Since the times of antiquity, humans have wondered about the world around them. They observe natural phenomena, study the patterns created by them, and attribute meaning to them. Where understanding fell short, metaphor filled in nicely, giving rise to many philosophies the world over. This sense of wonder remains with us in our time, although we have the luxury of access to thousands of years of human observation, allowing us to make up better stories about how the universe works. The sun is not a chariot of fire pulled by the god Apollo, it is a massive sphere of hydrogen, fusing together in terrible splendor into helium, casting out light, heat, and energy. These stories, while appearing different on the surface, serve the same purpose: humans using their observations and the language they have at their disposal to describe their world. In our modern day, we have access to so much information that it may seem the time of mystique is behind us, however, authors, especially those of Science Fiction, retain the human heritage of exploring the unknown in the universe with the language we have available. Just because many old mysteries have been solved does not mean that there are no new ideas to discover or explore. Ursula K. Le Guin and Philip K Dick were two titans in this pursuit, especially in the undertaking of defining consciousness through their work. The workings of consciousness are still something we understand extraordinarily little about through our scientific breakthroughs, which makes discussing it in fiction a great way to reach for the metaphor in language we need to understand it better. This is just what Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin did with their work, especially in the matter of dreams.
In The Lathe of Heaven, we are introduced to George Orr, who has what are called “effective dreams.” In this dream state, he is able to alter the reality of the non-dream, physical world, often in dramatic ways. He is assigned to a psychiatric doctor to help him with his drug usage, a habit George has picked up to cope with his reality altering dreams, yet Dr. Haber becomes aware of his power and begins to use it to shape the world as he sees fit. Throughout the novel, the reader is introduced to a number of interesting pieces of information. For one, we discover that George experienced a nuclear apocalypse at the start of the novel, wiping out nearly, if not all life on earth (Le Guin, Ursula. 1971). Yet, as he lays in his irradiated blindness, he effectively dreams of a new reality, one where the bombs never fell. It is after entering this new world that George is forced to meet with Dr. Haber. The book is filled with surreal moments, yet one that stands out is George’s discussions on purpose, and the nature of the universe. Dr. Haber begins one of his meetings with George by saying that he believes it is mankind’s purpose to improve the world. He then asks George what he believes its purpose to be. George says, “I don’t know. Things don’t have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What’s the purpose of a galaxy? I don’t know if our life has a purpose and I don’t see that it matters. What does matter is that we’re a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass, (pg. 82, italics in original).” George makes an interesting distinction here between prevailing western ideals of the conscious self and those eastern, Taoist ideals. Where the former focuses on the singularity of the individual, the latter explores the connectivity between the self and the other, forming a tissue of many ‘ones’ who are in fact one. Like the thread in the tapestry, the concept of self is instead moored in a sense of collective oneness.
George continues to add to this concept as he struggles with the loss of personal freedom administered to him by the ever growing ego of Dr. Haber. One evening as he walks home from the shop of an alien junk peddler, he thinks, “… the whole world as it now is should be on my side, because I dreamed a lot of it up, too. Well, after all, it is on my side. That is, I’m a part of it. Not separate from I. I walk on the ground and the ground’s walked on by me, I breathe the air and change it, I am entirely connected with the world.” This connection in context of the text lends toward a sense of the connection between people and the world. George finds that the alien beings know him, and his ability, which they call iahklu’. Exactly what that word means is left to reader interpretation, yet it is heavily implied that it is the state of effective dreaming, and that the alien beings live in that state always. They also appear to be coterminous with one another, sharing experiences with one another.
