The Dangers of Utilitarianism in “The Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula K. Le Guin

[Spoilers: There are gigantic spoilers in every version of reality this post is a part of.]

“What comes is acceptable.”

When Ursula K. Le Guin died earlier this year, I knew that I wanted to read one of her novels this year. Then, I stumbled across the trailer for the documentary, The Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, several weeks ago. (This link will take you to the website with the trailer and other information.) Seeing the preview inspired me to go on a search for a book by Le Guin that I hadn’t read before. Every time I’ve read her books, they’ve transformed me in some way. This time, I selected The Lathe of Heaven to read. I tore through it in just a few hours.

The book was highly critical of people, and even institutions, that think they know best for other people. The protagonist, George Orr, has dreams that can alter reality. And he gets paired with a psychiatrist who wants to “help” people—in the aggregate.  It’s a scathing look at utilitarianism. If you have to crush the one in front of you to help the “many,” then maybe you are losing your way.

In fact, the protagonist is feeling particularly lost in one of the realities because his love interest has been “unwritten.” He’s in an antique store and interacts with one of the aliens that he dreamed into existence (or maybe they existed all along?) “‘Is there any way to control iahklu, to make it go the way it…ought to go?’” The alien gives him a gift of a Beatles album, specifically a single of “With a Little Help from my Friends?”He eventually falls asleep listening to the lyrics: “’Do you need anybody? I need somebody to love,’” and “’I get by, with a little help, with a little help, from my friends.’”

When he awakens, the woman he loves is there, although she is different than the previous iteration that he knew. In the end, the therapist tries to hook himself up to the dream machine instead of Orr, thinking that he could change reality better than Orr because he was “superior.” (He critiques Orr repeatedly for not wanting to interfere, for being apathetic.) And he nearly destroys everything. Orr acts at the one point it was entirely necessary to act and stops the machine. As a side note, Orr doesn’t think of the psychiatrist as an evil man. He was a good man whose mistake was thinking that he could fix everything and that he knew the solution.

This novel felt like a love letter to love itself and friendship. The danger lies from grandiosity, from losing sight of the small things, which, in the end, are everything.



1 Comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Psychology, Sociology

One response to “The Dangers of Utilitarianism in “The Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula K. Le Guin

  1. Pingback: Moral Patterns and Moral Decisions | From guestwriters

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