cabin north of Portland that he dreamed into being. George is too scared to sleep. Heather tells George that her husband died in the Mid-Eastern war. To help him sleep, Heather hypnotizes him, telling him to dream that Haber is a benevolent man who means well and that the aliens are no longer on the moon. In the early morning, Heather hears sirens. When George wakes, he tells her the aliens are no longer on the moon but have come to earth.

The aliens deflect human weapons, killing civilians. In Portland, a nuclear bomb lands on Mount Hood, turning it into an active volcano. Haber waits in his office after everyone is evacuated. George and Heather arrive, and Haber sends Heather to the safety of the basement and hypnotizes George. As George goes to sleep, an alien tells them they are a peaceful species.

Haber continues to use George to make changes. Heather disappears, and George realizes that his changes made her disappear. He mourns her even though she never existed. George sees a citizen’s arrest—a man with cancer is euthanized. George and Haber argue. George dreams of an alien who gives him a phrase he can say to assist him with his dreams. George tells Haber that it is over. Haber says he will soon have the ability to effective dream on his own.

George visits an antique shop run by an alien, seeking to decipher the phrase. The alien presents George with a copy of the Beatles song “With a Little Help from My Friends.” George sleeps to the song. When he wakes, Heather is his wife. They go to George’s last appointment with Haber. Haber tells George that he has been cured. George says that he needs to talk to the aliens about using effective dreams, which Haber ignores. Later, the world begins to dissipate as a result of Haber’s dreams. George rushes back to Haber’s office. He finds Haber lying on the sofa, turns off the Augmentor, and tries to wake Haber, who remains unresponsive. As George leaves the building, the world is in chaos.

As George finds his way home, one of the aliens takes him to a room and has him lie down. He sleeps and dreams of sea turtles swimming in the ocean. Months later, George goes to the mental-health facility where Haber—alone and unresponsive—is kept. George now designs kitchen implements for a company run by aliens. One day, he hears Heather’s voice; she had disappeared during Haber’s dreams. George approaches her. She remembers some things, and George feels confident that he can win her back.