The Lathe of Heaven

The Lathe of Heaven

infobox book
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption = Cover of first edition (hardcover)
author = Ursula K. Le Guin
illustrator =
cover_artist =
country = United States
language = English
series =
genre = Science Fiction
publisher = Avon Books
release_date = 1971
english_release_date =
media_type = Print (Hardcover & Paperback)
pages = 184 pp
isbn = ISBN 0-684-12529-3
oclc = 200189
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"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.


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. Le Guin chose the title because she loved the quotation. However, it seems that the quote is in fact a mistranslation of Chuang Tzu's Chinese text. In an interview with Bill Moyers recorded for the 2000 DVD release of the 1980 adaptation, Le Guin mentioned:Issued as bonus material on New Video's 2000 release of "The Lathe of Heaven", ISBN 0-7670-2696-9. The "lathe" discussion appears at 8:07—9:05.]'s a terrible mistranslation apparently, I didn't know that at the time. There were no lathes in China at the time that that was said. Joseph Needham wrote me and said "It's a lovely translation, but it's wrong".

She has published her own translations of the "Tao Te Ching", "The Book of the Way and its Virtue" by Lao Tzu, the traditional founder of Taoism (Daoism). In the notes at the end of this book, she's giving more explanations about this choice : " The language of some [versions of the "Tao Te Ching"] was so obscure as to make me feel the book must be beyond Western comprehension. (James Legge's version was one of these, though I did find the title for a book of mine, "The Lathe of heaven", in it. Years later, Joseph Needham, the great scholar of Chinese science and technology, wrote to tell me in the kindest, most unreproachful fashion that Legge was a bit off on that one; when the book [Tao Te Ching] was written the lathe hadn't been invented.)" ["Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching, A book about the Way and the power of the Way", Ursula Le Guin, p. 108 of the version edited by Shambhala Publications, Inc., 9/97]

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".

Plot summary

George Orr

The novel is set in Portland, Oregon. George Orr is a draftsman and has long been abusing sleep deprivation drugs to prevent himself from dreaming. Orr is forced to undergo "voluntary" psychiatric care for his drug abuse, under threat of being placed in an asylum.

It is set approximately three decades in the future - probably 2002, though no date is given. Greenhouse warming has taken hold, and there is also overpopulation, famine, malnutrition, global warming, and urban blight. Portland has three million inhabitants and continuous rain. It is deprived enough for the poorer inhabitants to have kwashiorkor, protein-deprivation, as in Harry Harrison's SF novel "Make Room! Make Room!".

The culture is much the same as the 1970s USA, though impoverished. Hippies are still around, some still living and dressing exactly as they did in the 1960s. There is also a massive war in the Middle East, with Egypt and Israel allies against Iran.


George begins attending therapy sessions with an ambitious psychiatrist and sleep researcher named William Haber. Orr claims that he has the power to dream "effectively" and Haber 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 wiped out much of humanity and gives the current world a population of one billion rather than seven billion.
* 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 named Heather 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.

George tells Heather that the "real world" had been destroyed in a nuclear war in April 1998. George dreamed it back into existence as he lay dying in the ruins. He doubts the reality of what now exists, hence his fear of Haber's efforts to improve it. The war apparently escalated from a conflict between Egypt and Israel - presumably George dreamt an alternative history in which they somehow became allies.

Heather has seen one change and has a multiple memory - remembering that her pilot husband either died early in the Middle East War or else died just before the truce that ended the war in the face of the alien threat. She tries to help George but also tries to improve the world, saying that the aliens should no longer be on the moon. George dreams this, but this results in them having invaded the Earth instead. In the resultant fighting, Mount Hood is struck and the dormant volcano starts to erupt again.

They go back to Haber, who has George dream another dream in which the aliens are actually peaceful. For a time there is stability, but Haber goes on changing things. His suggestion that George dream away racism results in everyone becoming gray. Heather, whose parents were of different races, never existed in this new reality (neither did Martin Luther King, Jr.) George manages to dream up a gray version of her, married to him and with a less prickly personality. Mount Hood continues to erupt and he fears the world is losing coherence.


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 reality altogether. Orr is able to shut off the Augmentor - even as reaching it as coherent existence is falling apart - reaching the "off" switch through pure force of will. The world (universe?) is saved, but random bits of the various recent realities are now jumbled together. Haber's mind is left broken. Heather, presumably her original self, exists, though with only a slight memory of George.


Though technology plays a minor 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 adaptations

An adaptation entitled "The Lathe of Heaven" produced by the public television station WNET, and directed by David Loxton and Fred Barzyk, was released in 1980. It was PBS's first direct-to-TV film production and was produced with a budget of $ 250 000. Generally faithful to the novel, it stars Bruce Davison as George Orr, Kevin Conway as William Haber, and Margaret Avery as Heather LeLache. Ursula K. Le Guin herself was heavily involved in the production of the 1980 adaptation, and has several times expressed her satisfaction with it. [ Ursula K Le The Lathe of Heaven] , read on December 11, 2007]

PBS' rights to rebroadcast the film expired in 1988, and it became the most-requested program in PBS history. Fans were extremely critical of WNET's supposed "warehousing" of the film, but the budgetary barriers to rebroadcast were high: the station needed to pay for and clear rights with all participants in the original program; negotiate a special agreement with the composer of the film's score; and deal with the Beatles recording excerpted in the original soundtrack, "With a Little Help from My Friends", which is an integral plot point in both the novel and the film. A cover version replaces the Beatles' own recording in the home video release.

(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).

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. Ursula K. Le Guin's view of this adaptation was: "I found it misguided and uninteresting".

Release details

; Serialized
* "Amazing Science Fiction Stories", March 1971 and May 1971.

; Editions in English
* 1971, US, Charles Scribner's Sons, ISBN 0-684-12529-3, hardcover
* 1971, US, Avon Books, ISBN 0-380-43547-0, paperback
* 1972, UK, Victor Gollancz, ISBN 0-575-01385-0, hardcover
* 1984, US, Avon Books, ISBN 0-380-01320-7, paperback (reprinted 1989)
* 1984, UK, Granada Publishing, ISBN 0-586-03841-8, paperback
* 1997, US, Avon Books, ISBN 0-380-79185-4, trade paperback
* 2001, US, Millennium Books, ISBN 1-85798-951-1, paperback

; Audio recording in English
* 1999, US, Blackstone Audio Books, ISBN 0-7861-1471-1

; Translations
* 1971, France: "L'autre côté du rêve", Marabout; reprinted in 2002 by Le Livre de Poche, ISBN 2-253-07243-5
* 1979, Sweden: "På Andra Sidan Drömmen", Kindbergs Förlag, ISBN 91-85668-01-X
* 1991, Finland: "Taivaan työkalu", Book Studio, ISBN 951-611-408-3
* 1992, Hungary: "Égi eszterga", Móra, ISBN 963-11-6867-0
* 1997, Russia: " _ru. Резец небесный"
* 2005, Italy: "La Falce dei cieli", Editrice Nord, ISBN 88-429-1360-X
* 2006, Germany: "Die Geißel des Himmels", Edition Phantasia, ISBN 3-937897-16-X


External links

* [ The Lathe of Heaven (1980)] Official website
* [ Review by "Science Fiction Weekly"]

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