Other Realities and Ancient Wisdom

Zhuangzi and George Orr Dreaming

Dreams and Alternative Histories

The Chinese Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi (also transliterated into English as Chuang Tzŭ) recorded in the book bearing his name a very striking dream. He dreamed that he was a butterfly. Then he awoke to discover that he was still Zhuangzi. Then he wondered if perhaps he was a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuangzi.

In her 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven science fiction author Ursula Le Guin imagines her hometown, Portland, Oregon, in the late 20th or early 21st century. Reading the story now, it’s interesting to see which of LeGuin’s imaginings came true and which did not. Cars have not been banned from cities yet and there’s no longer a Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, on the other hand global warming and melting polar ice caps are as much of our reality as American participation in an Afghan war.

She has described her book as a “taoist novel.” The title comes from a cautionary passage at the end of James Legge's translation of Zhuangzi’s works. “To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.” It’s a story about a dreamer and his effective dreams in which the author freely borrows freely from both Zhuangzi and Laozi. George Orr is having disturbing dreams. He’s so afraid that he’s trying not to sleep. He borrows his friends’ Pharm cards to keep himself drugged up enough to stay awake. It doesn’t work, and after the inevitable crash, he’s sent to Dr. Haber for Voluntary Therapeutic Treatment. It’s either that or he goes to jail. Dr. Haber is a dream specialist and he has a wonderful new machine, the Augmentor that he wants to try on his new patient. Combined with hypnosis he sure he can cure George of the idea that George’s night fantasies can somehow change reality. His first hypnotic suggestion to George is to dream of a horse. When George wakes up the picture of Mt. Hood in Dr. Haber’s office has changed to a picture of a horse. George is not at all surprised that this has happened. Dr. Haber won’t say anything. After a few sessions Dr. Haber suggests that it would be good for George to dream of a bigger office for the doctor, one with a real view of Mt. Hood. It’s a small thing, but what happens when Dr. Haber suggests that George dream of a world without the problem of overpopulation is not.

The Man in the High Castle   I Ching

Another classic 20th century American Science Fiction novel to rely heavily on ancient Chinese wisdom literature, in this case the Yi jing (also transliterated into English as the I Ching), or Classic of Change, is the book that won the 1963 Hugo Award for Best Novel, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick.


This is a mind bender of a book. You may occasionally feel that you’ve wandered into a house of mirrors. This alternative history is set in the Pacific States of America and the Mountain States of America, formerly part of the United States before its defeat in and partition after the Second World War. The cast of characters includes a very nervous dealer in authentic “American traditional ethnic art objects,” including Mickey Mouse watches, old comic books, and some recently manufactured civil war weapons, one of the makers of the newly minted but made to look old Colt .44s, his ex-wife, the head of the Japanese Trade Mission in San Francisco, the Reichs Consul in San Francisco, a spy, an assassin, and the author of a book (banned in the United States and throughout Europe) called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an alternative history in which the United States and Britain won the Second World War. What all these disparate characters, with the exception of the Reichs Consul, spy and assassin, have in common is the Yi jing. Thanks to the hegemony of Japanese culture they all constantly consult this ancient Asian text for oracular guidance about what they should do next. And they have need of all the guidance and wisdom they can get because a change in power in Germany has brought the world to the brink of war again.