Study Guide

The Lathe of Heaven Quotes

  • Versions of Reality

    "I'll bet it did. And that last combination dose you took was a lulu. But not, in itself, dangerous. All the same, Mr. Orr, you were doing something dangerous." He paused for effect. "You were depriving yourself of dreams."

    Again the patient nodded.

    "Do you try to deprive yourself of food and water, Mr. Orr? Have you tried doing without air lately?" (2.21)

    You probably don't think about your dreams this way—after all, who does? But for once, Dr. Haber is actually correct. Dreams can be just as essential as food, water, or air. You dream every night, whether you know it or not. What would your brain do without dreams?

    And the events of the mind, believe me, to me are facts. When you see another man's dream as he dreams it recorded in black and white on the electroencephalograph, as I've done ten thousand times, you don't speak of dreams as 'unreal.' They exist; they are events; they leave a mark behind them. (2.57)

    Is it surprising to hear Dr. Haber talking about dreams this way? If so, why? Do you think it's because we associate science with reason and dreams with irrationality?

    Dreams are incoherent, selfish, irrational—immoral, you said a minute ago. They come from the unsocialized part of us, don't they, at least partly? (2.62)

    Is this true? We guess dreams come from our unconscious, but does that mean that they are incoherent, selfish, and immoral? Couldn't your unconsciousness just as easily be nice? Maybe it's just talking to you in weird metaphors?

    The creative and therapeutic resources of the brain—whether waking or sleeping or dreaming—are practically infinite. If we can just find the keys to all the locks. The power of dreaming alone is quite undreamt of!" (3.33)

    This is just one example of Dr. Haber referring to George's dreams as locks needing keys. Why does he use this metaphor? And what are the keys? Could it be the Augmentor?

    "For example," he said, "I frequently daydream heroics. I am the hero. I'm saving a girl, or a fellow astronaut, or a besieged city, or a whole damn planet. Messiah dreams, do-gooder dreams. Haber saves the world! (3.41)

    Um... Well, those dreams tell us a lot about Dr. Haber. Like, this dude totally wants to be a Messiah, or Superman, or Super-Messiah. Yeah, we've all been there… or not. How do Dr. Haber's dreams compare with the dreams that George has? What do those tell you about him?

    "No. I never buried anybody. Nobody died of the Plague. There wasn't any Plague. It's all in my imagination. I dreamed it." (5.98)

    Here's a brain twister: is it true that there wasn't any plague? Is it not "real" because George dreamed it? Or is it just as real as anything else, especially since George can change reality? What makes reality real? Are dreams part of reality? Where do you draw the line?

    "Freedom! Your unconscious mind is not a sink of horror and depravity. That's a Victorian notion, and a terrifically destructive one. It crippled most of the best minds of the nineteenth century, and hamstrung psychology all through the first half of the twentieth. Don't be afraid of your unconscious mind! It's not a black pit of nightmares. Nothing of the kind! It is the wellspring of health, imagination, creativity. What we call 'evil' is produced by civilization, its constraints and repressions, deforming the spontaneous, free self-expression of the personality." (6.107)

    Who would have guessed that these words would have come from Dr. Haber and not from George? Dr. Haber believes the unconscious is not evil; he thinks it is a source of creativity and even power. So where does he go wrong? On the other hand, George seems to think that dreams are evil. Is he correct? Or are both of these dudes wrong?

    "But I can't choose my dreams. Nobody can."

    She sagged. "I forgot. As soon as I accept this thing as real, I keep thinking it's something you can control. But you can't. You just do it." (7.106)

    Okay, you should be warned: there are many different themes in this book, but they all come back to Taoism. Dreams, love, war—it's often all about Taoism. Here, Heather and George are talking, and she wants him to choose a nondestructive dream. But he can't choose his dreams, duh—right? This is not only literally true, but it also in line with the Taoist belief that you shouldn't force things. Taoism is more about going with the flow, figuring out what your path should be and then following it whether you really want to or not.

    "The individual-person is iahklu'. The recording machine records this perhaps. Is all your species capable of iahklu'? (8.6)

    Ah, the aliens—we love them and their funny speech. This scene happens when we first see the aliens, and it sounds like they aren't actually hostile creatures. This alien sees George and asks Dr. Haber a question about him. What do you think "iahklu'" means? Are all species actually capable of it?

  • Philosophical Viewpoints (Taoism)

    Those whom heaven helps we call the sons of heaven. They do not learn this by learning. They do not work it by working. They do not reason it by using reason. To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven. — Chuang Tse: XXIII (3.0)

    This quote is the epigraph to chapter 3. It comes from one of the most famous Taoist philosophers ever, but it's actually a mistranslation—head over to our "What's Up With the Title" section for more about that. But even in this translation, it's easy to see what Taoism prizes: simplicity, naturalness, and action based on following the middle path, or Tao. If you try to force things or exert your own will too strongly, you will upset the Tao, and it will come back to bite you.

    When the Great Way is lost, we get benevolence and righteousness. — Lao Tse: XVIII (5.0)

    Isn't this confusing? You'd expect negative things to happen when the Great Way is lost, but aren't benevolence and righteousness positive things? First, check out these translations. The key here is that we have to change our understanding of what these words mean. Think about Dr. Haber, for example. We're sure that he considers himself righteous and benevolent, but he also ends up almost destroying the world. So maybe what this passage is trying to tell us is that benevolence and righteousness are not necessarily positive in and of themselves, since in some contexts, they may refer to people attempting to force good things to happen. As we see with Dr. Haber and the results of his actions, that only ends up in a bad way.

