Monday, December 28, 2009

1972 Locus - THE LATHE OF HEAVEN by Ursula LeGuin

Ursula K. LeGuin won her first Locus award in 1972 with The Lathe of Heaven (the award began the year after The Left Hand of Darkness appeared). The Lathe of Heaven takes place in 2002, and begins on an over-populated and polluted Earth. Like Brunner, she correctly pegs the population in the first decade of the twenty-first century at about 7 billion, and like Brunner, she fails to predict the Green Revolution which, so far at least, has made that level of population sustainable. You could argue that she’s a bit more on the money with the constant war in the Middle East and the official first mention of global warming in these award-winners so far, though in both cases things are even worse in her 2002 than they were in the real 2002.

Really though, this is all background material. Most of the story takes place in Portland, Oregon and centers around one George Orr (a play on George Orwell?). George believes that his dreams can transform the entire world. For instance, if he dreams that a relative died in a car accident long ago, when he awakes said relative will be dead, and no one will realize that things have changed. George goes for help from a local sleep expert who quickly realizes the potential of such a power and begins to guide George’s dreams through the use of hypnotism.

(An odd sidenote: something I haven’t really mentioned before is the prominence of hypnotism in these books. Apparently, most people in the '50s, '60s and '70s thought that hypnotism was the wave of the future. I think most experts now would agree that hypnotism is of very limited utility for a variety of reasons.)

Anyway, the rest of the novel follows the massive changes in the world as the unethical hypnotherapist/sleep expert makes use of George’s powers. There are usually unintended consequences. When trying to correct a problem like overpopulation, the cure may be worse than the disease.

A plot description really doesn’t do the novel justice. It’s beautifully written (moreso even than The Left Hand of Darkness), it asks some really interesting and important philosophical questions, and has some very fascinating and richly drawn characters (George’s eventual love interest is one of the best characters I’ve encountered in these readings so far). This is a fascinating novel that more than transcends the rather odd (and maybe somewhat tired) central concept.

This is the first time that Hugo, Nebula and Locus have gone with three different winners. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, A Time of Changes, and A Lathe of Heaven were all from the class of ’71. I’d have a hard time deciding between the Silverberg and the Farmer, but I’d probably choose the Farmer. Luckily, Locus magaizine’s voters made the choice moot by selecting one of the best novels I’ve read. I am glad I added that third award.

Grade: A

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