How Ursula K. Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven and Kim Stanley Robinson's New York 2140 are giving me cool dreams to consider during quarantine.

By Christian Holub
April 08, 2020 at 04:12 PM EDT
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With more time at home in this era of social distancing and self-isolation, we've got a lot more time for reading, right? It's hardly so simple. In this new EW series, staffers discuss how they're coping with experiences of anxiety and isolation through books. In this entry, Christian Holub describes the solace of better worlds being dreamed up in some classic works of sci-fi.

I feel comfortable calling Ursula K. Le Guin my all-time favorite author. Though I didn’t really start reading her until after college, I fell in love with her books instantly. Her vivid imagination, elemental writing style, and endless curiosity about human behavior make for an intoxicating brew. But I’m the kind of person who likes spacing out good things; I always tried to leave some of her books unread so I’d have treats for later. I first read her gender-bending masterpiece The Left Hand of Darkness years ago, and started the magical Earthsea series even before that. But I only dug into The Dispossessed, Le Guin’s politically powerful novel about the relationship between a bountiful capitalist planet and the moon-based anarchist society that revolves around it, last year.

I had been planning to take some time before my next Le Guin. But as quarantine dawned, I broke the glass in case of emergency and finally acquired The Lathe of Heaven, one of her signatures that I hadn’t yet read. 

Big name, short length. Since The Lathe of Heaven clocks in under 200 pages, I would’ve made short work of it in normal times, over daily commutes. Going to and from the office on the subway, a half-hour each way (barring general MTA shenanigans), used to form the basis of my reading time. In our new status quo, I’ve tried to come up with replacements: Waking up a little early and using the extra time before work, or taking some quiet time around dinner. Both have helped, though I have yet to settle into a consistent quarantine-reading schedule. That’s one reason The Lathe of Heaven has made for relatively slow-going in my current state. The other is that the material is quite thought-provoking and unsettling, especially given our current context. 

The Lathe of Heaven tells the story of two men, Dr. William Haber and Michael Orr, the former an ambitious psychiatrist, the latter his unassuming patient. Orr’s problem is unique: Every so often, his dreams change reality. As a result, he’s become a bit of an insomniac who uses drugs to suppress his dreams. After all, if he went to sleep one night and ended up dreaming of, say, pink elephants, he could wake up the next day in a world that was filled with such creatures and always had been. Orr comes to Haber because he wants these dreams to stop, but the doctor has other ideas.   

Unlike Le Guin’s Earthsea books or even The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven is set on Earth — specifically Portland, where Le Guin spent most of her life. Written in 1971, it is set in 2002, and let’s just say Le Guin called several things correctly. Here, for example, is an early description of how climate change has affected Portland: “Rain was an old Portland tradition, but the warmth — 70 degrees F on the second of March — was modern, a result of air pollution. 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.... It was like living in a downpour of warm soup, forever.” 

Haber is as dissatisfied with that status quo as many of us are with our own; but unlike us, he suddenly finds the power to alter reality landing in his lap. Hooking Orr up to a dream machine he calls the Augmentor, Haber uses hypnosis and other techniques to dictate dream prompts to the sleeping Orr, hoping to make reality a little better. But dreams are not determined by logic, so things rarely go exactly the way Haber wants. At one point, he tells Orr to dream of a world without racial prejudice...so when Orr wakes up, everyone on Earth has identical gray skin. Another time, Haber tells his patient to dream of a world where overpopulation isn’t a problem...so Orr has a nightmare about burying bodies in a mass grave, and when he wakes up the world has undergone a Plague that killed six billion people.

Remember when I said this book was a bit of an unsettling read right now? 

Jumping between The Lathe of Heaven and 2020 reality, I can’t help but see resemblances between coronavirus and something Haber might tell Orr to dream. Putting human society on pause has created a major drop in air pollution; Los Angeles, of all cities, is now mostly devoid of smog. It’s like Haber ordered a dream where humans were less of a burden on the environment, but didn’t account for the increasing death tolls and the many human tragedies that accompany them. 

In their world as in ours, dreams are not exactly the same as reality. But there is a relationship between them (maybe you could call it seepage). The stories we tell ourselves and the things we dream about do eventually make an impact on reality, because they influence our own attitudes and actions. Unfortunately, for years now most of our future-looking stories have been about darkness, dystopia, and degradation. No wonder everyone’s so miserable during this quarantine; in addition to the deaths and lack of social interaction, the only playbooks we have for how to feel about a disastrous pandemic are dark tales like Children of Men or The Stand. So maybe the first step to a different kind of reality, a different kind of future, is to dream a different dream.

Even as I work my way through The Lathe of Heaven, I’ve also turned to one of Le Guin’s many students and successors, Kim Stanley Robinson. Like Le Guin, Robinson’s sci-fi is informed by a deeply empathetic worldview; neither of them are quick to give up on humanity. But Robinson’s stories are set a lot closer to Earth than Le Guin’s are. As a result, I’m starting to think his dreams could make a nice blueprint for how to think of our collective future as a livable place.

So I've been reading Robinson’s 2017 novel New York 2140, which is about as self-explanatory as titles get. Set a little more than a century from now, Robinson imagines New York City still extant, in very recognizable form, despite decades of climate change induced flooding. Most of lower Manhattan is now referred to as “the intertidal zone,” the city at large described as “the SuperVenice” for the way many streets have been replaced by canals. Commuting to work in the financial district now requires a boat, and low tide reveals “a dark green bathtub ring” on every downtown building.

And yet, life goes on. In the world of New York 2140, Wall Street day traders now bet on how high sea levels will rise, while poor kids congregate in midtown every day to surf the low tide, forming “one of the many small subcultures in this most clubbish of cities.” The changes are not just superficial, either. The MetLife Building has become a co-op owned by its residents, who democratically run it like their own “city-state,” and the opening pages of the novel feature a conversation between two homeless programmers plotting a hack of the global financial system to make a better world where “it helps people, it requires the cleanest tech, it restores landscapes, the extinctions stop.”

“You’re sounding scary,” one tells the other.

“I’m just saying! Besides, what’s scarier than right now?”

“Change? I don’t know.” 

“Why should change be scary? You can’t even read the news, right? Because it’s too f---ing scary?”

Things don’t go as planned: for them, for William Haber, or for us. But it’s nice to think about transformation in a way that’s not entirely bad. As I languish inside my apartment trying to make sense of the rapidly deteriorating world around me, these two dream machines have at least given me better ways to think about a changing world.  

For the latest information on coronavirus (COVID-19), including how to protect yourself and what to do if you think you are sick, please visit coronavirus.gov.

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