    "You speak as if that were some kind of general moral imperative." He looked at Orr with his genial, reflective smile, stroking his beard. "But in fact, isn't that man's very purpose on earth—to do things, change things, run things, make a better world?"

    "No!" (6.60)

    This is Dr. Haber and George speaking. Here and in other places in the novel, you could basically take these two characters as mouthpieces for Taoism (George) and Utilitarianism (Dr. Haber). So, of course, when Dr. Haber proposes that changing the world for good is the purpose of mankind, our Taoist has one answer: no.

    "You're of a peculiarly passive outlook for a man brought up in the Judeo-Christian-Rationalist West. A sort of natural Buddhist. Have you ever studied the Eastern mysticisms, George?" The last question, with its obvious answer, was an open sneer. (6.65)

    It's interesting that we get to see several moments when other characters react negatively to the idea of eastern religions or philosophies. These sorts of beliefs were explicitly linked with hippies during the '60s and '70s. Why do you think Ursula Le Guin shows characters reacting negatively to these views?

    Those who have returned in pure compassion to the wheel, those who follow the way that cannot be followed without knowing they follow it, the sharecropper's wife in Alabama and the lama in Tibet and the entomologist in Peru and the millworker in Odessa and the greengrocer in London and the goatherd in Nigeria and the old, old man sharpening a stick by a dry streambed somewhere in Australia, and all the others. There is not one of us who has not known them. There are enough of them, enough to keep us going. Perhaps. (7.96)

    Heather Lelache is wondering if there are other people like George. There are a ton of things to talk about here, but let's look at that wheel for a moment. The wheel that Heather is talking about is probably the wheel of time or history (Kalachakra) found in Hinduism and Buddhism. It is a symbol of how time is cyclical, meaning that it continually repeats itself in different forms. Oh, and that way that cannot be followed? That's Taoism, of course. So is Heather right? Is time cyclical in this novel? What happens when Dr. Haber changes history? Do patterns continue to repeat?

    "So what? Maybe that's all it's ever been! Whatever it is, it's all right. You don't suppose you'd be allowed to do anything you weren't supposed to do, do you? Who the hell do you think you are! There is nothing that doesn't fit, nothing happens that isn't supposed to happen. Ever! What does it matter whether you call it real or dreams? It's all one— isn't it?" (7.143)

    You might be tempted to think that this is George, but based on the number of exclamation marks and curse words, it's obvious that it's Heather speaking here. You can't force things to happen, she says, and things that are not supposed to happen will not happen. Is that what happens in this story? Bad things sure do happen, but then everything does turn out all right—for everyone except Dr. Haber, that is. So is the Taoist philosophy vindicated?

    As for the distinction between reality and dreams? There's a Taoist story about a man who dreams he is a butterfly, and the question arises: which is real? The man or the butterfly? How does anyone actually know?

    A person who believes, as she did, that things fit: that there is a whole of which one is a part, and that in being a part one is whole: such a person has no desire whatever, at any time, to play God. Only those who have denied their being yearn to play at it. (7.148)

    It's interesting that even though Heather is not depicted as some kind of big symbol of Taoism, she still seems to share the same kinds of thoughts that George has about religion. She's not interested in power or in changing everything about the world. She just wants things to stop being crazy.

    "I believe it's time for you to know that, within the frame of reference of those standardized but extremely subtle and useful tests, you are so sane as to be an anomaly. Of course, I'm using the lay word 'sane,' which has no precise objective meaning; in quantifiable terms, you're median. Your extraversion/introversion score, for instance, was 49.1. That is, you're more introverted than extraverted by .9 of a degree. That's not unusual; what is, is the emergence of the same damn pattern everywhere, right across the board. If you put them all onto the same graph you sit smack in the middle at 50. (9.46)

    Taoism is sometimes called the way, or the Great Way, or even the Middle Way. (The word "Tao" has many meanings, including "way" or "path.") Why the Middle Way? Because it seeks to avoid all extremes. It's not so much about giving stuff up as it is about finding balance. So guess who's super-duper in the middle of everything? That's right, George.

    He had straightened up and towered over Orr, who was still sitting down. He was gray, large, broad, curly bearded, deep-chested, frowning. Your God is a jealous God. "I'm sorry, George, but you're not in a position to say that."

    Orr's gods were nameless and unenvious, asking neither worship nor obedience. (9.106)

    Here, Dr. Haber is standing in for the Judeo-Christian viewpoint, while George is standing in for the Taoist viewpoint. Even though it might be a little surprising, there actually are a large number of Taoist deities (at least in some forms of Taoism), but they are very different from the monotheistic God of the Abrahamic religions. Instead, they are like beings that have roles to play, and they have titles instead of names. The basic idea is that the gods, just like everyone and everything else, are just manifestations of the Tao.

    Of course (his thoughts proceeded, also at a walking pace), it that's true, then the whole world as it now is should be on my side; because I dreamed a lot of it up, too. Well, after all, it is on my side. That is, I'm a part of it. Not separate from it. I walk on the ground and the ground's walked on by me, I breathe the air and change it, I am entirely interconnected with the world. (10.30)

    George wins, and this is the whole goal of Taoism: to become one with nature and the world. And George's reward? Well, he gets to save the world, for one thing. That's something Dr. Haber tried to do on his own terms and failed; George saves the world by essentially sticking to the Middle Path and letting the Tao work through him.

