Study Guide

The Lathe of Heaven Themes

  • Versions of Reality

    Dreams. We all have them, but they don't usually make the world end, right? Well, in The Lathe of Heaven, dreams can do pretty much anything—good or bad—and there's no way anyone can ignore the dreams of George Orr. In this world, dreams (George's, at least) are reality. Does that make this world a dream or nightmare?

    We're not sure, but we do know that the world of dreams is every bit as important as the waking world in this story, and it makes us wonder: in our world, what's dream and what's reality?

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. What does George believe about dreams? What does Dr. Haber believe? Who is right?
    2. What relationship do the aliens in The Lathe of Heaven have to dreaming? How do they guide George?
    3. Are the realities created by George's dreams in The Lathe of Heaven real or fake? Why?

    Chew on This

    Dreams are irrational, immoral, and violent in The Lathe of Heaven.

    Dreams are creative, healthy, and powerful in The Lathe of Heaven.

  • Philosophical Viewpoints (Taoism)

    Taoism. The Great Way. The Middle Path. This philosophy and religious tradition (pronounced Daoism, for the curious) is probably most famous in the West for being the origin of that yin-yang symbol and for inspiring some of the wisdom of Yoda, but more important, it's been a major influence on Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian cultures.

    Taoism isn't necessarily the kind of thing you'd expect to come across in a sci-fi novel, but George is its living incarnation. The whole moral of The Lathe of Heaven is, if you don't walk the middle path, expect to get burned.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints (Taoism)

    1. How does Dr. Haber feel about Taoism in The Lathe of Heaven?
    2. How are the principles of Taoism expressed throughout The Lathe of Heaven?
    3. Is Taoism the only philosophy explored in The Lathe of Heaven? If not, what other philosophies are featured?

    Chew on This

    Taoism influences the actions of all of the characters in The Lathe of Heaven.

    Taoism and Christianity are opposites in The Lathe of Heaven.

  • Philosophical Viewpoints (Utilitarianism)

    The greatest good for the greatest number of people—who could disagree with that? Utilitarianism attempts to maximize happiness and minimize suffering, though if you don't agree with the way utilitarians define happiness and suffering, you might not totally agree with their methods. While the principles of utilitarianism might seem pretty reasonable, in The Lathe of Heaven we see how things can go horribly, horribly wrong depending on how you define and try to build up a perfect world. Just look at what happens when Dr. Haber tries his hand at it.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints (Utilitarianism)

    1. Which character in The Lathe of Heaven is most aligned with utilitarianism? How can you tell?
    2. Is utilitarianism depicted negatively or positively in The Lathe of Heaven? Why? How?
    3. What relationship does utilitarianism have to science and reason in The Lathe of Heaven?

    Chew on This

    In The Lathe of Heaven, the most important thing is the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

    Utilitarianism is the only way to save the world in The Lathe of Heaven.

  • Technology and Modernization

    It's tempting to think that technology is an inherently good thing. After all, it did give us the Internet and Lolcats, so what could go wrong? Well, a lot, actually. Nuclear missiles, anyone? Pollution? Google Glass? In The Lathe of Heaven, we are shown how the creation of technology does not always lead to the best thing for humanity. In fact, it can lead to its destruction.

    Questions About Technology and Modernization

    1. What effect have technology and monetization had on George's world in The Lathe of Heaven? Is this good or bad? Why?
    2. How does George feel about technology in The Lathe of Heaven? How does he express that? What about Dr. Haber?
    3. How does the view of technology in The Lathe of Heaven compare to the view in most science-fiction novels? Is it similar or different? How so?

    Chew on This

    Technology only leads to bad things in The Lathe of Heaven.

    Science and technology are ultimately good in The Lathe of Heaven.

  • Warfare

    As the funkiest protest song says, "War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing." There are few of us who feel that warfare is a positive thing, but many of us think it's a necessary evil. In The Lathe of Heaven,Ursula Le Guin wants us to ask ourselves: is it? How could war be avoided? The characters in the novel have a bit of success in their plans to eradicate war, only to have other forms of institutionally sanctioned violence replace it. At least in this novel, it seems that we're just too addicted to hurting one another to give it all up.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. Why is George's world so overrun by warfare? What has caused it? Why does it get worse after the Plague?
    2. How do the references to previous wars affect your understanding of the warfare in The Lathe of Heaven? Do they affect your feeling toward current wars? If so, how?
    3. Why is Portland the first place to be struck by invasions in The Lathe of Heaven? Why not somewhere else?

    Chew on This

    Warfare in The Lathe of Heaven is a metaphor for warfare in our current lives.

    The characters in The Lathe of Heaven believe that humanity cannot exist without some kind of warfare or violence.

  • Race

    Sci-fi stories are normally more concerned with the conflict between alien races than ones here on earth. But in The Lathe of Heaven, racial issues take center stage, because even though the world is a hot mess and is constantly on the brink of being destroyed, this novel is here to tell you that no time is the wrong time for a little interracial romance. More seriously, though, this romance brings up a lot of questions about the role of race and culture in our world. In the world George experiences, the end of racism also means the end of culture as we know it. The question is: is it worth it?

    Questions About Race

    1. Is the treatment of Heather Lelache's character in The Lathe of Heaven racist? Why or why not?
    2. What is the effect of turning everyone gray in The Lathe of Heaven? Is it good or bad? What are the good aspects? What are the bad aspects?
    3. What role did Heather's parents play in the civil rights movement in The Lathe of Heaven? How is that period depicted?

    Chew on This

    Race is a complex and complicated subject in The Lathe of Heaven.

    The world is a much more boring place without race and culture in The Lathe of Heaven.

  • Love

    Love and relationships are an essential part of human existence. Hey, we're social creatures. We mean, we just like each other. But in the futuristic world of The Lathe of Heaven, love becomes even more important: it's the only way that we can keep the world from completely falling apart. Without it, we might even destroy everything we know. Whether it's romantic or friendship, The Lathe of Heaven tells us that love is a pretty big deal—maybe even the biggest deal.

    Questions About Love

    1. Why do the aliens in The Lathe of Heaven give George a Beatles record? What significance does it have? Why do you think this is the only way they can communicate with him?
    2. What impact does George's relationship with Heather have on his management of his powers? How would The Lathe of Heaven be different if George and Heather didn't like each other? Would it be different?
    3. What are the different perspectives on love and relationships that appear in The Lathe of Heaven? How does Dr. Haber see it? The aliens? Society at large?

    Chew on This

    Love is the only way to deal with George's dreaming power in The Lathe of Heaven

    Relationships are not important to the future of the world in The Lathe of Heaven.

  • Power

    Alexander the Great. Napoleon Bonaparte. Mr. Crabs.

    Megalomaniacs want power. After all, if you have power, you can get people to do anything you want. Sounds okay, right? Well, the flip side is that with great power comes great responsibility. In The Lathe of Heaven, it's pretty clear that some people just aren't ready to have the amount of power they want: Dr. Haber, for one, believes he can rule the world, but all he does is make a giant mess. George doesn't want the power that he has, but he manages to save the world with that power twice. Maybe the key is not to want power but to use it wisely if you somehow end up with it?

    Questions About Power

    1. How is the desire for power depicted in The Lathe of Heaven? Is it positive or negative? Why?
    2. How do George's and Dr. Haber's views of power differ? What about Heather? Do these views have any similarities?
    3. Are there different types of power in The Lathe of Heaven? If so, what are they? Who demonstrates each type?

    Chew on This

    Power is a worthy goal in The Lathe of Heaven.

    In The Lathe of Heaven, the sort of people who want power are exactly the kind of people who shouldn't have it.