Run through the Lathe

I like Ursula K. Le Guin. She’s smart and thoughtful. She challenges western ideology, gender politics, and the role of the hero in her novels. To her great credit, she also made it okay for women to read, write, and enjoy science fiction. She’s a bigwig on the sf literary landscape with an interesting pedigree. Her father was the anthropologist who wrote the book on Ishi that probably inspired George Stewart to write his book about Ish. David Pringle includes two of her most influential novels on the 100 list (The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed), but he left off The Lathe of Heaven, which is just as good as those two.

Le Guin sees TLOH as a Taoist novel. The main character, George Orr, has the power to control reality through his dreams, but he is beholden to his unconscious to control that control, so to speak. He ends up being forced into “voluntary” therapy with Dr. William Haber, a dream specialist. Haber wants to be a de facto benevolent fascist. He tries to manipulate Orr’s power for the better: an end to war, racism, overpopulation, and environmental degradation. Along the way, he throws in some personal perks too–like a sweet dream institute with a swank office. But Papa Haber deserves the best for all his hard work, no? Anyway, Orr is a Taoist hero to Le Guin. He lets purpose unfold and accepts what he cannot change. Haber, on the other hand, is the Taoist antagonist: aggressive, manipulative, impatient.

In the late 70s, PBS wanted to adapt one of Le Guin’s novels for television. She was shocked when they chose TLOH for their source material because in the novel “nothing happens.” With a miniscule $250,000 budget (this is post-Star Wars remember), the end result is generally considered one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. Shown on various PBS stations until 1988, when the broadcast rights expired, the film was shelved in limbo. No one could afford the rights because of a costly licensing issue with the film’s use of the Beatles song “With A Little Help from My Friends.” PBS, in particular, gave up hope and lost track of/destroyed/dropped into a black hole the original copies of the print in their archives. But, as often happens, enter fandom.

According to WNET, the original producer of the film, The Lathe of Heaven became the most requested PBS production for viewing in PBS history. (Too bad they couldn’t show it or give it out, eh?) Well, the overwhelming call for the film caused someone to come up with a brilliant idea: switch a cover version of the Beatles’ song out with the original. But wait. There still wasn’t a copy of the film around. Luckily, some loving fan had kept a VHS copy taped from television. Now here we are in 2007 and the film is available again, and on DVD no less. The quality is actually pretty good for a VHS transfer, but the cover version of the song is only so-so. Like many great sf films, it’s flawed. But it is also recommended viewing.

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