Monday, March 26, 2018

Changing Planes

Changing Planes
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Recommended Ages: 13+

Contrary to the descriptive blurb on the back cover of this book, Sita Dulip isn't the protagonist of the series of interconnected short stories comprising it. She's just the pioneer of a method of traveling between planes of reality, discovered when a hellish - well, maybe "limboish" - day of air travel led her to realize that, as a non-place between planes, airports are an ideal base from which to strike out into alternate dimensions. The narrator, who isn't named, proceeds to share her experiences, tales told her by other travelers, and extracts from various documents about some of the remarkable places a person can visit during layovers at the airport, provided they are sufficiently stressed and dyspeptic.

The odyssey this book describes smudges the boundary between short fiction and novel. Tying them together are Sita Dulip's method, mentions of airports and the Interplanary Agency, etc. One could imagine some of these vignettes being unrealized sketches for some of Ursula Le Guin's larger-scale fiction, reduced to a brief introduction to the cultural background of some of the possible worlds in an infinite multiverse. There's the one where people become silent as they grow to adulthood; the world whose feathered denizens harbor a stigma against the small minority of the population that grows wings and can fly; an island whose residents never sleep; another island where some of the residents can never die; a civilization whose language defies interpretation; another that toils, generation after generation, on a building where no one lives; people who share each other's dreams, whose social fabric is knit entirely from conflict and rage, whose supremely peaceful libraries contain records of a grim and violent history. There's a satire of the commercialization of holidays that turns into a rebuke on cultural exploitation; there's an equally pointed satire that turns the vogue for gossip about the royal family upside-down. There are moments of lyrical sadness, flashes of devastating wit, and disturbing scenes of horror.

Tying it all together is the down-to-earth sensibility of an amazing speculative author who died approximately two months ago as I write this (Jan. 22, 2018). Le Guin was a great writer who applied insights from ecology and sociology to science fiction and fantasy. Though one person to whom I read a sample of this book detected signs of a writer who was trying too hard to be clever, my acquaintance with Le Guin led me rather to suspect a critic who got up on the wrong side of the bed. She did not have to try hard to be clever. She could take one's breath away with a mere lift of her finger, as she did for me (for example) in the closing sentence of the story "The Silence of the Asonu." Whether you agree with her political or spiritual outlook or not, you have to admit, the late Ursula K. had a keen insight into the motives of even marginally human hearts, a vivid imagination, and the gift of words to bring strange scenes to life.

Le Guin's other works include A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels - an achievement that I think rivals Tolkien's Lord of the Rings in breadth of conception, albeit with a much slimmer word count - and The Left Hand of Darkness, which is on my list of books that I have dubbed "the best book I read this year" over the years. Among her books are the winners of multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards, a Newbery Honor Book, and a National Book Award winner. I have read fewer of them than I have yet to read, which is a comforting bit of math, because it portends many more hours of reading pleasure in the company of an author who has not let me down yet.

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