Ursula K. Le Quin, The Lathe of Heaven (New York: Scribner, 1971)
At my wife’s prodding, I decided to treat myself to a little sci-fi. A steady diet of non-fiction needed to be interrupted by a little indulgence.
The short synopsis: set in Portland (local!), the protagonist has the power to change reality with his dreams. Seeking a cure, he goes to a psychiatrist for help. The psychiatrist sees an opportunity and, rather than help, manipulates his patient’s dreams through hypnosis to make "positive" changes to reality. He is obviously motivated not by altruism but personal ambition and a desire to control. Of course, all hell breaks loose.
Despite his questionable motivations, the therapist does want to change some things for good. For example, he tries to eliminate racism by encouraging his dreamer to imagine a world without racism; but instead of altering people’s attitudes, all humankind’s skin changes to a gray color. Instead of total acceptance of the "other" and a worldwide love of diversity, the result is sameness and uniformity.
I won’t say too much more about the plot, other than to say this pattern continues: trying to mess with reality does more harm than good.
It was fun. And I think it’s a fascinating illustration of how our desire to be in control of our lives and our world, despite our good intentions, can be damaging. I mentioned a couple posts back a great quote about “control” from Vanier, which I think is relevant to the themes of this book (see below).
Taoism is obviously central to this book, as the author herself has said here: (Le Guin interview) I think Taoism offers a nice pushback on the spirit of many institutions and movements, be they religious or not. Especially concepts like “wu wei" (meaning non-doing or non-action) and an emphasis on living in harmony with nature provide some useful queries:
To what extent are my choices driven by a desire to control?
Do I show respect for the earth and for my fellow humans in the way I treat them?
Do I treat the people around me as objects to be manipulated for my own gain or sacred beings to be revered?
Are we so sure of our way of acting that we are blind to what is true, right action and so end up making some awful mistakes in the way we live and view others?
To what extent did Jesus seek to control his destiny and the outcome of his life and others, and to what extent did he practice wu wei and let nature take its course, without resisting?
Some good things to think about. I’ve latched onto the philosophical questions provoked by the book but I should clarify: it is really fun, and one could probably enjoy the book without thinking too hard about it. J
(Here is a link to an old post I did comparing Christianity and Taoism, for those interested: "Tao of Jesus")