And so my le Guin adventure continues…
The premise here is that George, a remarkably ordinary man, has the ability to have what he terms effective dreams: dreams that alter reality. He doesn’t always dream effectively, but when he does he can’t control it. And it’s driving him mad, because he doesn’t want to have this ability. Thus, drugs, and then therapy. However, that’s when things go even less as George would want them to, because his psychiatrist Haber discovers the ability and… well. ‘Manipulation’ has such ominous overtones, but it’s appropriate here.
Objectively, there is little about this book that ought to work, in some senses. For a start, George Orr is a nobody. He doesn’t want to be a villain or a hero. In fact, there are several long sections of the book where the incredible normal-ness, average-ness, and boring-ness of George are analysed in depth, with some interesting discussion about whether his being so very very average is actually quite amazing. I really like George’s normality, and I can imagine that choosing to put this amazing ability into the hands of Mr Boring was actually quite a radical choice for le Guin (it also made me think of Deb Biancott’s Bad Power set of stories, where people get powers without having any desire to have them). Haber is another sort of character altogether, and a deeply unpleasant one at that. But still we don’t get very much insight into Haber – not whether his actions are motivated by greed or misguided altruism or what. We only see him through George, and George is a fairly ignorant observer.
Then there’s the narrative. There isn’t really very much plot, as such, for the simple reason that the world keeps changing. There can’t be much continuity, even in George’s own life, when he keeps changing fundamental aspects of the world itself. And this is disturbing and uncomfortable and a rather confronting narrative device. Of course, part of the point I suppose is to demonstrate that ‘changing the world’ isn’t as easy as it sounds; Haber thinks it will be simple to make things better, but chaos theory tells us that changing one thing can have immeasurable consequences… and when you throw in the added difficulties of everything being mediated through George’s unconscious mind, well. Hello havoc. Essentially the narrative consists of George and his quest to be normal, please.
I thought the explorations of George as Mr Average were a really interesting aspect of the novel, because in some ways it seemed to be interrogating the idea of the hero, in life as well as in literature, and also of course pointing out that the idea of ‘average’ is entirely a construction: no one should actually sit completely at the midpoint of any measures. I was absorbed by le Guin’s awfully relentless exploration of dream-logic and what it would do to the world next. But – apparently The Times declared this book should be “read again and again.” I’m not convinced it has that much re-readability, for me.