The aliens in The Lathe of Heaven are a part of the fabric of the reality of the book. Just as is George Orr, and the entirety of earth. This fabric of reality, where all things are connected, are an echo of the words of Lao Tzu, who is credited with writing the Tao Te Ching. In it, Lao Tzu states, “Heaven will last, earth will endure. How can they last so long? They don’t exist for themselves and so can go on and on. So wise souls leaving self behind move forward, and setting self aside stay centered. Why let the self go? To keep what the soul needs,” (Tzu, Lao). Both speakers are saying a similar message of oneness found not in the selfish pursuits of life, but in the path of accepting the simplicity of life. What Lao Tzu calls the Way, George Orr calls stillness. These relationships in philosophy are apparent throughout the text, with references to the writings of Chaung Tse, another prominent voice for Taoism contemporary to that of Lao Tzu. There is, however, another way to interpret these pieces of information in The Lathe of Heaven: that everything which takes place in the book is an extension of George Orr. After the bombs fell and he dreamed into reality a new world free of the nuclear destruction, he becomes the choke point of a new reality, the wellspring from which all things form. Dr. Haber exists because George wanted someone who could help him, and while his methods are dangerous, he does help George become free of his effective dreams. Yet even with this interpretation, it changes nothing for the application of Taoist principles. George was already a part of the whole, containing the pieces of the universe within himself before the first destruction of the novel. Whether the new reality springs from him or from the continuity of the universe, it is the same. It is interesting to note as well are the implications of George Orr’s name. Some studies of the novel have suggested that Le Guin chose the name as an allusion to the novelist of 1984, George Orwell, who many view as having had a ‘vision’ of what could be if totalitarian regimes were allowed to get their way (Malmgren, Carl. 1998). By dreaming worlds, George creates paths out of disaster. It isn’t until Dr. Haber takes full control of the effective dreaming that things become dangerous to the point of the near total destruction of the human race. Some see the character as a parallel to the author, both providing the cautionary ‘vision’ humanity needed to avoid total destruction.
These elements connect as well with the works of Philip K. Dick. In Valis, the character’s Philip Dick and Horselover Fat both describe dreams of other lives, lives they believe they have lived, or will live. In the novel, the character Dick records the following regarding these dreams:
Dreams of another life? But where? Gradually the envisioned map of California, which is spurious, fades out, and with it, the lake, the houses, the roads, the people, the cars, the airport, the clan of mild religious believers with their peculiar aversion to wooden cradles; but for this to fade out, a host of inter-connected dreams spanning years of real elapsed time must fade, too.Dick, Philip K. 1981, Valis
Both Philip and Horselover, who themselves are alluded to being a shared consciousness of a single person, experience these dreams of other lives. These dreams form a web of connectivity, which according to Horselover are evidence of not only other lives lived, but other times lived, even other timelines of reality relating back to the time of Christ and the first Christians. These relations of time and understanding of it in relation to consciousness are revealing of these concepts of consciousness already discussed. The line between one person and another is relatively thin, and with the right conditions those lines can be crossed (Cannan, Howard 2008). Whether it is through dreams of other worlds, manifestations of Christ through different people across different times, or even the sci-fi film in the novel by the same name of Valis, these all indicate a thread of connection across people and times. The novel can be used to explore these concepts for the reader; how does consciousness happen for us? And to what degree are we living in a world not too dissimilar from the ones described in these novels?
Dick also explores this in The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In the first, we find the character Tagomi, who faces a crisis of identity after having to kill two men, is seeking something that can give him a return to meaning and self. He receives a unique pin and contemplates it, whereupon he is taken into another reality, one where the axis powers did not win the Second World War. This transition of worlds also shows a concept of the thinness of the line between concepts of reality. The concept of parallel timelines, or counterfeit realities, present in The Man in the High Castle also show principles of understanding reality in different lights (MacFarlane, Anna. 2015). Our ability to conceive of different outcomes appears in many respects to be innate, and using such concepts in the telling of stories allows us as a species the catharsis of experiencing the dangers of what could have been, just as George Orwell’s novel postulated a terrifying future, and, anachronistically viewed from our own time, a potential future, one which most of the human race would rather avoid. Indeed, the careful application of SF in literature allows for the exploration of these concepts so that readers, and the world, can see potential threats to us, and avoid them.
These concepts are united between Le Guin and Dick’s work (Watson, Ian. 1975). The SF author, especially these two authors, can imagine different worlds. Different timelines, and different threats to our species, are all on our minds as a collective organism going into the future of our technological advances. We are facing many challenges, Climate Change, pollution, political upheaval, and wealth disparity as well as bigotry, racism, and sexism. These challenges are real to us, just as they were in the days of Le Guin and Dick, and their work explored those fears, giving voice to the “what if” of coming days. This even comes up in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, where consciousness and reality are again challenged by the effects of Chew-Z. From the first exposure to the drug on, the story is unclear whether we are in the mind of Leo Bulero or not. And that in essence does not matter, because with the concept of human consciousness being explored as a continuum rather than many unique points, Bulero is an individual and the entire human race all at once. This comes back to the end of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, where people who have not even taken Chew-Z are experiencing the effects of it; it is possible it is leaking through the fabric of the conscious minds of the human race, connecting them.
