R.I.P. legendary sci-fi & fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin, author of “The Lathe of Heaven”

By on January 23, 2018

We’re hearing today that the celebrated sci-fi & fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin — author of some of our favorite sci-fi novels, including The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Lathe of Heaven (1971) — died yesterday, January 22, 2018, at her home in Portland, Oregon, where she’d been living since 1959.

According to her obituary today in New York Times, Le Guin — the winner of numerous writing awards, including being recognized as a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress — was 88 years old.

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Born Ursula Kroeber on October 21, 1929, in Berkeley, California, she graduated from Berkeley High School in 1947, in the same class as another seminal figure in sci-fi literature, Philip K. Dick, who she didn’t know (he was also a year older than her).

One of our very favorite adaptions of her work was the 1979 PBS production of her 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven, which was turned into a made-for-TV movie by WNET Channel 13 in New York, starring Bruce Davison as “George Orr,” a man who discovers that his dreams can change reality.

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The title is taken from the writings of Chuang Tzu, in a passage from Book XXIII, paragraph 7, which Le Guin quoted as an epigram to Chapter 3 of the novel:

“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.”

The novel was first serialized in Amazing Stories, a sci-fi magazine, before it went on to receive many nominations for writing awards, including the 1972 Hugo, and the 1971 Nebula. It won the Locus Award for Best Novel in 1972.

Le Guin herself served as the creative consultant to the PBS TV film, which was set in Portland, Oregon, in 2002, which was considered “the future” at the time.

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The plot takes place in a world that isn’t too much different from the world we live in today, although the world in her novel considerably more impoverished.

Global warming — what the 1970s scientists were first calling the “Greenhouse Effect” — has wrought havoc upon the quality of life everywhere.

There is also war going on in the Middle East, with Egypt and Israel allied against Iran.

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In the story, drug addict George Orr — possibly an homage to George Orwell — has recently overdosed on a prescription medication that he had been taking in an attempt to suppress his ability to “effectively” dream, because his dreams alter reality not only for himself, but for everyone else.

George is able to understand that the world was different before he changed it with his dream, but he’s driven to abusing drugs because living this way is slowly driving him insane.

To keep from being placed in an asylum, George is forced to undergo “voluntary” psychiatric care for his drug abuse, and forcibly assigned to the care of a psychiatrist, “Doctor Haber” (Kevin Conway).

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Orr tells him that he’s been having dreams that can change reality since he was seventeen years old. He tells the doctor that when he dreams of something, the next day it becomes a reality.

Dr. Haber, meanwhile, has been experimenting with a powerful biofeedback/EEG machine, which he calls the Augmentor, which can enhance the patient’s ability to produce a series of increasingly intolerable alternative realities.

Unfortunately, Dr. Haber usurps this power to conjure his own vision of a perfect world, with unfortunate results.

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The Lathe of Heaven was the first direct-to-TV film production for WNET, produced with a limited budget of $250,000.

Mrs. Le Guin has said the adaptation of her work by public TV — directed by David Loxton and Fred Barzyk, and broadcast in 1980 — was, in her words, “the only good adaptation to film” of her work to date. A second filmed version arrived on the A&E network in 2002.

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Unfortunately, PBS’s television rights to re-broadcast their 1979 film expired in 1988, and thereafter it became one of the most-requested TV programs that viewers wanted to see again.

Because it was considered very expensive to once again pay for and clear the rights with all of the participants in the original program (including the use of the Beatles’ song “With A Little Help From My Friends, which is integral to both the novel and the film), PBS did not save a copy of the production for their own archives.

A VHS home videotape was released — using a remastered videotape of the broadcast — which you can find easily enough if you’re interested (the Beatles song was replaced by a cover version).

There are various uploaded versions available on Youtube. Here’s Part One of one those uploads:

Here’s more from her New York Times obit:

Ms. Le Guin embraced the standard themes of her chosen genres: sorcery and dragons, spaceships and planetary conflict. But even when her protagonists are male, they avoid the macho posturing of so many science fiction and fantasy heroes. The conflicts they face are typically rooted in a clash of cultures and resolved more by conciliation and self-sacrifice than by swordplay or space battles.

Her books have been translated into more than 40 languages and have sold millions of copies worldwide. Several, including The Left Hand of Darkness — set on a planet where the customary gender distinctions do not apply — have been in print for almost 50 years.

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The critic Harold Bloom lauded Ms. Le Guin as “a superbly imaginative creator and major stylist” who “has raised fantasy into high literature for our time.”

In addition to more than twenty novels, she was the author of a dozen books of poetry, more than 100 short stories (collected in multiple volumes), seven collections of essays, thirteen books for children and five volumes of translation, including the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu and selected poems by the Chilean Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral. She also wrote a guide for writers.

R.I.P. Ursula K. Le Guin.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.