Study Guide

The Lathe of Heaven

The Lathe of Heaven Summary

Our main character, George Orr, wakes up from a strange dream and finds himself accosted by medics. Turns out he was illegally taking extra medication and totally overdosed on it. Yeah, not a good start. So the medics make him go to therapy.

George's new therapist is Dr. William Haber, a sleep specialist. George tells the doc that he has been trying to avoid falling asleep—not because he's afraid of nightmares, but because of something way weirder: his dreams change reality.

Wait, what?

Dr. Haber thinks this guy is crazy (we don't blame him), so he decides to put George to the test. How, you ask? Well, Dr. Haber makes George dream about a horse—you know, just to see what happens. Welp… it works: George ends up changing the giant painting on Dr. Haber's wall. It seems like Dr. Haber still doesn't believe him, though, so George is kind of crushed.

At George's second appointment, Dr. Haber makes him dream about Mount Hood and replace his old painting. After that, he makes him dream about changing the weather. It all happens as George dreamed it would.

Things are going great. Maybe. Well, kind of. All right, actually, George's not so sure. His entire ride home is pretty sad, and he starts to question what must be going on during the sessions. After a while, he comes to a revelation that is both super exciting and a little disturbing.

Dr. Haber must believe that George can change reality with his dreams. Yay? Well, okay, but if that's so, then why won't Dr. Haber let George remember his dreams? Also, why did Dr. Haber make George dream about poop? Good questions. Who knows?

George feels that Dr. Haber's little dream sessions are an invasion of privacy, so he goes to a lawyer named Heather Lelache to get some advice. They seem like total opposites, but it's obvious from the beginning that they like each other. There's no time for that now, though, because these two have to figure out how to spy on Dr. Haber without letting him know they're doing it.

Eventually, they decide that Heather will sit in on one of George's sessions. That's easy enough, but then Dr. Haber gets George to end the overpopulation problem by killing billions of people. Yeah, it just got real.

Well, the experiment works, but Heather witnesses the whole thing, so we've got a problem—aside from the billions-of-people-dead problem. So Dr. Haber has some work to do: he tries to convince Heather that she didn't see anything happen, and he seems to be successful.

But George knows what's up. Sure, overpopulation is over, but he just killed six billion people. He's freaking out, but what's he gonna do? We'd say he should just stop his appointments, but George isn't that kind of guy.

It's time for another dream, and Haber makes George dream about world peace. The way he manages to achieve that is by putting hostile aliens on the moon. Yeah, we get it: that's the only way to get humanity to band together. Um, right?

After this appointment, George disappears. He had made a date to meet up with Heather Lelache, and she's ticked that he stood her up. She goes looking for him and finds out that he's been hiding in a cabin in the woods, where he hasn't slept for almost a week. PSA: if you do that, it can kill you.

Heather finally convinces George to eat and get some sleep. Turns out Heather's got a few tricks up her sleeve: she decides to hypnotize George and make him dream about a nicer Dr. Haber and no more aliens on the moon. Unfortunately, George does just that… and guess what? The aliens aren't on the moon anymore. They're on earth.

Imagine every alien invasion movie you've ever seen, because that's pretty much what goes down at this point.

George and Heather rush over to Dr. Haber's office, and he manages to get a dream out of George that ends the warfare just in the nick of time. It turns out the aliens were actually peaceful and just had a really hard time communicating with humans; they thought bombs were friendly. Yeah, okay, seriously folks, there are communication problems and then there are COMMUNICATION PROBLEMS.

Fast-forward a little: everyone is used to the aliens now, but the world has also changed in other ways. Everyone is gray, Heather Lelache doesn't exist, and Dr. Haber runs everything.

Yeah, doesn't sound so good, does it?

Now George is really starting to get worried about the way the doctor is using his powers. He's had enough. This time, when Dr. Haber tries to record his brain waves, George dreams about an alien giving him advice instead. And that changes things how? We're not sure yet.