  • Philosophical Viewpoints (Utilitarianism)

    A person is defined solely by the extent of his influence over other people, by the sphere of his interrelationships; and morality is an utterly meaningless term unless defined as the good one does to others, the fulfilling of one's function in the sociopolitical whole. (5.7)

    This is how Dr. Haber understands the relationship between people and morality. You want to keep this in mind, because later in the novel he finds himself alone. If the only way a person has any worth is by their influence on other people, what happens to them when they are alone? Well, what happens to Dr. Haber is that he loses all sense of who he is. Maybe Dr. Haber should have found a different way to define himself?

    He would stop her at any cost. He turned to her, ready for violence, his hands clenched. (5.53)

    So here we realize that Dr. Haber will do anything he needs to in order to retain power. If it means killing a young lawyer, he's totally down with it. Well, that's one way to have influence over other people, we guess.

    "Do you remember the Plague Years?" [...] "Yes, I do. [...] And my parents died that year. My wife the next year. My two sisters and their children after that. Everyone I knew." Haber spread out his hands. "Yes, I remember those years," he said heavily. (5.82)

    George is asking Dr. Haber what he remembers about the plague years, and Haber responds with this quote. Notice that the doctor's entire family died, and he doesn't even shed a tear thinking about it. Why? Because he thinks that the death of everyone he knows is fine as long as it's for the greater good. What do you think about that? Is it right?

    One hundred thousand souls. Evening was beginning to dim the quiet river, but the mountains stood immense and clear, remote, in the level sunlight of the heights.

    "To a better world!" Dr. Haber said, raising his glass to his creation, and finished his whisky in a lingering, savoring swallow. (5.113)

    Everyone who's creeped out, raise your hands. Sure, we understand grudgingly doing something that seems horrible for the greater good, but in this scene, Dr. Haber just seems like a monster. He has no regrets and in fact he's celebrating the deaths of billions of people. How would he feel if he had been one of those people? The thought doesn't even seem to cross his mind.

    The scientific aspect of it all was in fact the only hopeful one, to his mind; it seemed to him that perhaps science might wring some good out of his peculiar and terrible gift, put it to some good ends, compensating a little for the enormous harm it had done. The murder of six billion nonexistent people. (6.6)

    Here, George is trying to see the silver lining in the way he ends the overpopulation problem. Obviously, it's good that there is no more overpopulation and that people are able to get nourishment. But does the good outweigh the bad? Also, do you think that science has the ability to turn George's ability into something good for all mankind?

    So that now he's using even his science as a means, not an end. ... But his ends are good, aren't they? He wants to improve life for humanity. Is that wrong? (6.10)

    George says that Dr. Haber is using science as a means to an end and that his ends are good. But are they? What are Dr. Haber's ends? Do you think he even has any? More importantly, do the ends justify the means? This is often a thorny question in science, even when the lives of billions of people aren't at stake.

    No factories spewed smoke, down by the river. No cars ran fouling the air with exhaust; what few there were, were steamers or battery-powered.

    There were no songbirds any more, either. (6.46)

    So they fixed the pollution problem, but now there are no songbirds. The world is technically better off, but is that all that matters? How does utilitarianism deal with things like art, culture, emotion, and the search for meaning? Sure, people have to have their basic needs met, but once that happens, then what?

    Over the pillared portico, incised in white concrete in the straight Roman capitals whose proportions lend nobility to any phrase whatsoever, was the legend: THE GREATEST GOOD FOR THE GREATEST NUMBER. (9.39)

    This quote by Jeremy Bentham is basically utilitarianism boiled down to its basics. This guy believed that the values of pleasures, pains, and the greatest happiness could be calculated by using specific formulas. He also believed that the role of the government was to promote pleasures in its citizens and to help them avoid pain. Does this sound like a good idea? Why or why not? Are there things Bentham hasn't taken into account?

    This society is tough-minded, and getting tougher yearly: the future will justify it. We need health. We simply have no room for the incurables, the gene-damaged who degrade the species; we have no time for wasted, useless suffering." He spoke with an enthusiasm that rang hollower than usual; Orr wondered how well, in fact, Haber liked this world he had indubitably made. (9.72)

    For once, we get a peek under Dr. Haber's armor, and he actually seems a little remorseful about everything that is happening in his new ideal world. Do you think he really feels that the world he has made is the best one? Or do you think he's a little more insecure than that?

    "What do you mean by that: 'the worse it gets'? Look here, George." Man to man. Reason will prevail. If only we sit down and talk things over.... "In the few weeks that we've worked together, this is what we've done. Eliminated overpopulation; restored the quality of urban life and the ecological balance of the planet. Eliminated cancer as a major killer." [...] Under HURAD direction, the reduction of human misery, physical and psychic, and the constant increase of valid individual self-expression, is an ongoing thing, a constant progress. Progress, George! We've made more progress in six weeks than humanity made in six hundred thousand years!" (9.114)

    You could also say that in the few weeks since George and Dr. Haber have been together, they've killed 6 billion people, exterminated songbirds, and made it so that cancer is 100% lethal in infants. But you know, it's how you look at it, we guess. What do you think is Dr. Haber's definition of progress? And do you agree with the final sentence in this quote?

