The Lathe of Heaven

by

Ursula K. Le Guin

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The Lathe of Heaven Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Ursula K. Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula Kroeber was born in 1929 to Alfred Kroeber, an anthropologist, and Theodora Kroeber, a writer. She and her three older brothers grew up in Berkeley, California. Le Guin developed a love of reading at a young age, during which time she became acquainted with science fiction and fantasy writing through issues of Thrilling Wonder Stories and Astounding Science Fiction. Le Guin earned her Bachelor’s degree from Radcliff College and continued her studies at Columbia University, pursuing a Masters of Arts degree in French. While at work on her Ph.D., she received a Fulbright grant to study in France in 1953, and it was there where she met historian Charles Le Guin, whom she married in Paris later that year. Le Guin and her husband had three children together, and the family ultimately settled in Portland, Oregon after Charles Le Guin was awarded a position at Portland State University. Le Guin’s writing career began in the 1950s, and she would continue to publish for nearly 60 years. Le Guin published A Wizard of Earthsea, a fantasy novel, in 1968, which garnered critical acclaim. Her first major work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness, was published in 1969 and established Le Guin as an important author of Science Fiction. The novel won the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel, and Le Guin was the first woman to win either award. The Left Hand of Darkness is considered “groundbreaking” for its nuanced exploration of gender. Some of Le Guin’s other important works from this time include The Word for World is Forest (1972), which won the Hugo award, and The Dispossessed (1974), which won the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel, and Always Coming Home (1985), which received the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. Le Guin’s work frequently engages with themes of gender, sexuality, morality, and politics. Le Guin was greatly influenced by Taoist thought, and many of her works, including The Lathe of Heaven, A Wizard of Earthsea, and The Dispossessed, engage with Taoism. Le Guin’s prolific body of work includes over 20 novels and 12 volumes of short stories, as well as numerous volumes of poetry, children’s books, and essay collections. She published four translations, including the Tao Te Ching (1997). Many of her works have been the subject of critical and academic studies. In 2010, Le Guin, then in her 80s, started a blog, which may be accessed on her website. She published her final post in September 2017. Le Guin died in Portland, Oregon, on January 22, 2018, at age 88.
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Historical Context of The Lathe of Heaven

Taoist thought influences nearly every aspect of The Lathe of Heaven. Taoism is an ancient Chinese religious and philosophical tradition that was first recognized around the 4th century B.C.E. Its two classic texts are the Tao Te Ching, which is traditionally attributed to the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, and which experts estimate was written between the 8th and 3rd centuries B.C.E., and the Zhuangzi, which is attributed to the philosopher Zhuang Zhou, and which experts believe was written in the 4th century B.C.E. Taoist thought has influenced Chinese culture for centuries and continues to be an important influence today. At the heart of Taoism is the concept that all beings should exist in accordance with the Tao (“Way”), which is a metaphysical term that refers to the natural balance of the universe, as well as the path one must follow to exist in this harmonious state of balance. Some general concepts Taoism emphasizes are the interconnectedness of all beings, the importance of spontaneity and simplicity, and the natural, continuous rhythm or balance of the universe. One central Taoist concept that is particularly relevant to The Lathe of Heaven is wu wei (“effortless action”). Wu wei refers to the practice of engaging in spontaneous, effortless action that maintains the natural rhythm of the universe: to practice wu wei is to act in accordance with the Tao. Elements of human culture, such as logic, language, and government, often interfere with humanity’s ability to engage effortlessly with the universe and can obscure the path one must take to live in accordance with the Tao. In The Lathe of Heaven, George Orr strives to behave spontaneously and avoid interfering with the natural rhythm of the universe, but his effective dreams and the increasingly invasive, exploitative treatment he receives from Dr. Haber are obstacles that inhibit him from doing so. The Lathe of Heaven tends to frame Western philosophical traditions as antithetical to Taoism and seems to suggest that adherence to such perspectives interfere with one’s ability to attain personal fulfilment through living in accordance with the Tao.

Other Books Related to The Lathe of Heaven

Ursula Le Guin was a prolific American author whose body of work includes over 20 novels, over 100 short stories, and various works of poetry and literary criticism. Some of Le Guin’s most notable science fiction works include The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Dispossessed (1974), and The Word for World is Forest (1972). The Lathe of Fire is heavily influenced by Taoist thought; in fact, Le Guin derived the novel’s title from the Tao Te Ching, one of Taoism’s foundational texts, and many of The Lathe of Heaven’s chapters begin with epigraphs taken from the same work. The Tao Te Ching, traditionally attributed to the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, and the Zhuangzi, attributed to Zhuang Zhou, are considered to be Taoism’s two foundational texts, and reading them would provide the reader with a highly useful context for understanding the spiritual and philosophical concepts at play in The Lathe of Heaven. Another key component of The Lathe of Heaven is its depiction of alternate realities, which has led The Lathe of Heaven to be described as Le Guin’s homage to fellow science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, whose works frequently engaged with alternate universes. Some of Dick’s most notable works include Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Ubik (1969), and A Scanner Darkly (1977).
Key Facts about The Lathe of Heaven
  • Full Title: The Lathe of Heaven
  • When Written: Early 1970s
  • Where Written: Portland, Oregon, United States 
  • When Published: 1971
  • Literary Period: 20th-century American Literature
  • Genre: Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction
  • Setting: Portland, Oregon, in 2002
  • Climax: Dr. William Haber uses the Augmentor to have his first conscious, effective dream, but he loses control and nearly destroys coherent reality.
  • Antagonist: Dr. William Haber
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for The Lathe of Heaven

At the Movies. The Lathe of Heaven has been adapted for film twice: first in a 1980 production for PBS, and later in a 2002 remake produced for the A&E Network. 

An Anachronism. Le Guin derived the novel’s title from the writings of the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu. The quote is a mistranslation, however, since there were no lathes in China when Chuang Tzu’s writings were recorded.