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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Off the Shelf: Lathe of Heaven, Wizard's First Rule, The Subtle Knife, The Golden Globe

by Ken Newquist / July 10, 2008

 The Lathe of Heaven Summer is in roasting and roaring its way across the United States, which means its time for me get cracking on my summer reading list. As I discussed in Radio Active #69, this summer I've decided that rather than buy a new armload of books, I'd delve deep into the Nuketown library and dig out a bunch of unread or unfinished books that I already own.

There are a few exceptions to that rule, but for the most part I'm reading books that I've meant to read for the last few years, but abandoned in favor of whatever was thrilling me at the moment.

The Lathe of Heaven

While I never owned a copy, Urula Le Guin's widely-acclaimed The Lathe of Heaven is a book I've been meaning to read for a while, all the more so after learning during National Novel Writing Month that this is a 50k word novel (which the goal for NaNoWriMo).

So when a new edition came out this spring, and I was offered a review copy, I leapt at the chance to catch up on the classic. The new edition is published by Scribner, and at 192 pages it's a quick and tempting read. It tells the story of George Orr, a mundane everyman who's dreams become reality. When we first meet him, he has no control of these dreams. As a teenager he inadvertently "killed" his aunt after she made sexual advances toward him; he had a dream she was killed in a car accident weeks prior to the incident, and when he awoke, she was dead.

The sexual advances never happened. And no one remembered the other reality except for him. It's a powerful ability, but one he doesn't want, and he drugs himself to stop from dreaming. Unfortunately, the government catches on to his illicit drug use, and forces him to seek psychological counseling. Orr confesses the reason for taking the drugs to shrink -- a man named Dr. Haber -- expecting him to laugh.

Instead, the psychologist believes him. Dr. Haber is a dream researcher, and has a machine that will allow him to teach George to control his dreams, which in turn will get him off the drugs. But it turns out Dr. Haber has big plans for Orr's dreams, and soon begins attempting to re-engineer the world in his own image.

In reading the book, I found Orr to be an unsympathetic character -- he's a victim of his power, but he's unwilling to confront his own fears in order to master his dreams. He allows himself to be used by Haber (with disastrous results) and ultimately only takes action when it seems reality itself is about to shatter.

Unsatisfying protagonist aside, Le Guin creates ever more interesting alternate realities through Orr's dreams, and while I'd like to have seen a more heroic main character, I can't argue with the effectiveness of the "monkey's paw"-style twisting of Dr. Haber's best wishes. It's a good book, if not quite so great as folks claimed, and well worth reading, particularly if you're looking for something short and thought provoking to read at the beach this summer.

Wizard's First Rule

I bought Terry Goodkin's Wizard's First Rule to pad out last summer's reading list. I read a handful of pages, but then tossed it up on my shelf in favor of other books. The opening chapters were the epitome of generic fantasy, and Goodkin's style felt stiff and predictable. Returning to it this summer, I found that while it's certainly packed with your typical fantasy tropes (boy finds wizard, wizard gives boy sword, boy saves world) there's a lot that isn't typical. The wizard in question is wonderfully eccentric, and the corners of Goodkin's worlds hold a host of unique characters.

The main villain in the book, Father Rahl, is a dictator who things he's got everyone's best interests at heart, and is perfectly willing to sacrifice those people to achieve the greater good. The fact that that good is twisted and sick never really crosses his mind: it's he who's the hero, it's he who's out to save the world. It's the sort of villain that fits the real world, and it's a good twist on the typical "evil overlord" we find in fantasy novels. The last quarter of the book has some difficult to read (as in, mentally painful) scenes involving sadomasochism. It turns out to be crucial to the character's understanding of the true nature of magic, but the fact that it works within the confines of the story doesn't make it any less disagreeable to read. I'm not sure if this sort of thing shows up in Goodkin's later Sword of Truth books, but if so I doubt I want to read them.

The Subtle Knife

Phillip Pullman's The Subtle Knife is the sequel to The Golden Compass, a book which I read last winter. It's also one of the few new books I picked up this summer; I got a gift card for Barnes & Noble for Father's Day, and I used it to pick up this book and Volume 3 of the graphic novel series 52.

The book picks up where the last one left off: our heroine Lyra Silvertongue's father Lord Asriel has torn a hole in reality, allowing a thousand alternate universes to seep into one another. Lyra has stepped through into one of these worlds, discovering a land where ghostly Spectres hunt down and devour the souls of adults, while leaving children unharmed. She soon runs into another child, Will Parry, from our own universe. It turns out Will's father, like Lyra's, is also an arctic explorer. He went missing years ago, and now Will's on a quest to find him.

Lyra and Will's adventures take them back to the Specter's reality in search of a magical weapon known as the Subtle Knife, a weapon that's more powerful anyone suspects. And it factors into the major background storyline that's occurring as the children wander these alternative worlds: Lord Asriel isn't just looking to explore new worlds, he's looking to gather the greatest army ever assembled in order to wage war against the Authority -- otherwise known as God -- himself.

The Subtle Knife isn't nearly as great a read as The Golden Compass; the earlier book's epic quest to the North Pole, and the central mystery of the soul-like daemons every person in Lyra's world has, were more compelling, but Lord Asriel's war is a fantastic idea, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it plays out in Book 3.

The book also continues its themes of the rights of the individual vs. the needs of the state as the moral basis of authority. While not as compelling a read as its predecessor, it's still a damn good book for anyone who's ever had a nit to pick with God.