  • Technology and Modernization

    "You know there's two hundred sixty kids in that one complex suffering from kwashiorkor? All low-income or Basic Support families, and they aren't getting protein. And what the hell am I supposed to do about it? I've put in five different reqs for Minimal Protein Ration for those kids and they don't come, it's all red tape and excuses. People on Basic Support can afford to buy sufficient food, they keep telling me. Sure, but what if the food isn't there to buy? Ah, the hell with it. I go give 'em Vitamin C shots and try to pretend that starvation is just scurvy.... " (1.33)

    Kwashiorkor is a form of malnutrition that results from eating enough calories, but not enough protein. It causes swelling, irritability, anorexia, an enlarged liver, and a bunch of other not so good things. But it's not something that happens in the developed world, so what's up? The mention of this disease occurring in Portland lets us know that the future is not a good place: if Portland is having these kinds of problems, then imagine how bad things must be elsewhere.

    Urban and industrial effluvia had not been controlled soon enough to reverse the cumulative trends already at work in the mid-Twentieth Century; it would take several centuries for the CO2 to clear out of the air, if it ever did. (3.2)

    In the future, global warming has destroyed the environment, and humanity has polluted the air. It's kind of an environmental warning in novel form—and this was written back in the '70s. Have things changed since then?

    There was more scurvy, typhus, and hepatitis in the Old Cities, more gang violence, crime, and murder in the New Cities. (3.4)

    In this world, even though disease has been controlled in the new cities, lots of new things have stepped in to kill off the inhabitants. It's as if in this novel, no matter how good the technology looks, there will be consequences for it that no one really imagined. Is the technology at fault? Or are humans at fault for always leaping before they look, never thinking through anything before they slap on some new tech like a Band-Aid?

    To go under a river: there's a strange thing to do, a really weird idea.

    To cross a river, ford it, wade it, swim it, use boat, ferry, bridge, airplane, to go upriver, to go downriver in the ceaseless renewal and beginning of current: all that makes sense. But in going under a river, something is involved which is, in the central meaning of the word, perverse. There are roads in the mind and outside it the mere elaborateness of which shows plainly that, to have got into this, a wrong turning must have been taken way back. (3.73)

    This is talking about the future, but if you think about it, it's also applicable to today. By displacing this image into the future, Le Guin gives us a glimpse of how absurd everyday life really is. It is kind of weird that we take tunnels under bodies of water, right?

    At one time indeed most of downtown Portland had consisted of places to park automobiles. At first these had mostly been plains of asphalt punctuated by paybooths or parking meters, but as the population went up, so had they. Indeed the automatic-elevator parking structure had been invented in Portland, long long ago; and before the private car strangled in its own exhaust, ramp-style parking buildings had gone up to fifteen and twenty stories. (4.1)

    Okay, so it wasn't invented in Portland, but this description of what happens with cars is creepily accurate. Why do you think Ursula Le Guin believed this would happen? How do you feel knowing that it has?

    All the floors had a curious slant, a skewness, due to the basic helical-ramp construction of the building; in the offices of Forman, Esserbeck, Goodhue and Rutti, one was never entirely convinced that one was standing quite upright. (4.1)

    The converted parking structures are an apt symbol for the uncertainty of George's Portland. Technology literally made these people unstable, but the image works on a metaphorical level as well. No one is very certain about the future, and the world in this novel seems to be very precarious; life changes dramatically minute by minute sometimes.

    "Overpopulation."

    "Mhm, that was the word you used. That's your word, your metaphor, for this feeling of unfreedom. (5.33)

    Dr. Haber is being kind of nasty about it, but he's hit on something important. Technology and modernization don't just have physical ramifications; they have emotional ramifications, as well. Technology can be a double-edged sword: it may make the world safer, and it may make life easier in certain ways, but it can also lead to things like overpopulation, pollution, and that feeling so many modern people have of being totally adrift, cut off from life and from each other. Why do you think this happens?

    He didn't wake until nearly noon on Saturday. He went to his refrigerator and looked in it; he stood contemplating it a while. There was more food in it than he had ever seen in a private refrigerator in his life. In his other life. (6.39)

    In this scene, George directly experiences the benefits of Dr. Haber's world modification. Before that, improvements in health care led to longer lives, which led to overpopulation. On an everyday, practical level, that meant that George, like others, was forced to eat things like soyloaf, made from a plant that is very cheap and easy to grow. In a way, Dr. Haber's modification is actually a step back in the modernization of the food chain. But which is better?

    "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. [...] 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...." (7.141)

    The traditional Western view of history is one of progress. The more you go in the future, the more technology you get, and the better things become. But the way that George is telling it, technology is actually what destroyed the entire world in 1998. Instead of making things better, things got progressively worse. It was just that nobody noticed that until it was too late.

    "So now there's nothing to fear, and it's all out of your hands. I know, scientifically and morally, what I'm doing and how to do it. I know where I'm going." (9.128)

    Dr. Haber's point of view is basically that we should trust him because we trust science and we trust technology. But in the context of the novel, does that position make any sense? Are science and technology ultimately good? Or is the picture more complicated than that?

  • Warfare

    "It keeps spreading," Orr said, feeling inadequate and despondent. "The war, I mean." (3.8)

    What is it about George's world that makes war keep spreading? How would you compare his world to our world? Why is it so difficult to stop the violence?

    She felt no mercy for him; as she should have felt for a sick man, a schiz or paranoid with delusions of manipulating reality. Here was "another casualty of these times of ours that try men's souls," as President Merdle, with his happy faculty for fouling a quotation, had said in his State of the Union message; and here she was being mean to a poor lousy bleeding casualty with holes in his brain. (4.40)

    President Merdle has mangled a quote from Thomas Paine's "The American Crisis," which was a series of pamphlets published to encourage the soldiers during the American Revolution. It appears that President Merdle is trying to make the American people believe that the wars they are currently involved in are as noble as the American Revolution. However, the last sentence, referring to "a poor lousy bleeding casualty with holes in his brain," seems to reference the Vietnam War, which was going on while Ursula Le Guin was writing this novel. In other words, whatever President Merdle says, it seems like people see this war as something like Vietnam—a war that a lot of people in the '60s and '70s saw as a total sham.

