The OF Blog: Ursula Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven; The Beginning Place

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ursula Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven; The Beginning Place

Although Ursula Le Guin is most well-known for her Earthsea YA fantasy and Hainish Cycle SF novels, I decided to try reading some of her more obscure work. I have completed read-throughs of two novels, the 1971 standalone The Lathe of Heaven and the 1980 YA novel The Beginning Place. Unfortunately for me, I do not have the time to explore these books in quite the same depth as I would have preferred, but I will try to convey in a few short paragraphs what it was about each of these tales that appealed to me.

Despite being published in 1971, The Lathe of Heaven contains much that is extremely relevant today. In a world where demographic explosions have had deleterious effects on climate, vegetation, and human populations, Le Guin's tale carries a ring of ominous truth to it, even if some of the particulars have been discounted by scientists 37 years later. The story begins with a Dreamer, a man named George Orr, who has discovered that his reality is malleable and that what he conjures up in his dreams becomes a reality. He inhabits a post-apocalyptic world, a world in which a fearsome series of events brought about by overcrowding and other environmental degradations has wiped out a large percentage of the world's population. He consults a doctor, Haber, who not only tries to analyze Orr's dreams, but to use certain techniques to get him to dream "good" things, such as an end to racism, sexism, xenophobism, etc.

However, as the events unfold with each passing dream-induced "change," a different sort of message emerges. It is one that is tied in very closely with the chapter epigraphs that Le Guin has chosen, an ideal that change, transformative agent that it is, is not always to be desired; that action is not necessarily an end or even positive in and of itself. More so than in the early Hainish cycle novels that I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, many of the principles of Taoism (namely the recognition of the world as it is does not necessarily have to be a world in constant desire for transformation) are explored even more in this text. Added to this is an underlying conflict between Authority (those who desire changes and transformation) and Liberty (those seeking to be free in such a way as to permit others to be themselves). Although I could quibble about the facileness in which these conflicts are presented, suffice to say that on the whole I found this novel to be quite excellent and on par with most of her more celebrated works.

The Beginning Place is much different in tone from The Lathe of Heaven. This story of two young people meeting somehow in a magic world across a stream from their mundane (and pain-filled) "real world" appears on the surface to be rather light fare, but as is typical for Le Guin's works, there are some rather "heavy" explorations of gender roles, the place of children in family, how abusive relationships emerge, and the traumas that so many youth have experienced in their short lives. However, this magical world, centered around a town called Tembreabrezi, is not idyllic either and there soon emerges a threat in which the boy, Hugh, feels he has to face, due to the townspeople declaring him to be their long-desired Hero. The girl, Irene, is rather mistrustful of what is going on, but during the course of their travels in this realm, much is revealed about her sources of distrust and fear, making for a sort of fable about the power that the young have to overcome even the worst situations that they might be experiencing in their own lives.

While I wasn't as enamored with this novel (the few words devoted to this being one sign) as I was with the other, for its audience, this short novel (183 pages in the library edition I borrowed) is one that is worth reading for those who are already fans of Le Guin's work. I just wouldn't consider it near her best.

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