To change your life, and the Lathe of Heaven

Ultimately it's an escapist fantasy, I think, to think of using the lever one likes best to lift the world. I wonder if carpenters see all problems in terms of beams and joists, and if their native metaphors for life involve grain, polish, well-formed and stable wholes from different parts. We programmers are well-trained to see ourselves as modern magi, and it filters through to the books we read, the movies we watch, the games we play.

What if you really could change the world by writing code? I'm not talking about a disruptive game-changing startup, or a platform for helping people communicate, or something that coordinates aid for sick orphans on the other side of the world. This is rawer, less metaphorical. What if changing your life was a matter of changing some variables, or pulling out one defective subroutine and writing a better one?

The holodeck, the Matrix, the Metaverse, Charles Stross' Laundry novels, the very concept of the 'singularity', and all of the many other fictions that involve a technological refitting of the laws of reality — for good and for bad — these all deeply appeal to the inborn prejudices of the programmer and the engineer.

One of my favorite authors wrote a book about changing the world. It's not really my favorite book by this author. It kind of loses focus near the end, and it's full of a lot of the kind of little hobby-horses and self-aware inclusions in which writers sometimes indulge. It also kind of feels a little bit too much like Philip K. Dick for a writer who by that time had already developed a remarkably unique voice.

The author is Ursula K. Le Guin; the book is The Lathe of Heaven. If you haven't read The Dispossessed, or The Left Hand of Darkness, or Lavinia, or the Earthsea books, there are few ways you could better spend your time right now than jumping up, going to a bookstore, and buying any or all of those books and reading as many of them as you can.

Then you might read The Lathe of Heaven. It's a pretty good book. It starts off as a nice, tight little sci-fi morality fable. The main character, George Orr, takes drugs to keep him from dreaming. Sent to the equivalent of court-ordered rehab under threat of involuntary commitment, he comes under the care (and control) of a psychiatrist and sleep researcher named William Haber. It turns out that when Orr dreams about something, it happens. This isn't just the power of foresight — it can change the past, leaving only Orr to remember that things were once different.

Haber, conveniently, has developed a machine that allows him to manipulate a person's dreams. Obviously, he decides to use the machine with Orr to reshape the world. His first changes are small, and precise. As his directives for Orr's unconscious power become more grandiose, they also begin to take effect in unpredictable and terrifying ways. A dream of a world with no racism results in everyone's skin being matte gray. Overpopulation is solved by a worldwide plague that exterminates six sevenths of the world's population. Before long, Haber is essentially the ruler of the world, overseeing things from the new world capital of Portland, Oregon (really).

The first half of the book wouldn't feel too out of place in a '50s SF compilation, and the second half is a little bit too trippy for the setup but not nearly weird enough to justify itself. It's no Dhalgren. But it's dwelt in my head ever since I read it.

What if we really could change the world, but only through the medium of our own imperfect minds and creations? Not a malevolent genie in a bottle, or a monkey's paw, but just our own inability to understand what we have made and how to use it?

Maybe we can reprogram reality, but would we know how to use it afterwards?