    "I was burying them. In one of the big ditches ... I did work in the Interment Corps, when I was sixteen, after my parents got it.... Only in the dream the people were all naked and looked like they'd died of starvation. Hills of them. I had to bury them all. I kept looking for you, but you weren't there." (5.94)

    George is telling us a dream he had about the plague years. With references to "Internment Corps" and hills of dead people, it seems like he is using imagery related to World War II and the Holocaust. Why do you think Le Guin is reminding us of that war and those atrocities?

    The effects of the Plague were visible in everything, it was itself still endemic, and yet it hadn't prevented war from breaking out. In fact the fighting in the Near East was more savage than it had been in the more crowded world. [...] This gave a line-up of twelve Nuclear Powers in all, six to a side. So went the speculations. Meanwhile Jerusalem was rubble, and in Saudi Arabia and Iraq the civilian population was living in burrows in the ground while tanks and planes sprayed fire in the air and cholera in the water, and babies crawled out of the burrows blinded by napalm. (6.48)

    We hope you guys paid attention in history class, because this is another war reference. The mention of napalm brings us back to the Vietnam War, which was infamous for its extensive use of napalm on forests and villages all over Vietnam. But George also tells us about the spread of war in a way that reminds us of the Cold War, when the world was divided into nuclear powers that could pull the trigger at any time. In our world, they didn't—but in George's world, they did.

    Orr knew, with dreary clarity, what he would get on with today: the war. The papers were full of it, even Orr's news-resistant mind had been full of it, coming here. The growing war in the Near East. Haber would end it. And no doubt the killings in Africa. For Haber was a benevolent man. He wanted to make the world better for humanity. (6.72)

    There are a lot of things going on here, but we want to bring your attention to the phrase "Near East." What's that? Well, you're probably more familiar with the term Middle East, but they refer to pretty much the same place. So why is Near East being used instead? It's possible that the term Middle East has become too politically charged, so Le Guin is using a term that's a bit more archaic and refers specifically to members of the former Ottoman Empire, in order to distance the world of her novel from the real world and its current conflicts.

    "I'll have to skip a bit. All right." Now it was his voice on the tape again, saying, "— peace. No more mass killing of humans by other humans. No fighting in Iran and Arabia and Israel. No more genocides in Africa. No stockpiles of nuclear and biological weapons, ready to use against other nations. No more research on ways and means of killing people. A world at peace with itself. Peace as a universal life-style on Earth. You will dream of that world at peace with itself. (6.93)

    Dr. Haber is trying to end warfare, but do you think that a world like the one he describes is even possible? Why or why not?

    "It's curious that you used the Defense of Earth as a symbol or metaphor of peace, of the end of warfare. Yet it's not unfitting. Only very subtle. Dreams are endlessly subtle. Endlessly. For in fact it was that threat, that immediate peril of invasion by noncommunicating, reasonlessly hostile aliens, which forced us to stop fighting among ourselves, to turn our aggressive-defensive energies outward, to extend the territorial drive to include all humanity, to combine our weapons against a common foe. If the Aliens hadn't struck, who knows? We might, actually, still be fighting in the Near East." (6.98)

    The idea that an alien invasion will cause world peace is rampant in sci-fi and pop culture, and you've probably seen it before. Exhibit A: Star Trek.) Exhibit B: Paul Krugman. But what do you think about it? Could it work?

    Your own ideas are sane and rational, but this is my unconscious you're trying to use, not my rational mind. Maybe rationally I could conceive of the human species not trying to kill each other off by nations, in fact rationally it's easier to conceive of than the motives of war. But you're handling something outside reason. You're trying to reach progressive, humanitarian goals with a tool that isn't suited to the job. Who has humanitarian dreams?" (6.99)

    It's interesting for George to be unable to understand war rather than peace, considering the fact that humanity seems to have constantly been at war for pretty much as long history has existed. Why do you think he is unable to understand why we wage war? Do you think Dr. Haber has the same problem?

    But he had learned that they existed. He had grown up in a country run by politicians who sent the pilots to man the bombers to kill the babies to make the world safe for children to grow up in. (6.104)

    Hmmm… someone's a little critical of politicians. We wonder why… Could it have something to do with pictures of the Vietnam War showing little children injured by warfare? Because that was a big deal back in the late '60s and early '70s.

    The huge, heavy, metallic arm came up again. "We are attempting to make peaceful arrival," the elbow said all on one note. "Please inform others that this is peaceful arrival. We do not have any weapons. Great self-destruction follows upon unfounded fear. Please cease destruction of self and others. We do not have any weapons. We are nonaggressive unfighting species." (8.56)

    This is the longest version of "we come in peace" that we have ever heard. Why do you think humanity assumed that these peaceful aliens were violent? Are humans just predisposed to interpret everything in terms of violence? Why?

    People didn't sit home and watch TV much any more; Fed-peep television was on only two hours a day. The modern way of life was togetherness. This was Thursday; it would be the hand-to-hands, the biggest attraction of the week except for Saturday night football. More athletes actually got killed in the hand-to-hands, but they lacked the dramatic, cathartic aspects of football, the sheer carnage when 144 men were involved at once, the drenching of the arena stands with blood. The skill of the single fighters was fine, but lacked the splendid abreactive release of mass killing. (9.33)

    Are we the only ones who are creeped out? We guess the Freudian desire for killing people had to be fulfilled in some way, so people went back to the gladiator days and started watching people kill each other for fun. Yay?

