The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula LeGuin

lathe: a machine for shaping a piece of material, such as wood or metal, by rotating it rapidly along its axis while pressing a fixed cutting or abrading tool against it.

The Lathe of Heaven is about dreams and dreaming, about playing God, and about getting by with a little help from my friends. It’s about time travel in a one sense, but also about changes and how the past changes the future and how each person’s actions change the both the past and the future. It’s about the elusive nature of memory. And, of course, like all good books it’s about LOST.

OK, not all good books relate to LOST, but The Lathe of Heaven appeared on my reading list because I saw it on a list of LOST-related books. And the relationship is both obvious and intriguing.

Benjamin Linus to John Locke: Let me put it so you’ll understand. Picture a box. You know something about boxes, don’t you John? What if I told you that, somewhere on this island, there is a very large box and whatever you imagined, whatever you wanted to be in it when you opened that box, there it would be? What would you say about that, John?

One answer that Locke could have given to Ben’s question is that one should be very careful about one imagines into such a (metaphorical) box. In The Lathe of Heaven, the protagonist, George, has “effective dreams,” dreams that alter the future by also altering the past and making it as if it had always been on the trajectory that the dream imaged. The characters also change history by imagining or dreaming. As they travel in time their actions change was has been, or what will be, maybe, and make it as if it had always been the way it is. The problem in The Lathe of Heaven is that George has no control over his dreams; the dreams change things in sometimes good, sometimes horribly immoral and detrimental ways.

So George gets a psychiatrist to help him quit dreaming, but the psychiatrist, instead of finding a way to eliminate the effective dreams, tries to control them, to improve the world by suggesting to George what he should dream. “Dream about peace.” “Dream an end to pollution.” Just as our waking actions have unforeseen consequences, George’s dreams don’t turn out exactly as planned.

I think the LOSTies are going to have to deal in the last season next year with unforeseen consequences of their attempts to “fix” the past. They really don’t know enough about the way the Island works or about time travel or about Destiny to be blowing stuff up in hopes of resetting the future into a more palatable, or even moral, universe. Perhaps one of the “morals” of LOST, and of The Lathe of Heaven, is that human beings don’t know enough to play God. Rose and Bernard seem to have learned this lesson, and they have opted for withdrawal, cultivating their own garden, not trying to rescue or change things or save anyone.

Does the Island itself grant wishes? Healing? Is that a good thing, or perhaps does that very changing of events disturb the balance of the universe in ways that are destructive and ultimately harmful? What will it take to fix what Jack and Juliet and the others have done in the final episode of season 5? Is the “loophole” that Jacob’s enemy exploits to get to him a result of the time-tinkering that the LOSTies have been doing?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. However, just as The Lathe of Heaven ends on a somewhat ambiguous and confusing note, I predict that LOST’s ending will not satisfy everyone. Some questions will be answered definitively; other answers will be obscure with more than one possible meaning and open to interpretation; and still other questions and answers will be notably absent.

And that continuum of elucidation will again make LOST a lot like Life.

5 thoughts on “The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula LeGuin

  1. Wow, great review, I really want to read this now! (great with the LOST tie-in)

  2. I just finished a short story collection by Le Guin. I’ll have to pick this one up when I get a chance. Thanks for the review. B.

  3. Great review. An interesting premise for a story, I like stories that make you think about bigger issues. But I’ve never been able to enjoy fantasy of any kind. It’s good to know what’s out there though.

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