I just finished The Lathe of Heaven on a bumpy flight to Houston. It’s one of a small handful of books I’ve read that was short enough and compelling enough for me to read in a single sitting (right up there with Catcher in the Rye, Cat’s Cradle, and Grendel). And, while it’s not my favorite favorite Le Guin novel of all time (that would be The Left Hand of Darkness, I think), it’s creepy and canny and at times biting. More impressive for me, it breaks the first cardinal rule of fiction that I give my creative writing students: no “so it was all a dream!” stories. Ursula Le Guin gets away with it because, hey, she’s Ursula Le Guin.
(That wasn’t a spoiler, by the way–you find out that there’s a lot of dream reality in the first 10 pages or so).
I’m curious why more isn’t made in sci fi circles of Le Guin’s Taoist sympathies. I’m not criticizing her sympathies–I’m an enthusiastic amateur student of Taoism–but I haven’t heard people talk about her work as Taoist in the way that people talk about Tolkein and C.S. Lewis as Christian writers or Pullman as an atheist writer. Yet, despite the relative quiet about Le Guin’s beliefs, this book is Taoist in the way that Flannery O’Connor’s work is Catholic or Bernard Malamud’s work is Jewish.
Like any book, The Lathe of Heaven is to some extent a product of its time: the Taoism of the narrator is offered as a needed medicine to a “Judeo-Christian rationalist” tradition that sent the US military into Vietnam and fouled the air with pollution and greenhouse gases. But it reads very well for a 45 year-old work of science fiction–that only happens with the best sci fi (or the best anything, I guess).