  • Race

    She stuck out her brown hand, he met it with a white one, just like that damn button her mother always kept in the bottom of her bead box, SCNN or SNCC or something she'd belonged to way back in the middle of the last century, the Black hand and the White hand joined together. Christ! (4.65)

    Heather got it right the second time. The SNCC, or Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was an organization that arose during the Civil Rights Movement. Its logo was a black person and a white person shaking hands. The organization participated in the civil rights sit-ins, freedom rides, and even the March on Washington. Heather's mom was part of all this, so it's no surprise that racial issues are important for Heather.

    They were still massacring whites in Johannesburg, Orr noticed on a headline at a corner newspaper stand. Years now since the Uprising, and there were still whites to massacre in South Africa! People are tough.... (6.49)

    The South African government from 1948 to 1994 enforced a system of racial segregation called apartheid, which means "apartness" in Afrikaans, one of the country's official languages. Obviously, the end of apartheid was nowhere in sight for people during the time this novel was written, so in George's future, Le Guin imagines the end of apartheid as an event called the Uprising. That leads to the violent massacre of white people in retaliation for the frequent massacres of black people in South Africa under the apartheid system. This is something that many white South Africans were worried about, and something that some conspiracy theorists still assume will happen eventually.

    "No." She cleaned out the tuna can scrupulously and licked the knife. "Portland. Twice, now. Two different hospitals. Christ! But born and bred. So were my parents. My father was black and my mother was white. It's kind of interesting. He was a real militant Black Power type, back in the seventies, you know, and she was a hippie. He was from a welfare family in Albina, no father, and she was a corporation lawyer's daughter from Portland Heights. And a dropout, and went on drugs, and all that stuff they used to do then. And they met at some political rally, demonstrating. That was when demonstrations were still legal. And they got married. But he couldn't stick it very long, I mean the whole situation, not just the marriage. When I was eight he went off to Africa. To Ghana, I think. He thought his people came originally from there, but he didn't really know. (7.123)

    Heather's dad is kind of a stereotype of a black male who would have been involved in the Civil Rights and Back to Africa Movements. He's poor, he's a deadbeat dad, and he's kind of idealistic about the idea of Africa as his homeland. We get this huge paragraph about Heather's parents, but we never learn anything about George's parents. Why is that?

    But I'll tell you, what really gets me is, I can't decide which color I am. I mean, my father was a black, a real black—oh, he had some white blood, but he was a black—and my mother was a white, and I'm neither one. See, my father really hated my mother because she was white. But he also loved her. But I think she loved his being black much more than she loved him. Well, where does that leave me? I never have figured out."

    "Brown," he said gently, standing behind her chair.

    "Shit color."

    "The color of the earth." (7.123)

    Wow, this discussion of Heather and race is crazy awkward. But let's try to work through it to figure out why it's uncomfortably racist. To begin with, what on earth does it mean for Heather's dad to be "a real black"? Why does Heather's mom have a black fetish? Also, we hate to point this out, but it it's a longstanding stereotype—and racist argument against interracial marriage—that children born to interracial couples are confused and upset about their place in society. At least George doesn't agree that Heather is "shit color," we guess...

    They came from every part of the earth to work at the World Planning Center or to look at it, from Thailand, Argentina, Ghana, China, Ireland, Tasmania, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Honduras, Lichtenstein. But they all wore the same clothes, trousers, tunic, raincape; and underneath the clothes they were all the same color. They were gray. (9.13)

    Does this make sense to you? If everyone in the world were gray, would that also somehow mean that all culture would be eradicated? Why or why not? Are race and culture connected? (Be careful—that one's a can of worms, folks.)

    Haber's paeans of triumph made Orr uneasy, and he didn't listen to them; instead, he had searched his memory and had found in it no address that had been delivered on a battlefield in Gettysburg, nor any man known to history named Martin Luther King. But such matters seemed a small price to pay for the complete retroactive abolition of racial prejudice, and he had said nothing. (9.18)

    What do you think? Is it worth it not to have things like the Gettysburg Address or people like Martin Luther King, Jr. in order not to have racism? Or would humanity have reaped more benefits from struggling through this problem and having people like Lincoln and King to help them through it?

    That's why she's not here, he thought. She could not have been born gray. Her color, her color of brown, was an essential part of her, not an accident. Her anger, timidity, brashness, gentleness, all were elements of her mixed being, her mixed nature, dark and clear right through, like Baltic amber. She could not exist in the gray people's world. She had not been born. (9.20)

    It's interesting that Heather is a physical manifestation of Taoism's emphasis on avoiding extremes. She's right in the middle of black and white, as if she encompasses the entire yin-yang sign. But since George is supposed to be the symbol of Taoism in the novel, why isn't he biracial? Why does Le Guin still choose to make her protagonist a white male?

    He had, though. He could be born into any world. He had no character. He was a lump of clay, a block of uncarved wood.

    And Dr. Haber: he had been born. Nothing could prevent him. He only got bigger at every reincarnation. (9.21)

    Why don't George and Dr. Haber disappear when everyone turns gray? Isn't whiteness as much a part of their identity as brownness is a part of Heather's identity?

