Everyday Semiotics

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Effective dreaming

Science fiction at its best deals with new possibilities and their attendant ethical dilemmas. Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Lathe of Heaven” (1971) makes the former its focus, and sagely avoids providing answers to the latter.

George Orr’s unconscious mind has the ability to change the world. Dr. William Haber attempts through hypnotic suggestion to harness this power and make the world a better place: one free of war, pollution, overpopulation.

But Orr is a reluctant instrument. He knows when something’s been changed, and remembers the way things used to be. And moreover he is at heart a fairly negative person. Remedying overpopulation for him means letting loose a decimating plague; ending war among the nations means pitting Earth against hostile aliens.

The ethical dilemma raised is, naturally: If a human were to have the power to change reality, should he?

The best analogy Orr can come up with is on pages 140-1, when he asks whether a person with the ability to save someone from a poisonous snakebite should do so if it’s possible that someone could go on to commit murder. Take this to its logical extent -- factor in the butterfly effect -- and the conclusion must be that it is better for everyone not to act at all, in any situation.

As a fictional character, Orr is of course himself the analogy for the unforeseen consequences of everyday decisions. He is also a cipher (something I’ll be very interested in in the next few posts).

In his own description and in Heather Lalache’s, he is a walking, talking tabula rasa. For Lalache, that’s a good thing: “It was more than dignity. Integrity? Wholeness? Like a block of wood not carved. The infinite possibility, the unlimited and unqualified wholeness of being, of the uncommitted, the nonacting, the uncarved” (130).

For Orr, though, this is not so good: “He could be born into any world. He had no character. He was a lump of clay, a block of uncarved wood” (96).

“The Lathe of Heaven” suffers technical problems despite, or because of, a brilliant premise. Orr is a pretty dull guy. Lelache, who is more complex, changes based on Orr’s dreams, even disappears and reappears. Character, in this uncommon novel’s pages, is impossible to maintain.

But that I suppose is an interesting answer to the snakebite question. For people are not merely actors: they are also acted upon, changing constantly as much as a result of their own actions as the actions of others. Character, as conceived in fiction, is itself a fiction predicated on constancy, with change in fixed quantity.

For Spider-Man, great responsibility goes hand in hand with great power. For George Orr? Maybe not. His ability for creating change is undoubtedly greater than most mortals, but scale is all that is different. We are all out of control.

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