A character whose surname sounds like the conjunction “or” is bound to be invisible. Just as a reader ponders alternatives but disregards that which connects—“coffee or tea,” “you or me”—George Orr is bland to the point of inoffensively blending with the background.
In Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Lathe of Heaven,” Orr is caught illegally exceeding his personal allotment of medicine to buy dream suppressants.
Fortunately, borrowing someone’s Pharm Card is a misdemeanor akin to loaning books in someone else’s name. The state sends him to a dream specialist to rechannel.
Dr. Haber, assigned to the Voluntary Therapeutic Treatment of the oneirophobe (a patient afraid to dream), initially suspects that drugs addled Orr’s brains as the poor man does not even distinguish between good or bad dreams.
“I dreamed something, and it came true,” confesses Orr.
In Orr, Le Guin inverts the concept of alterity—the state of being other or different—from something feared or distrusted into something approaching perfection. Haber learns that Orr is truthful in claiming that his dreaming not only changes the present but backtracks interminably to alter the past to seamlessly blend with the “improved” present.
In the altered new reality, no one remembers the “bad old days.” Orr’s dreams wipe everything and create the slate anew: time, history, memories.
A man of science, Haber sees the opportunities in Orr’s power to do good without relying on evolution or choice.
Under a state-sanctioned experiment, Orr is directed by Haber to dream into reality for Orr a nicer apartment and a better job; for his shrink, a research directorship and unlimited funds to study how dreaming can be retooled for a better society.
The only fly in the ointment greasing the slippery road to perfection is the meek, conflicted Orr. The purpose of a life is not to “run things” for a “better world,” grapples Orr. “What does matter is that we’re a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field.”
After Orr dreams six billion people out of existence by configuring a plague in the past to explain the sudden silence of the streets, unsnarling of traffic, end of starvation, abundance of apartments, and the general improvement of the quality of air, Orr cries for the murders he has committed.
Is it murder if these people were erased by a dream as numbers are on a slate? Haber shrugs and toasts a “better” world.
In someone’s utopia, someone else bears the costs. Le Guin, in an essay introducing another novel, “The Left Hand of Darkness,” disagrees that science fiction has a “depressing” view of the future: “Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.”