    Orr bought a tasteless plateful of fish and chips with African peanut sauce at a crowded counter-restaurant; while he ate it he thought sorrowfully, well, once I stood her up at Dave's, and now she's stood me up. (9.34)

    George is eating what should be a pretty weird international dish, but instead of finding it tasty, he finds it bland. Why is that? Is it because fish and chips shouldn't be mixed with African peanut sauce? Why not? What do you think Ursula LeGuin is trying to tell us about uniformity through this scene?

    His wife, of course, had been gray-skinned. There were still gray people now, it was said, particularly in the Middle West and Germany, but most of the rest had gone back to white, brown, black, red, yellow, and mixtures. His wife had been a gray person, a far gentler person than this one, he thought. This Heather carried a big black handbag with a brass snap, and probably a half pint of brandy inside; she came on hard. His wife had been unaggressive and, though courageous, timid in manner. This was not his wife, but a fiercer woman, vivid and difficult. (11.36)

    George says that the gray Heather was much gentler than the brown Heather. The implication is that her brownness makes her more aggressive. What is it about brownness that would make a person more aggressive? Or is it all more about grayness? Do you think George's assessment makes sense?

  • Love

    Crash clank! went the lawyer's bracelets. The contrast amused Haber: the harsh fierce woman, the meek characterless man. They had nothing in common at all. (5.24)

    Is Dr. Haber correct? Do Heather and George have nothing in common with one another? Maybe the union of opposites (if they really are opposites) recalls that old yin-yang sign from Taoism: two different energies come together to make a whole.

    An irrelevant and poignant sensation of pleasure rose in him, like a tree that grew up and flowered all in one moment with its roots in his loins and its flowers in his mind. (6.13)

    Aww, George has a crush on Heather. Notice that Le Guin says the feeling he has for her has its roots in his loins (lust!), and its flowers in his mind (love!).

    The one lived among seven billion others, where the food, such as it was, was never enough. Where an egg was the luxury of the month —"Today we ovulate!" his halfwife had used to say when she bought their egg ration.... Curious, in this life they hadn't had a trial marriage, he and Donna. There was no such thing, legally speaking, in the post-Plague years. There was full marriage only. In Utah, since the birth rate was still lower than the death rate, they were even trying to reinstitute polygamous marriage, for religious and patriotic reasons. But he and Donna hadn't had any kind of marriage this time, they had just lived together. But still it hadn't lasted. (6.39)

    Why do you think the tradition surrounding marriage changes so much in these different realities? What would be the purpose of a trial marriage? Why do you think Donna and George didn't get married in the Plague reality?

    Briefly she saw him thus, and what struck her most, of that insight, was his strength. He was the strongest person she had ever known, because he could not be moved away from the center. And that was why she liked him. She was drawn to strength, came to it as a moth to light. She had had a good deal of love as a kid but no strength around her, nobody to lean on ever: people had leaned on her. Thirty years she had longed to meet somebody who didn't lean on her, who wouldn't ever, who couldn't....

    Here, short, bloodshot, psychotic, and in hiding, here he was, her tower of strength.

    Life is the most incredible mess, Heather thought. (7.51)

    Imagine that dating advertisement: "Single brown female seeks short, bloodshot, psychotic male for changing the reality of the universe." That's sure to get results, right? Okay, on a different note, why do you think Heather is seeking strength so desperately? Why is it missing in her life? And what kind of strength does George have?

    "That's it. Listen, you know the war—the war in the Near East?"

    "Sure I know it. My husband was killed in it."

    "Your husband?" He looked stricken. "When?"

    "Just three days before they called it off. Two days before the Teheran Conference and the U.S.-China Pact. One day after the Aliens blew up the Moon base."

    He was looking at her as if appalled.

    "What's wrong? Oh, hell, it's an old scar. Six years ago, nearly seven. And if he'd lived we'd have been divorced by now, it was a lousy marriage. Look, it wasn't your fault!"

    "I don't know what is my fault any more." (7.78)

    In case you didn't catch it, George is worried that he likes Heather so much that he dreamed her husband was dead. Not a good first date question, are we right?

    Haber considered himself a lone wolf. He had never wanted marriage nor close friendships, he had chosen a strenuous research carried out when others sleep, he had avoided entanglements. He kept his sex life almost entirely to one-night stands, semipros, sometimes women and sometimes young men; he knew which bars and cinemas and saunas to go to for what he wanted. He got what he wanted and got clear again, before he or the other person could possibly develop any kind of need for the other. He prized his independence, his free will. (8.6)

    It looks like Dr. Haber is not the true love kind of guy; he's more into one-night stands. But why does he feel that in order to keep his independence and free will he has to avoid deep and meaningful relationships? How is his perspective on relationships different from George's?

    "One swallow does not make a summer," it said. "Many hands make light work." It stopped again, apparently not satisfied with this effort at bridging the communication gap. It stood still for half a minute, then went to the front window and with precise, stiff, careful movements picked out one of the antique disk-records displayed there, and brought it to Orr. It was a Beatles record: "With a Little Help from My Friends." (10.24)

    This is the alien trying to tell George how to deal with his strange power. Why do you think he recommends seeking out friends and their help? Is the alien just a really big Beatles fan, or is there something more to it than that? Fast-forwarding a little, is it George alone who saves the world, or does he do it with a little help from his friends?

    At dinner George watched her; she watched him a good bit, too. They had been married seven months. They said nothing of any importance. They washed up the dishes and went to bed. In bed, they made love. Love doesn't just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; re-made all the time, made new. When it was made, they lay in each other's arms, holding love, asleep. In her sleep Heather heard the roaring of a creek full of the voices of unborn children singing. (10.49)

    Were you surprised by this rather romantic and poetic description of love in the middle of the novel? We were. Why does the narrator say that love has to be made? Does this have anything to do with the alien's advice about friends?