Well, after the appointment, George heads over to an antique shop and gets a copy of "With a Little Help from My Friends." George falls asleep listening to it, and when he wakes up, Heather is back. Of course, she's all gray, and she's his wife, but basically it's the same Heather, and George will take what he can get.

After spending some time together as a loving couple, George and Heather go to Dr. Haber's office for George's last appointment. At the appointment, Dr. Haber gets the power to make anyone have effective dreams, just like George's.

Yeah, this should turn out well.

It doesn't take long before the world literally starts to melt: it's like Haber's dreams are turning reality into a Salvador Dalì painting. George decides he has to end it by turning off Dr. Haber's machine.

The world is kind of in tatters after all this goes down, but soon things to get back to normal. For example, George gets a new job creating products for one of the alien businesses that have been popping up. And guess who walks into the store one day? That's right: Heather Lelache. Looks like it's time for them to finally have that date.

  • Chapter 1

    • The novel starts, oddly enough, with a jellyfish.
    • The jellyfish is in the sea, doing jellyfish things. You know, like you would expect it to do.
    • But then everything changes. Land shoots out of the water, creating continents.
    • The scene changes again, and we meet a guy who has had his eyelids burned off. He's in the middle of a post-apocalyptic environment, and he's talking about radiation sickness… but at the same time, he's also inside in a room with a door that leads to a linoleum corridor. Wait—huh?
    • No explanation for that, folks. The people this dude encounters think that he's high or drunk, but the guy mentions something about dreams.
    • Turns out that this guy's been taking drugs illegally, so the medics who come to treat him write him up and send him into voluntary therapy.
    • A guy called Mannie takes the blame for George's (that's the guy) drug use, and keeps him out of even worse trouble. Then he talks about people suffering from diseases because they aren't getting enough food.
    • We're not sure what's going on, but this doesn't sound like a very nice future to be in.
  • Chapter 2

    • Now we're in Dr. William Haber's office.
    • Haber's staring at a giant photograph of Mt. Hood and wondering when the picture was taken. It can't be modern: in this world, the greenhouse effect has destroyed snowy mountaintops and beautiful blue skies, even in Antarctica.
    • Haber is distracted from the painting when George Orr walks into his office.
    • George is thin, has fair hair and eyes, and seems like the most ordinary guy you could ever meet.
    • Dr. Haber, on the other hand, is about as sleazy as a used-car salesman. He's a sleep doctor, and he guesses that George has been trying to stop his dreams.
    • Well, it turns out that's a pretty dangerous thing. Something that could even be deadly.
    • It takes a while, but George finally tells Dr. Haber why he's been avoiding dreaming: his dreams change things. The dreams don't just come true, and they're not just prophetic—they actually change reality.
    • Well, you might think that George has taken one pill too many, but Ursula Le Guin has some other news for you.
    • George tells the story of the first time he was sure he changed reality. He was 17, and he had an aunt who kept trying to have sex with him. One night, he had a dream in which she was killed in a car crash, and when he woke up, his aunt was gone. It's not that she left: the past was actually totally different. She was killed in a car crash, so she was never there with George at all.
    • And the weird (weirder?) thing is, no one actually notices when George changes the past.
    • Even after hearing all of this, Dr. Haber doesn't seem to be the least bit disturbed. He asks George a bunch of other questions and then makes a decision: he'll just force George to dream until he's not afraid of dreaming anymore.
    • Obviously.
    • There is a pretty long monologue by Dr. Haber explaining his fancy-pants machine, but all you need to know is that it makes people dream.
    • So Dr. Haber puts George under hypnosis and tells him to dream about a horse. Surprisingly, the whole thing works. Even more surprisingly, George actually changes reality.
    • Remember that picture of Mt. Hood? Well, now it's a picture of a horse. Dr. Haber doesn't even seem to notice. In his mind, it's always been a picture of a horse, and George is just insane.
    • Yeah, George totally called that, Doc.
    • The chapter ends with Dr. Haber ordering George to come see him after work every day.
  • Chapter 3

