Welcome to the future. Location: Portland, Oregon. Year: 2002. Wait, what?
So, okay, The Lathe of Heaven was published in 1971, and back then 2002 was the future, while for us, it was just the year the first Spiderman and Austin Powers movies came out.
Anyway, Ursula Le Guin probably chose Portland as the setting for this novel because she had been living there since the early '50s. Even though she was born in California, by the 1970s Oregon had become her home.
But that's not what's really important about the setting. What's really important is how Portland—not to mention the whole world—changes based on George's dream. Some novels change location, but this novel changes realities, and Portland is at the center of those changes.
Life in the first reality of The Lathe of Heaven is grim. Food seems to be so scarce that people develop diseases from their vitamin deficiencies, incest is totally normal and expected, and the mixture of overpopulation and global warming has led to some big bad consequences:"There was more scurvy, typhus, and hepatitis in the Old Cities, more gang violence, crime, and murder in the New Cities" (3.4). Let's not forget, of course, that there is terrible weather and constant warfare.
Honestly, when you look at it this way, it's no surprise that Dr. Haber wants to change the world. If you could get out of that situation, wouldn't you want to?
With the second reality, we see Dr. Haber make his first baby steps at changing the world. What does he do with this newfound power? He fixes the climate a little bit so that it's not constantly raining in Portland. So far, so good. There are probably a lot of people in Portland who would be ecstatic if someone did that.
Yeah, well, then we find out that not all of Dr. Haber's changes are quite so… humanitarian. While he was at it, Dr. Haber just happened to get himself a fancy new job as the director of the Oregon Oneirological Institute. He even threw George a bone by getting him that cabin in the woods that he always wanted.
We can already see what type of guy Dr. Haber is: he's the sort of guy who kind of maybe wants to help humanity, but what he really wants is to have power.
This is where things get real.
Dr. Haber takes a big jump forward in his experiments with George's power. He decides to tackle overpopulation, for example… which results in the deaths of 6 billion people in a disease outbreak: "The Crash, the carcinomic plague which had reduced human population by five billion in five years, and another billion in the next ten, had shaken the civilizations of the world to their roots and yet left them, in the end, intact. If had not changed anything radically: only quantitatively" (6.44).
Yeah, that's just a bit more intense than making it rain a little less.
This reality marks a turning point for George and Dr. Haber. First of all, we see that Dr. Haber is perfectly fine with being a mass murderer as long as the ends justify the means. We also see that George is starting to get very disturbed by what Dr. Haber is making him do. We don't know what will happen if Dr. Haber pushes him to the edge.
Okay, here's the scoop. Dr. Haber tries to get George to end warfare, and he does… by getting all of the nations on earth to band together against a hostile alien takeover. Obviously.
It works, but we can see that George's mind is getting stretched to its limits.
Oh, and let's not forget that Dr. Haber is still in it for the bling and the power. By now he has a gigantic office, and he's even given George a large apartment full of fancy furniture.
We know what you're thinking. Reality zero? Shouldn't it be reality five?
Not really. The thing is that it's not until this point in the novel that George reveals to us that there was one more reality before the first one we encountered. In this reality, the world ended in April 1998.
But if that's the case, then how is anyone still around? What's up? We'll let George tell you about it himself:
"It isn't evolution. It's just self-preservation. I can't— Well, it was a lot worse. Worse than you remember. It was the same world as that first one you remember, with a population of seven billion, only it—it was worse. Nobody but some of the European countries got rationing and pollution control and birth control going early enough, in the seventies, and so when we finally did try to control food distribution it was too late, there wasn't enough, and the Mafia ran the black market, everybody had to buy on the black market to get anything to eat, and a lot of people didn't get anything. They rewrote the Constitution in 1984, the way you remember, but things were so bad by then that it was a lot worse, it didn't even pretend to be a democracy any more, it was a sort of police state, but it didn't work, it fell apart right away. When I was fifteen the schools closed. There wasn't any Plague, but there were epidemics, one after another, dysentery and hepatitis and then bubonic. But mostly people starved. And then in '93 the war started up in the Near East, but it was different. It was Israel against the Arabs and Egypt. All the big countries got in on it. One of the African states came in on the Arab side, and used nuclear bombs on two cities in Israel, and so we helped them retaliate, and...." He was silent for some while and then went on, apparently not realizing that there was any gap in his telling, "I was trying to get out of the city. I wanted to get into Forest Park. I was sick, I couldn't go on walking and I sat down on the steps of this house up in the west hills, the houses were all burnt out but the steps were cement, I remember there were some dandelions flowering in a crack between the steps. I sat there and I couldn't get up again and I knew I couldn't. I kept thinking that I was standing up and going on, getting out of the city, but it was just delirium, I'd come to and see the dandelions again and know I was dying. And that everything else was dying. And then I had the—I had this dream." His voice had hoarsened; now it choked off." (7.141)
What else is there to say?
Not only is Portland affected by George's dreams; it's also a dream city in a dream world. Everything—literally everything—in all of the realities we've experienced so far has been a product of George's mind.
Realities 5, 6, and 7
Even though George has managed to keep things more or less together, the world starts to fall apart from here on out. First, he dreams that aliens land and start to invade the world. Then he dreams that the aliens are peaceful. Soon after that, everyone on earth turns gray, a U.N.-like organization starts to manage the world, and Dr. Haber finds himself—surprise—at the top of everything, running the earth from a giant skyscraper in the middle of Portland.
Realities 8 and 9
When Dr. Haber gets his hands on a machine that can give him effective dreams, he destroys the city of Portland with his mind: "The buildings of downtown Portland, the Capital of the World, the high, new, handsome cubes of stone and glass interspersed with measured doses of green, the fortresses of Government—Research and Development, Communications, Industry, Economic Planning, Environmental Control—were melting. They were getting soggy and shaky, like Jell-O left out in the sun. The corners had already run down the sides, leaving great creamy smears" (10.140).
Before, things had just been shifted around, expanded, or made in two different versions of themselves—but Dr. Haber's dream destroys all of this. A city that managed to survive an alien invasion without so much as a scratch is now melting like Jell-O, and if that's not a sign that everything has gone wrong, we're not sure what is.
But the final reality of the book happens when George stops Dr. Haber from dreaming. Just like the last time he saved the world, things still suck pretty hard when it is all said and done: many people go insane because of Dr. Haber's dream, and world governments are completely shaken to the core. But, hey, Portland becomes like Portland again.
Blah Blah Blah... Why Portland?
We know. That explanation seemed to take forever. What was the point?
Well, did you see all of the things that happened? Did you see how the city was rearranged, stretched, imploded, exploded, melted, and finally returned to normal?
That's why it's Portland. Portland is a city that's large enough that you've probably heard of it, but it's not large enough to have its own mythology, like New York City or Los Angeles. It's a normal American city, and by making it the only location in the novel, Ursula Le Guin draws our attention to just how transformative George's power can be.
Think about it: a regular old city in a state like Oregon became the capital of the entire world. Imagine if that happened to your hometown. If Le Guin had set the story in multiple places, the transformations may not have been as clear, and if she had chosen a larger city, the distortions may not have seemed as dramatic as they are here.
That's why she chose Portland.