In Androids, the people of the world frequently use what is called an Empathy Box to connect their minds to one another, to share experiences and to commune with a neo-messiah figure known as Mercer. This connection across the distance of personal self-consciousness is another place where the reader can observe the thinness of the line between one mind and another. The concept of the individual breaks down in these explorations, opening up a space where it is possible to be oneself and someone else, all at once. Indeed, by the end of Androids, Rick Deckard has become Mercer himself. For much of Dick’s work, the presence of these unique radio technologies act as a bridge between minds (Hulbert, Adam. 2016). The transmission of signals via a device allows for greater reception of signals to the human psyche. In essence, acting as a technological evolution along the path to enlightenment for the human race.
These connections to Taoist concepts of self are tropes of SF, and not knew ones (Huang, Betsy). Many authors have used eastern philosophy to explore new concepts for the western world, and have done so with great effect. One such example, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, shows that this connection of consciousness may not only cover the human race, but many others, across the universe. It is described in that consciousness is like a great ocean, with many islands. While the islands appear separate, if you removed the water, you would find they all are connected to the same earth. In Childhood’s End, humanity is on a path to become one with that universal consciousness, propelled along by the aid of servants of that consciousness. Some could read the story and find it bleak, an end to our species, absorbed into the consciousness of another entity. However, I find this not disturbing when viewed through the Taoist lens of consciousness, the self, and reality. There was no line between humanity and the greater consciousness to begin with; it was the next natural step of evolution in becoming one, becoming whole.
Le Guin explores these concepts once more in The Dispossessed, albeit in another, more subtle way. In this novel, there is a concept being explored in Physics called Simultaneity. This principle means that all things are happening at once in the universe, that all things are connected, and if one could understand how it is so, they could not only communicate across infinite distances instantly, but could even theoretically travel those distances just as fast. The character Shevek spends a great deal of time on the matter, describing in several places that the past and the present are all part of one great whole, not separated at all, simply only visible to us from our meager range of view where we happen to be along the spectrum. This principle of Simultaneity connects with these concepts of the principles of consciousness. All things exist at once, which would undoubtedly contain the conscious minds of every person in that oneness.
Even in Le Guin’s later work, such as Changing Planes, we continue to find these concepts of connectedness in consciousness. In one chapter, a people called the Frin share their dreams, forming a web of linked thoughts in their sleep. They do not view the dreams as one person’s or another, but as simply the dream; the one they all had. The Frin can even share dreams with other people not from their plane. However, those from other planes cannot share the dreams of the Frin. It becomes a point of contention in the story that the dreams of other planes are bringing with them ideas foreign to the Frin, ones that may even be overriding their own social development. In this situation, it could be interpreted that the story is an exploration of invasive cultures, such as those of the colonial era of the 16th century (LeRoy-Frazier, Jill. 2016).
Even more modern SF authors continue to explore the elements of consciousness. Andy Weir wrote in his short story The Egg of a concept of reality where all people on earth are in fact just one entity, the child of a deity, experiencing all of reality from beginning to end in an effort to mature into a deity themselves one day. His short story has leveraged a great deal of acclaim over the past few years, with a reference to it even appearing in a hip-hop album the artist Logic. SF provides a unique place for readers and authors to explore what it means to be human, especially in our day of increasing technology and shrinking borders. As we progress as a species, our boundaries of nations grow thinner, with new ideas entering our minds from all over the world daily. A person in Iran can speak instantly with a person in Canada on topics of Greek Philosophy, astrophysics, or romantic poetry. Already our barriers are coming down, much in the ways described by Dick, Le Guin, and Lao Tzu. As we progress, we are forced to observe reality with eyes of our similarities, with an understanding that even though we are all individuals, we are one species, one race, one earth.
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