The Golden Globe

Another of last year's late summer books, John Varley's The Golden Globe also spent the winter on my bookshelf. Like Wizard's First Rule this book failed to grab me in the first few pages, and I quickly moved on to other novels. This time around, I'm pushing on as hard as I can, and I can't say I'm finding it that much more compelling.

The book's main character is K.C. Valentine is an omnisexual actor/confidence man on the run from a private investigator because of a possible murder rap. The book's biggest problem is that Varley's spending too much time being clever, and not enough time telling the story. I'm currently 116 pages into the book (out of 517) and I still have no idea what's going on. Maybe I'm just too impatient, or have been reading too much fantasy/space opera, but I generally like my stories to move at a slightly brisker pace than that.


I agree with your comments on Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule.

I read this book 7 or 8 years ago. I too found the first half to be boring generifantasy (as opposed to interesting generifantasy like Brooks Shannara series).

Even after all this time, I still don't have an explanation for the second half of the book, other than to say that Goodkind has some very wierd and VERY unhealthy sexual hangups.

I think he did have some psycologically valid insight into abusive S&M, at least enough to make it seem pretty realistic (except for the magic part, of course). But I didn't really ever want to KNOW those things. And I can't 'unread' it now.

And the S&M even carried over to the 'good' guys (or girls, in this case) with the witches who could make a man fall so in love with her that he would loose all freewill and be her complete slave.

This is NOT what I expected or wanted from a fantasy novel.

I don't believe that I had even finished the book and I CERTAINLY did not want to read any more of the series!

Given that Goodkind is an Objectivist, I was kind of hoping that this would be more like Atlas Shrugged with swords, but aside from one 'oppressed creators' speech near the middle of the book, it was pretty thin in that regard. I don't know if Goodkind was just settling into his personal philosophy then, and still trying to figure out how to work it into the book (the whole "evil is subjective" thing also seems weird coming from a professed Objectivist). In any case, I can see how the S&M stuff would be a showstopper for a lot of people.

I also found the revealing of the Wizard's First Rule to be a little annoying (albeit very true). It felt gimmicky, esp. since the main character seemed to reference it every other page once he learned of it. Ugh.

And yet ... this book has spawned a series of what, 8, 9 books, most of which have hit the NY Times bestseller list? To me, that says the books must get better, though maybe it just means there are millions of sword & sorcery S&M fans out there...

"And yet ... this book has spawned a series of what, 8, 9 books, most of which have hit the NY Times bestseller list? To me, that says the books must get better, though maybe it just means there are millions of sword & sorcery S&M fans out there..."

Hmm, I don't really remember any objectivist philosophy in the book and the other themes seem to run counter to objectivism.

And when I was done with the book (however close to the end that was), I just wasn't impressed with the overall plot or dramatic arc. The super-forget spell? Lame. The villian? Lame. The frickin' mud people? Super Lame. 300 pages of S&M? Icky and Lame.

Ultimately I think that these books came during a time when other, GOOD fantasy (Jordan & Martin, for example) had people eager for another fantasy series to read while they were waiting for the next Jordan/Martin book.

That, and I think that young male geeks are probably pretty interested by ANY description of sex, period, no matter how icky.

There's a kingdom in the midlands ruled by a Queen who's attempting to secure the favor of Father Rahl, and in doing so adopts a sweeping "for the people" series of changes that see the farmers stripped of their food and land in the name of the common good.

Naturally, this leads to the aristocrats having the best of everything, and the people starving; a no-name farmer shows up and takes a stand against it. It was a scene ripped from Atlas Shrugged, but you're right, a lot of it runs counter to objectivism. But from what I've read, he *is* an Objectivist (or at least has strong leanings toward that philsophy) so he's either setting up themes to deal with later, or we're seeing him at a point where's his personal philosophy is still pretty immature. Given the level of the writing, the pacing of the story, and the over-long sidetracks into S&M territory, I'm guessing the later.

I think Rhal's an effective villain, though again we get into uncomfortable terrain with both him and his henchmen, and really, I don't like having to sandblast my brain after reading a novel.

Do not let a bit of S&M totally ruin what may otherwise be a good read. Try Jacquline Carey (Kushiel's Dart) and don't allow the sex play to destroy a ripping yarn.

So it seems the objectivist stuff shows up in the later books (beginning in earnest around the third or fourth books). Here's an article at the Objectivist Center summing up the novels from that perspective:

Not attempting to comment on the quality of the books (or lack there of) just that I wasn't crazy to think that there was some tie to Ayn Rand here. :)

I haven't read the other books (though I've been meaning to read The Golden Compass for awhile, and assuming I like it I will probably read the sequel mentioned here), but I thought The Lathe of Heaven was absolute crap.

The protagonist was definitely unlikeable, as you say. There were some interesting snippets in the conversations between Orr and the therapist, but nothing that really redeemed the book in my eyes.

Unfortunately, it was the first thing I read by Le Guin, and the only thing for a very long time. I recently picked up The Dispossessed and liked it very much, so that was my own fault for judging an author by a mediocre book. I hope her other stuff is more like that book than Lathe.

I'm something of an alternative reality junkie, so those aspects of the book really appealed to me. As for the rest of her work, I've read The Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness as well. Of those, I liked Earthsea the best, Left Hand seemed too gimmicky to me when I read it way back in college. I should probably give it another read some day to see if my opinion's changed.