The Psychologist in SF: Part Two

Part Two: The Lathe of Heaven

[A brief introduction: For this series, I am focusing primarily on the role of the psychologist in SF, as opposed to the role of psychology, which is simply too big to tackle. For my purposes, I am considering primarily characters defined as psychologists, psychiatrists, or otherwise noted as mental health professionals. This is not in any sense a promise I won’t veer off into other areas, because I will. The field of Sf is huge, though, and I don’t claim to be versed in everything. So I’m going to focus on a few works that are both personal favorites and generally considered to be of some importance or repute. ]

One book I often think of when talking about psychologists is Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Lathe of Heaven.” It’s a dark and crazy romp through a shifting reality, powered by one man whose dreams can change that reality and steered by a psychiatrist who thinks he can save the world. It’s more didactic than the other works I’ve read by LeGuin –namely, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. Both works have a real sense of objectivity about the worlds they explore. Both involve (at least) two very different societies, neither of which is portrayed as perfect or utterly awful. Friends and enemies, leaders and tyrants, men and women – all blend together in LHOD. It is a study in ambiguity, moral and otherwise. The Dispossessed manages to make an anarchist society on the moon seem, by turns, beautiful, restrictive, alien; the same process is applied to a capitalist, consumerist society, with largely the same effect. LeGuin is masterful at pulling her characters through a set of experiences that typify a deep and nuanced understanding of psychology. So why is Dr. Haber, the misguided psychiatrist of The Lathe of Heaven, such a certifiable villain?

The short answer is, he’s not. LeGuin’s critique here is not of psychology, which she clearly understands quite well, but of a sort of overblown positivist wet-dream – one far too many psychologists, in particular those of the behaviorist mode, seem dangerously prone to. In many ways, I see LOH as a response to B.F Skinner’s Walden Two, a terrifying tome that casts a cold eye toward a future of “official” social control systems, based on behaviorist principles, designed to make life “better.” In LOH, we are privy to a detailed impression of what one man’s “better” can look like.

But as I said, Haber isn’t a villain. He’s just a narcissist with delusions of altruism – in other words, a bad psychologist. Orr, despite his apparent acceptance of being led by others, turns out to be a kind of Taoist hero, a man wise enough to wait until the right moment (not) to act. He is a counterpoint to Haber’s rampant world-building, utterly free from the desire to wield control. This use of Taoism as a sort of balm against bad psychology reminds me the concept of Buddhism as a sort of transmittable form of cognitive therapy.

Overall, LOH is an odd fit in LeGuin’s bibliography. It’s a much flatter read – but that, too, seems intentional, as the world it is set in and the people who inhabit it are flat, and get flatter as Haber’s paradise comes to pass. It’s a wagging finger on some levels, and this stands out amidst a cannon that so carefully avoids Aristotelian two-value judgments. But it’s a book I can understand writing (in fact, right now I’m working on a story about an ineffective psychologist whose inability to involve himself personally leads a mentally ill AI to a kind of Odin-esque martyrdom).

Maybe it’s the bratty, contrary aspect of being an SF writer that makes poking holes in the things we care about so appealing. Maybe it’s the didactic impulse rearing its head, despite better judgment. Maybe, in LeGuin’s case, all her subtle storytelling and stringent objectivity earned her the right to lay the smack down on those who act with less care when dealing with human lives than she does with the lives of characters.


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