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The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number
on February 5, 2003
Ursula K. Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven was first published in 1971, but its message is still relevant today. Le Guin's stable of work has included space opera (the Hainish books), fantasy (the Earthsea stories), as well as science fiction (The Left Hand of Darkness). All of her works possess the familiar sense of didactic about them, however. The Lathe of Heaven falls more in the science fiction realm but is probably more accurately described as psychological fiction.
The story is set in the near future and revolves around one man, George Orr, who's dreams can affect reality. He is greatly troubled by this because he cannot control his dreams, thus he tries to stop himself from dreaming through misuse of prescription drugs. He is sent to counseling with a dream therapist, Dr. William Haber, who quickly learns the truth about George's "effective" dreaming. George just wants to be cured of this ability, but Haber sees its potential and decides to manipulate it to turn their troubled world into a better place. As Haber tries harder and harder to manipulate George's uncooperative dreams he becomes the victim of his own good intentions. This leads him down a dark road where he eventually discovers the truth of "the world after April".
The Lathe of Heaven works on many levels. Simply as a story of a man wrestling with his therapist to find a cure to his ills it is an engaging tale. But it is more interesting as a parable of how one person's attempts to do good can go awry. Dr. Haber sees the power that George Orr possesses and understands the good it can do. The world they live in is plagued by war and overpopulation and he believes that he can use George's power to rid the world of its ills. The problems with this become apparent early on, however. When Haber has George dream of a less crowded world, he conjures up a plague that wipes out billions. Thus the problem of overpopulation is solved, but with terrible consequences. It is important to understand that Haber has only the best of intentions: "The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number" is his motto. The stumbling block comes in his inability to control George's subconscious mind. Every time he tries to do good in one place, he inadvertently conjures evil in another. And this is the strength of the story. It is not about an evil character causing evil in the world, but a good person bringing evil through his inability to control the power he possesses. This should be required reading for all politicians.
At only 175 pages, this is a quick read. Le Guin's writing is accessible and fast paced. There are only three main characters in the story, George Orr, Dr. Haber, and the social worker Heather Lelache, so she does a good job of developing each of them fully. This book is considered a science fiction classic, rightfully so, but also has broader appeal because of its social and political implications. I give The Lathe of Heaven the highest of recommendations.