Post by Greg Goss Post by D B Davis Post by James Nicoll
13 Stories About Surviving a Nuclear War--At Least Briefly
Isn't _The Lathe of Heaven_ (le Guin) about a guy who briefly survives
a nuclear war by living in a fantasy created by his mind, an imaginary
place, which ignores harsh reality?
That's one interpretation.
But since it was written in the seventies and the original "change"
let him survive the Cuban nuclear exchange in the early sixties, I
don't think it was the interpretation that the author was going for.
Although a hypothetical Cuban nuclear exchange provides an interesting
opening to the story, le Guin doesn't specifically identify the Portland
catastrophe as a Cuban nuclear attack, or even as a nuclear attack. She
leaves all of those details up to the reader's imagination, which may
explain a large part of her story's charm. (Another part of its charm is
that it revolves around laying in a bed, sleeping, dreaming, and then
discussing dreams. What's not to like about those four activities?)
An excerpt of the start of the story is available at Slate.  The
story opens with a narrative about jellyfish, then it segues into the
Portland catastrophe for a brief period before George Orr has an
/effective/ dream that puts him two feet away from a door in a
His eyelids had been burned away, so that he could not
close his eyes, and the light entered into his brain, searing.
He could not turn his head, for blocks of fallen concrete
pinned him down and the steel rods projecting from their cores
held his head in a vise. When these were gone he could move
again; he sat up. He was on the cement steps; a dandelion
flowered by his hand, growing from a little cracked place in
the steps. After a while he stood up, but as soon as he was on
his feet he felt deathly sick, and knew it was the radiation
sickness. The door was only two feet from him, for the
balloonbed when inflated half filled his room. He got to the
door and opened it and went through it. There stretched the
endless linoleum corridor, heaving slightly up and down for
miles, and far down it, very far, the men’s room. He started
out toward it, trying to hold on to the wall, but there was
nothing to hold on to, and the wall turned into the floor.
My interpretation of the story is that George Orr uses /effective/
dreams to suppress reality. Any old dream will do, anything, anything at
all, to take the place of the harsh reality of nuclear bomb
victimization. All the while it takes only the slightest lapse in Orr's
sheer willpower (which is itself suppressed out of necessity) to blow
the lid off of his reality suppression. Just one lapse and Orr will find
himself back with his eyelids burned away faster than Richard Collier
goes back to the future when a penny interrupts Collier's suspension of
disbelief in _Somewhere in Time_ (Matheson).
Immediately before its denouement, _The Lathe of Heaven_ hints that
reality is bearing down hard on Orr. Orr needs to immediately do
something to contain Haber before Orr finds himself back with his with
his eyelids burned away.
Anyhow, that's my take on it. The story's vague enough to
accommodate more than one interpretation.