    "Help me," he said aloud, for the void drew him, pulled at him. He had not the strength all by himself to get through nothingness and out the other side.

    There was a sort of dull rousing in his mind; he thought of Tiua'k Ennbe Ennbe, and of the bust of Schubert, and of Heather's voice saying furiously, "What the hell, George!" This seemed to be all he had to cross nothingness on. He went forward. He knew as he went that he would lose all he had. (10.153)

    Here, George is attempting to save the world from Dr. Haber's dreams. When he searches for help, what he gets are memories of people he has had relationships with. How does that work? What is it about these memories that counteracts the negativity of Dr. Haber's dreams? Also, since Dr. Haber refuses to have meaningful relationships, would it have been possible for him to get help from anyone besides George?

    He would have preferred less of a mess himself, but it wasn't up to him. And at least it had her in it. He had sought her as best he could, had not found her, and had turned to his work for solace; it had not given much, but it was the work he was fit to do, and he was a patient man. But now his dry and silent grieving for his lost wife must end, for there she stood, the fierce, recalcitrant, and fragile stranger, forever to be won again. (11.54)

    We guess that George loves Heather a lot. We mean, he's dreamed her back into existence at least two times. That's some pretty serious love. On another note, what is it about Heather that is real if she's been dreamed in and out of existence several times?

  • Power

    The creative and therapeutic resources of the brain—whether waking or sleeping or dreaming—are practically infinite. If we can just find the keys to all the locks. The power of dreaming alone is quite undreamt of!" (3.33)

    Dr. Haber seems to see the brain as some kind of puzzle that needs to be unlocked, and once he's found the key, he thinks he'll be capable of limitless power. So how do you think he feels when he first discovers George's abilities?

    A person is defined solely by the extent of his influence over other people, by the sphere of his interrelationships; and morality is an utterly meaningless term unless defined as the good one does to others, the fulfilling of one's function in the sociopolitical whole. (5.7)

    In other words, a person's worth is based on how much power they have. (So what about powerless people? Are they worthless?) This is a problematic way to define yourself, to say the least. What happens once you have power? Who are you then? What do you do with it? Who do you spend your time with? Do you respect them if they don't have as much power as you do? The list goes on.

    All of a sudden she was scared; a cold qualm took her. What was she doing? This was no play, no game, nothing for a fool to meddle in. He was in her power: and his power was incalculable. What unimaginable responsibility had she undertaken? (7.148)

    Why is Heather afraid of wielding George's power? Which reaction makes more sense: being afraid of limitless power, or desiring limitless power? Which characters take these positions? Which perspective seems like the right one in the novel?

    Why had this gift been given to a fool, a passive nothing of a man? Why was Orr so sure and so right, while the strong, active, positive man was powerless, forced to try to use, even to obey, the weak tool? This went through his mind, not for the first time, but even as he thought it he was going over to the desk, to the telephone. (8.78)

    We told you that everything went back to Taoism. George gets the power because he's following the tenets of Taoism. Dr. Haber isn't, so he gets nothing. Basically, if you actually desire power, you're not going to get it—or if you do, it'll turn on you pretty quickly.

    He was an important man, an extremely important man. He was the Director of HURAD, the vital center of the World Planning Center, the place where the great decisions were made. He had always wanted power to do good. Now he had it. (9.24)

    In a way, Dr. Haber's desire for power makes sense. It's pretty difficult to do things like end world hunger without a lot of power. But do you think he goes about achieving his goals in the correct way? And does he really want to solve these big problems, or is he more into the idea that he will be the one to fix everything? Is it about world peace, or is it really just about William Haber?

    The quality of the will to power is, precisely, growth. Achievement is its cancellation. To be, the will to power must increase with each fulfillment, making the fulfillment only a step to a further one. The vaster the power gained, the vaster the appetite for more. As there was no visible limit to the power Haber wielded through Orr's dreams, so there was no end to his determination to improve the world. (9.26)

    That's exactly the problem here. Dr. Haber says that George's power is a means to an end, but it doesn't actually seem that there is any end to Dr. Haber's desires. We could see his next step being to make himself the ruler of the entire solar system. Then the galaxy. Then the universe. Then… who knows?

    The lips within the curly beard parted in a straining, staring smile, a grin of ecstasy that made Orr turn away as if he had seen something never meant to be seen, both terrifying and pathetic. "Then this world will be like heaven, and men will be like gods!"

    "We are, we are already," Orr said, but the other paid no heed. (9.127)

    What do you think Dr. Haber means when he says men will be like gods? What does George mean when he says they already are? And why does Haber actually want to be like a god?

    "HURAD really runs the world, as is," he said. "I can't help wondering why Haber needs any other form of power. He's got enough, God knows. Why can't he stop here? I suppose it's like Alexander the Great, needing new worlds to conquer. I never did understand that. How was work today?" (10.57)

    You probably know who Alexander the Great is, but let's give a recap. He pretty much tried to take over the known world, and by age 30, he had created the largest empire ever known. He was so powerful and amazing that his existence is almost a myth (actually, there are lots of myths about it). But guess what? He never got to rule the entire world, just like our favorite sleep scientist, and he ended up dying pretty young.

    This was the way he had to go; he had no choice. He had never had any choice. He was only a dreamer. (6.70)

    It's easy to see George as a person with no power—and yet he's the one with the most impressive powers in the whole novel. Why is that? Is choosing not to choose a type of power as well?