The Scale of the Human Condition
I’m currently reading Lathe of Heaven (1971), by Ursula K. Le Guin. I have not read many books by Le Guin–just The Left Hand of Darkness–but I am very fond of her writing.
Lathe of Heaven is a story about a man named George Orr. When George Orr sleeps and dreams his dreams effect the world around him–things change. Things small and large, from paintings to the population of the planet, change.
At the start of the story, Orr is forced into therapy with a psychiatrist, named William Haber. Haber discovers Orr’s ability and attempts to use it to improve the world. Meanwhile, when Orr suspects that Haber may be manipulating his dreams, he seeks help from no-nonsense attorney, Heather LeLache.
This story is huge, but Le Guin’s telling of it is small. The world–even the universe–changes around these three people in the space of a single page turn. Rapid, enormous, important changes that we, as the audience, experience through the eyes and actions of Orr, Haber and LeLache. Le Guin’s narrative restraint reduces the cosmos to the scale of the individual.
Le Guin manages to address big social concerns, such as over-population, climate change, nuclear proliferation and racial tensions through the–ever-changing–lives and experiences of just three people. And the effect is to place these big, and radical for their time, concerns into a relatable context that tends away from preachy didacticism.
The effect of Le Guin’s choice to restrain the scope of her narrative is to create a story that is compelling on a very human level, while informing the audience on an Earth-sized scale.