    • George leaves work at 3:30 and heads home.
    • On the way, we learn a lot about George's world. It's overcrowded, there are tons of subways, war is happening in the Middle East, and global warming has finally screwed up the environment beyond repair. Entirely new cities have formed where other cities had turned into wastelands. No city in this world seems like a great place to live.
    • It's back to Dr. Haber's office, and this time George is not as impressed as he was before. He realizes that everything about the office is fake, cheap, and faux-fancy. Not only that, but Dr. Haber is also not exactly what he appears.
    • George talks about the war that seems to be happening with Afghanistan, and Haber asks if it worries him.
    • After that conversation, it's time for another round of hypnosis. Haber tells George to dream about horses again, and he does. Only this time, the horse takes a giant poop in the shape of Mount Hood. Yeah, you read that right. And guess what? When George wakes up, the mountain is on the mural again.
    • So Mount Hood is actually a pile of horse poop?
    • Anyway, for some reason this is really exciting for Dr. Haber.
    • George, on the other hand, doesn't feel as happy as Haber does. He tries to talk Haber into stopping his dreams, but the doctor won't have it; for him, dreams are a necessity.
    • Okay, time for a new dream. George dreams of John F. Kennedy bumping into Dr. Haber, and then he dreams about the rain stopping. And guess what? It does.
    • After all this, George feels tired and goes home. On his subway ride, he thinks about the absurdity of his life.
    • Soon, George starts thinking about his therapy sessions with Dr. Haber. He wonders why he can't remember anything, and then he starts thinking that Dr. Haber must be instructing him to dream about specific things.
    • Which means that Dr. Haber somehow knows the truth.
    • George is so excited that even the people next to him can feel his happiness.
    • George heads home, full of this brand-new news. But once he gets to his apartment, he has second thoughts. If Dr. Haber knows, why hasn't he said anything? What will he do now that he knows?
    • Those are some pretty good questions, and we sure don't trust this doctor guy at all.
  • Chapter 4

    • Up next: more alternate future history lessons.
    • So it turns out that people in this reality aren't really big on cars anymore. As the population grew, people started having giant automatic parking garages—you know, like the ones we have now—but then the car went the way of horse-drawn buggy.
    • Now those old garages are converted office buildings. And that's where Heather Lelache works.
    • Heather Lelache is a lawyer who seems as tough as nails, and George (our wimpy protagonist) has come to her for help.
    • It turns out that George thinks Dr. Haber is ordering him to dream specific dreams. The problem is, there's nothing technically illegal about this.
    • George tries to explain the whole thing to Heather, but she is not getting it at all. Frankly, she thinks that he's totally nuts… but at least she won't say it to his face.
    • It looks like George and Heather are going nowhere, but then George mentions that Dr. Haber's machine is experimental.
    • Heather's found her angle: if Dr. Haber's machine hasn't been approved, then she can get the therapy sessions to stop.
    • Heather and George make a plan for her to attend one of George's therapy sessions without Dr. Haber knowing that the two of them are in cahoots.
  • Chapter 5

    • Dr. Haber strides into the Oregon Oneirological Institute. It's fancy, elegant, and high class… and perhaps most important, it's not the office that he used to have.
    • Suddenly Dr. Haber is a big shot. He even has a huge office and a giant window view of Portland. We wonder how that happened.
    • Dr. Haber has an appointment with George, but before that, he meets with Heather Lelache. He explains how his machine works while he records it, going on for paragraphs about tiny scientific details.
    • According to Dr. Haber, what he's doing is teaching George how to dream without being afraid.
    • Right.
    • After George comes in, Dr. Haber hypnotizes him. Instead of directly telling him what to dream (you know, since Heather is watching), he gives a kind of vague and general topic. This time it's overpopulation.
    • Dr. Haber and Heather watch as George falls asleep, keeping track of all the recordings on Haber's instruments.
    • But then something much more interesting happens outside the window: the buildings start to disappear. Portland changes from a city of millions into a city of a few hundred thousand.
    • Understandably, Heather is a tiny bit freaked out.
    • When Dr. Haber realizes that Heather has witnessed the transformation of the city, he starts to freak out. For a moment, it really seems like he's going to kill her. But when Heather doesn't seem to remember anything, the doctor calms down.
    • But there's another problem. When George wakes up, he says that he dreamed about the Plague, which of course was not happening anywhere before he started dreaming.
    • Dr. Haber shoos George out and tries to convince Heather that poor George is just crazy. When she leaves, it seems like his plan has worked.
    • So Dr. Haber sits down to congratulate himself with a bottle of bourbon, toasting to the deaths of tons of people. Looks like we have our novel's villain.
  • Chapter 6

