Study Guide

The Lathe of Heaven Writing Style

By Ursula K. LeGuin

Writing Style

Poetic, Subtle, Self-Referential

You might not have expected poetics and subtlety from a science fiction novel, but that's what you're getting with The Lathe of Heaven. The writing style used in this novel would not be out of place in a piece of fancy-pants literary fiction. Here, though, it's used describe a futuristic world of reality-transforming dreams.

We mean, come on, can you really get more poetic than the very first paragraph of this novel?:

Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss. The light shines through it, and the dark enters it. Borne, flung, tugged from anywhere to anywhere, for in the deep sea there is no compass but nearer and farther, higher and lower, the jellyfish hangs and sways; pulses move slight and quick within it, as the vast diurnal pulses beat in the moondriven sea. Hanging, swaying, pulsing, the most vulnerable and insubstantial creature, it has for its defense the violence and power of the whole ocean, to which it has entrusted its being, its going, and its will. (1.1)

Instead of painting George's world with bright, brash colors, we get subtle tones—and since we don't have giant flashing signs telling us what to think, it's easy to get confused about all of the realities happening at once. We end up trying to figure out how the world has changed right along with the characters. We end up thinking things like, "Wasn't that horse a mountain a few seconds ago?" In that way, we're actually able to feel what the characters might be feeling—we're just as lost as they are.

But Ursula Le Guin knows what people expect; she knows she's writing sci-fi, and people want made-up words and fancy slick buildings. So every now and again she jokes with us. For example, we get something like this:

"Hardly. To dream of a battle in cislunar space—" Haber stopped as abruptly as the tape. "Cislunar," Orr said, feeling a little sorry for Haber. "We weren't using that word, when I went to sleep. How are things in Isragypt?" The made-up word from the old reality had a curiously shocking effect, spoken in this reality: like surrealism, it seemed to make sense and didn't, or seemed not to make sense and did. (6.95)

This moment works in the novel because reality has shifted, but it also points out how absurd some of these made-up words may seem to the reader. They don't actually make sense in our world, but we assume they do just because we are reading a sci-fi novel. And in moments like this, Le Guin makes a little fun of us by pointing it out.

Haha. Very funny.