The protagonist is George Orr. His dreams can change reality. He's known this since he was a teenager, and feels that it is an inherently wrong power to have or to wield — especially when controlled by the unruly dreaming mind. He tries to drug himself into not dreaming, but instead starts hallucinating. We meet him in the midst of one of these episodes, and it feels as disjointed and detached from reality as any Philip K. Dick passage. He is handed over to a psychiatrist specializing in dreams, and thus do his problems truly begin.
William Haber is the psychiatrist, and he is a master manipulator. He uses hypnotism and an Augmenting machine to make Orr dream the dreams that Haber desires. He starts small, dreaming a promotion for himself for instance. However, he is a firm believer in Change, Progress and the ability of man to Improve Things. Needless to say, as he goes further and further, things get more and more disturbed and disturbing.
We start out in a reality with a lot of problems: overpopulation, pollution, and global warming are only a few. No one has enough to eat, whole swathes of coastline have been flooded, and urban centers are either disintegrating or run by the mafia. Note that many of these problems would feel at home in a book written today — to find them in a book from twenty-seven years ago says complimentary things about the author's prognostication abilities. It's easy to see why any person, given the ability to do so, would want to make the world a better place. Dreams are a very unstable medium, however. If you ask for better weather and get a few more sunny days, all for the good. However, if you ask to alleviate overpopulation and find yourself in a reality where 6 billion people (that's billion with a B) were wiped out by a pollution-caused carcinogenic plague, can that ever be OK?
Here is one of Le Guin's strokes of pure genius: Haber, having done that exact thing, instantly rationalizes it to himself and to George, and continues to aggressively use George's power. Bam: right there, the Banality of Evil, laid out for us step by step. (The mere one-letter difference between 6 million—Jews killed in the Holocaust—and 6 billion eliminated by Haber's wishes is unlikely to be a coincidence.) When he realizes what has happened, his first thought is to avoid getting caught (by a lawyer Orr had invited to observe). He immediately starts to manipulate her, to keep her from realizing the magnitude of what has happened. His arrogance is such that he decides that his plans must not be stopped or wrecked. In talking with Orr, he justifies himself by pointing out how much better things are now—less crowded, no one starving, less pollution, etc. In contrast, George is horrified at what's been done, but lacks any clear path to thwart Haber's will.
This sets up a clear thematic dichotomy in the story that must have been almost unique at the time this originally came out; it's not terribly common even today. Haber embodies the Western psyche: active, arrogant, science-centered, undoubting. Although this story primarily highlights its negatives, we're all familiar with the positives as well: improved medical care, high standards of living when things are going well, massive technological progress. George embodies more Eastern philosophies. He has achieved balance: on all of Haber's statistical tests, George registers as completely normal. He's passive, hesitant to act or to change things unnecessarily. In the end he is a better person than Haber and his philosophy is shown to be the right one. However, the drawbacks of his passivity are clearly shown: he does not take any of the drastic courses of action available to him to stop Haber from exploiting him. If he had been firmer, plenty of catastrophes may have been averted. Also, his passivity makes it harder to empathize with him; we're so conditioned to the active Hero that a man with a more Zen take on life can come across as simply wimpy—although at the end of the story, when the right path becomes clear, George unhesitatingly takes action.
All that is without even mentioning the aliens, the public euthanasias, the interracial romance, the implication that our unaltered time line would be even worse than any pictured here, or any other number of important, ahead-of-their-time topics in this story. To do all this, in a story that only takes up 184 pages with wide margins, is an amazing feat. Also, Le Guin's politics do not dominate the story-telling. This is possibly a point of contention: I'm in agreement with most of the politics here, so as I was reading I did not feel like she was browbeating me or that her views were obnoxiously intrusive to the plot. However, a person who vehemently disagrees with her various progressive stances might have a very different reading experience. I felt that she told an amazing story with great thematic depth without ever descending to polemics. She also did it without an ounce of unnecessary padding. This is a lesson that I wish more authors today would learn: you can tackle really Big Issues without coming in with really Big Page Counts. (Although I understand that market forces are working against me on that one.) Le Guin is better known for her other classics, The Wizard of Earthsea, The Dispossessed, and of course, The Left Hand of Darkness. Perhaps it would be simply greedy to ask that this book be placed with those others in the cannon of sf/f classics, but it deserves to be there. Hopefully this latest re-release will once again shine some attention on this lesser known gem from one of sf's greatest authors.