    • George goes back to his apartment after the appointment with Dr. Haber… and by that we mean he goes to his new apartment, which is suddenly bigger and fancier than the old one.
    • George starts freaking out. He just killed six billion people with his dream, and he sees no way to get out of Dr. Haber's clutches. He's not sure what to do, or even if he should do anything. Dr. Haber only wants the best for mankind, right?
    • Then Heather Lelache calls. George is happy to hear from her, and not just in the platonic way, if you know what we mean. They make a date to meet each other for lunch on Monday.
    • Even though he was happy at first, by the end of the conversation George is not too happy, because it seems like Heather can't remember anything that happened.
    • To console himself, George has a one-man food-eating contest in his kitchen. He gobbles down an insane amount of food, and that makes him feel a little better. Hey, whatever works, we guess.
    • Before we know it, it's time to go to George's daily appointment with Dr. Haber. On the way there, he thinks about the new world he lives in.
    • George dreamed up a Crash that killed 6 billion people in ten years, but even though so many people died, the world remained fundamentally the same. There was still pollution, and there was still warfare.
    • When he gets to Dr. Haber's office, George asks why the doctor won't admit that he's using George's dreams to change the world. Dr. Haber basically brushes George off, acting as if he's totally crazy.
    • Dr. Haber wants to change things, but George thinks that things should be left alone.
    • The argument doesn't change anything, and George ends up dreaming Haber's dreams anyway. Dr. Haber tries to get George to dream about peace.
    • George dreams about a goose. Then about stars. Then about a giant star that gets bigger and bigger and finally explodes.
    • George wakes up screaming, sweaty and scared. If that's how he dreams about peace, we don't want to see him dream about war.
    • Turns out that the way he changed reality this time was by imagining hostile aliens taking control of the moon and threatening the safety of earth. That's an interesting way of getting humans to play nice…
    • This is the breaking point for George. Seriously, he imagined space aliens. That's like something out of a sci-fi novel or something…
    • Despite George's protests, Haber carries on: he's drunk with power.
  • Chapter 7

    • Remember that date? Well, George has missed it, and Heather is not happy. No one makes her look stupid.
    • Heather heads to George's work. Not there. She goes to his house. Not there. Finally, she goes to his little cottage in the woods. There he is.
    • Naturally.
    • Turns out that George has been holed up in his cabin, trying not to sleep, since Saturday. It's Tuesday.
    • Something about seeing George like this, sleep deprived, frazzled, and half-insane, makes Heather realize that she has a bit of a crush on him.
    • Heather and George talk. It turns out that Heather had a husband who died in the war, and that's when she remembers that aliens didn't exist before last Friday.
    • Heather and George have an idea: instead of avoiding dreams, George should have a dream about Dr. Haber. He should make him a real good guy. That would fix everything, wouldn't it?
    • Somehow, we have a bad feeling about this.
    • But anyway, the two decide that this is the best course of action, since George is going to fall asleep eventually anyway.
    • Somewhere in this conversation, Heather launches into a long explanation of her past. She says that her dad was black and her mom was white, but she doesn't know what she is. George tells her she's brown, the color of the earth. Remember that—it's important later.
    • Oh, and George's childhood? Doesn't matter.
    • Heather and George realize that they aren't skinny anymore, since so many people died and there is abundant food. That makes Heather start to wonder if these dreams really are good.
    • Then George asks Heather if she remembers April 1998. She doesn't remember anything in particular, and that's when he drops the bomb: that's when the world ended.
    • Yep, you heard right. Kaput.
    • Turns out that humans were pretty bad at using birth control, stopping global warming, and dealing with world hunger. By the 90s, the earth was a living hell, and then in '98, the bombs dropped.
    • So everyone's dead, we guess?
    • After telling that story, George is so tired that he falls asleep—but not before Heather somehow hypnotizes him. She tells him to dream that Dr. Haber doesn't suck and that there are no aliens on the moon.
    • While George is sleeping, Heather cleans up the whole cabin and even starts reading a book by a Russian author.
    • So this is where things start to get pretty trippy. We don't know if it's the coffee or the brandy Heather's drinking, but stuff starts getting weird. The river starts singing eternal praise in the voices of unborn children, wolves start howling, and there's sunrise in the middle of the night.
    • When George wakes up, we figure out why everything is insane. The aliens have landed.
    • Oh, boy.
  • Chapter 8

