George Orr is simultaneously a cypher, a man whose psychology tests come back exactly average in every respect, and a man who it turns out possesses enormous strength. At the opening of the book, he appears to be compared to a jellyfish in the ocean of sleep, who upon waking is cast up on the rocks to be torn to bits. At the end, his solidity and centered strength allowed him to save the world from a nightmare created by a power-mad psychiatrist.
Actually, it was the second time that happened; the book is framed by his saving the world. Orr's particular ability—if you can call what your unconscious accomplishes while you sleep an "ability"—is that certain of his dreams retroactively change reality. At the opening, his dreams unmake the nuclear war that had "burned away his eyelids" and pinned him beneath twisted concrete and steel. He tries to get the dreams to stop, tries to stop himself from changing things out of a sense of responsibility. He desperately wants to abdicate.
This sense of abdication, of consciously pushing away from consciously given position and authority, is a running theme in the stories I hold most dear. The Tattoo-Rhumba Man does it, the son of Croesus does it in a play I wrote in high school. It's like The Lion King, except in my versions of the story, the runaway monarch does not return to reclaim the throne.
George Orr also refuses the throne, the mantle of authority that Dr Haber tries to assume in his place and proves unable to maintain. George Orr's power is not to be king, but to be a humble channeler of the power he has, someone through whom Right Order in the world will be restored. It is not submission to his gift that he performs at the end, when he saves the world again, but the simple effort to press a single off button.
At the center of the book is the Taoist idea of strength through inaction, of virtue through inaction. The image of ocean creatures—jellyfish and later sea turtles—held and moved by ocean currents, is a running theme. One of Orr's dreams' creations is Aliens, mysterious creatures who at first appear to be a threat, but then turn out to be benign and kind of Taoist in their love of paradox and seeming self-contradiction. They are a bringing into the flesh of something missing from the nightmarish North America Orr dreams his way out of: the satanic Enemy. Orr's dreams first create the monsters as a diversion from seemingly impossible political divisions on earth, then convert these monsters into friends and neighbors—at the conclusion, one of the aliens is George Orr's benevolent employer.
Here's a moment in chapter 9, where Orr truly comes into himself:
Without premeditation and without timidity Orr said, “Dr Haber, I can't let you use my effective dreams any more.”This passage speaks a great deal to me. It oddly pars up with the heroic ideal in Pullman's His Dark Materials, as neither a total abdication, nor a taking back of a kingdom. It's a denial of power as exercised by the conscious self—of “use”—and a restatement of that power as a slower, bedrock kind of stability: a rooted stillness. A conservatism not of habit and form, but of time and presence.
“Eh?” Haber said, his mind still on Orr's brain, not on Orr.
“I can't let you use my dreams any more.”
“Call it what you like,” Haber said. He had straightened up and towered over Orr, who was still sitting down. He was gray, large, broad, curly bearded, deep-chested, frowning. Your God is a jealous God. “I'm sorry, George, but you’re not in a position to say that.”
Orr's gods were nameless and unenvious, asking neither worship nor obedience.
“Yet I do say it,” he replied mildly.
Haber looked down at him, really looked at him for a moment, and saw him. He seemed to recoil, as a man might who thought to push aside a gauze curtain and found it to be a granite door.
As I say, this speaks a great deal to me.