The Lathe of Heaven
By Ursula K. LeGuin
Published by the National Library Service (NLS) for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress, USA.
Read by Alec Volz
I have reviewed a number of classic Science Fiction stories here. And this is another of the all-time great SF stories by one of the acknowledged masters of the art. This is the story of a man named George Orr. He has the uncanny ability to “dream effectively” as it is called in the story. That means that what he dreams, becomes reality.
Well, okay, not every dream becomes real. The world would be filled with tiny pink elephants that fly upside down and backwards and all sorts of other nonsense. It would make a confusing, and probably a very bad story as well. He dreams become reality only when they are particularly vivid. However, George has dreamed some things in his life that he very much regrets and, fearing his dreams could destroy the world or at least cause more harm than he can bear to live with, George tries to kill himself.
The old saying is that suicide is illegal… the penalty is death. Well, I suppose so, but the penalty for failure is psychological evaluation and attempts at correction and that is what the social services bureaucracy sentences George to. Now, in most situations, I suppose George would have undergone counseling for a while until his doctor decided he was stable and unlikely to try again and that would have been it. However that would not have been a satisfying story either and it probably would not have been science fiction.
Instead George’s doctor, on verifying that George is telling the truth and is not delusional about his ability, immediately sees the benefits he might reap (both for himself and mankind) by harnessing George’s effective dreams. Of course, people and their subconscious desires are not so easily controlled and if this were a satire (it is not) one could add “and hilarity ensues.”
The story is a fascinating study of the nature of both the human psyche and the nature of alternative time lines blended with classic SF utopian and dystopian situations. In all, it is a masterwork of writing.
There have been two televised adaptations of the novel. The first produced by the public television station WNET and was released in 1980. It was directed by David Loxton and Fred Barzyk, was praised by LeGuin. I enjoyed it thoroughly, for what that might be worth. I have not seen the 2002 Production Lathe of Heaven by the A&E Network and directed by Philip Haas. This one starred James Caan, Lukas Haas, and Lisa Bonet and did not garner LeGuin’s approval, probably because it strayed a fair distance from the original story. I have not yet seen that one. There has also been a stage adaptation of the story, but as I write this, I do not know if it has been performed yet.
This is not the first time I have reviewed audiobooks that were primarily produced for the blind and otherwise handicapped. One might think that such performances would lack the professional qualities of those produced by the various audiobook publishing houses. Well, guess what? Most of them are pretty darned good! Okay, so they lack that bit of music at the beginning and end of each disk (or tape) and maybe the audio fidelity could be improved, but the readers, by and large, are talented performers who read those books well with the same, and sometimes better, abilities as those better known vocal stars you find on Blackstone Audio, Audible, etc. recordings.
And Alec Volz is no exception. He reads The Lathe of Heaven in an interesting and no-nonsense manner. No funny voices, no speaking too fast to save the cost of recording tape (this was definitely originally recorded on a cassette). If he has a weakness it is that most of his voices are not sufficiently differentiated so it is important for a listener to listen carefully so as to keep track of who is saying what. But then, keep in mind that he is reading this book, not performing it.
There has been a commercial audiobook production of The Lathe of Heaven by Blackstone Audiobooks and read by Susan O’Malley, but I have not yet had a chance to listen to it. Perhaps when I do I may review that one as well.
In all, The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula LeGuin is another of those essential stories every SF fan should read at least once and preferably more than once. Alec Volz’s reading of it is another good way to enjoy the story.