    • Of course, as we all remember, the only part of the American mainland to be attacked during the Second World War was Oregon. Yup.
    • It is also the only part of the American mainland to be invaded by the aliens.
    • Luckily, Earth has a huge network of missiles ready to blow up any alien ship that comes within range.
    • Unfortunately, the alien ships have a device that can take control of the missiles and turn them around so that they explode all over Oregon.
    • Dr. Haber is not having a good day. Portland is on fire, nobody's in the Institute Building, he's all alone, and he doesn't know what to do. He's been trying to find George all day, but he has no luck.
    • After a while, George comes to Dr. Haber. George is bloody, limping, and carrying an almost unconscious woman.
    • George is there to fix this mess, and Dr. Haber couldn't be happier. He's cracked the code to George's dreams, and he plans on fixing the whole alien invasion with a REALLY BIG DREAM.
    • One problem: the entire town is falling down in flames around them. It's not exactly the best time to be dreaming, right? Yeah, they go for it anyway.
    • An alien ship crashes into Dr. Haber's office right in the middle of George's dream. Dr. Haber covers his machine with his own body, trying to protect it while he faces death.
    • Then the unthinkable happens. Er, wait: hasn't the unthinkable been happening since page 1 of this book? But we digress. Anyway, the big scoop is that the aliens are not violent after all. They're just misunderstood.
    • The explosions stop and George wakes up. Looks like he's responsible for ending the attacks.
    • George tells Haber to call the president and let them know that the aliens are totally peaceful. It takes a little convincing, but Haber eventually does it. Meanwhile, he seems to be making some kind of plan that makes us a little bit uneasy. Have any of his plans worked out yet?
  • Chapter 9

    • Things aren't going so well for George. It seems like Haber is using his dreams to change the world in even more dramatic ways. Before, the world always had some kind of general continuity; now it seems like that has been lost.
    • Instead of being a draftsman, George has become a bureaucrat. Portland has become the capital of the planet, in some kind of global U.N.-like organization, and Heather Lelache doesn't even exist. That's because everyone is gray now (like, literally gray), and as George so helpfully pointed out earlier, Heather is brown.
    • Meanwhile, guess who runs basically the whole world? Dr. Haber. Sounds like a reality you want to live in, right?
    • Things get even better when we realize that the world has gone back to watching people kill one another by the hundreds as a sport instead of waging war. That's better, we guess?
    • It's time for George's appointment, so he walks to the HURAD Tower, which is bigger than anything in the whole area. It's Dr. Haber's new office, which is basically palatial now.
    • Dr. Haber is such a big shot now that he almost doesn't even seem to be concerned about George. He shares the news that George is perfectly in the middle of every single test that they perform on his brain.
    • Dr. Haber also reveals that he has a new plan for today's appointment. Instead of sleeping, George will be hooked up to the Augmentor while he's awake.
    • Understandably, George is a little concerned.
    • Dr. Haber wants to record George's brainwaves so that he can figure out how they work. But George is anxious. What will Dr. Haber do with that information?
    • The two have a long argument, with both sides trying to argue why they should and shouldn't change the world—but of course Dr. Haber wins.
    • Something weird happens when Dr. Haber uses the Augmentor this time. Instead of having a dream, George visualizes one of the aliens.
    • The magical dream alien tells George to use the phrase er' perrehnne in order to get help with his dreaming.
    • George doesn't have many other options, so why not?
    • The phrase works: George's well-being is restored.
    • George decides that he's not going to let Haber use him anymore. He stands up to him.
    • Dr. Haber says that he's on the verge of a breakthrough, and soon he'll be able to use the Augmentor to make anyone dream effective dreams.
    • The dudes argue again. George says that things just keep getting worse and worse, but Dr. Haber sees it all as an improvement. After all, they did end overpopulation, pollution, racism, and war, right? RIGHT?
    • The chapter ends with a speech by Dr. Haber about becoming godlike. It's creepy. Real creepy.
  • Chapter 10

    • George is not down with this new reality: Dr. Haber has gone too far this time, and the new world just isn't right.
    • So George heads downtown into an antiques shop run by one of the aliens. It's full of 1950s memorabilia and knickknacks.
    • When George asks the alien the meaning of iahklu, he gets a record instead. Obviously, the Beatles are the answer to all of this dude's problems.
    • George takes the record, goes off to his friend's place, and listens to the record on repeat until he falls asleep.
    • That's when George dreams the best dream he's had so far: he dreams Heather back into existence. Of course, in her mind, she just fell asleep, but we totally missed her.
    • Oh yeah, by the way: George also dreamed that Heather was his wife. So now she is.
    • The next page basically consists of George and Heather being the cutest sci-fi couple ever.
    • Okay, so after the cuteness, George and Heather head over to Dr. Haber's huge office.
    • In the time since we've seen him, Haber has become gigantic with power. Heather, on the other hand, is more cowardly than before, and she's afraid of him.
    • This is supposed to be George's last appointment, so Dr. Haber tells George to dream that he will be completely normal. That will end all of the effective dreams, right?
    • To test it, Dr. Haber makes George dream of changing the picture of Mt. Hood. But something goes wrong: George wakes up before Haber wanted him to. That's never happened before.
    • Haber brushes it off. George tries to warn the doctor about the dangers of effective dreaming, but of course it doesn't work.
    • George and Heather head out. They are on their way to dinner when stuff starts going a little weird. They feel uneasy… and then all hell breaks loose. Again.
    • And by "all hell breaks loose," we mean that things like buildings start melting like Jell-O. Yeah, it's bad.
    • Haber has started dreaming.
    • Oh, it's so bad.
    • Here's where things start to go really sci-fi. Imagine a giant black whirlpool… but it's not really a whirlpool—it's actually the absence of matter. Well, George jumps in it and uses it as a way to teleport over to Haber's office. (How did he know he could do that?) At the same time, the whirlpool destroys everything around it and even swallows up Heather.
    • Haber's office looks like a Salvador Dalì painting, and George has to think about all of his friends in order to even move forward. Finally, he finds Dr. Haber and rips the Augmentor off of him.
    • The nightmare's over, but it doesn't seem like Dr. Haber is waking up.
    • Later, George walks through the city, looking at the wreckage. His wife is gone, and a whole world of people has disappeared.
    • This day was not a good day.
  • Chapter 11

    • An alien finds George wandering through the rubble of the world. The alien takes him into his apartment and tells him to go to sleep.
    • George sleeps, then dreams—and the world doesn't end.
    • A few months later, it seems like things have settled down. The trees are in bloom, and people have regained their mental health. Well, except for Dr. Haber: he's still so crazy that even the other patients are afraid of him.
    • These days, George is working for one of the aliens. After the Break, the government had been so messed up that many small businesses sprang up to meet the demands of people. The aliens own many of them, and they had to hire humans in order to get anything done.
    • One day at work, George hears a very familiar voice.
    • It's Heather. She's not a lawyer, and she's not gray, and she doesn't remember much about the past, but the fact that she exists is enough for George.
    • George invites Heather out for a tea that they have missed for several realities, and his boss gives him the evening off. Looks like they'll finally be able to have that date, after all.