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Changing Planes

Changing Planes - Eric Beddows, Ursula K. Le Guin Ursula LeGuin is a great creator of disparate worlds: think of the scattered archipelago of Earthsea, and the strange and diverse planets in the Ekumen that are explored in “The Left Hand of Darkness”, “The Dispossessed”, and many other books and stories. Her imagination is rich and varied, and her worlds are deep and textured.“Changing Planes” presents another collection of worlds, but the tone is a bit different from the mystical Earthsea and the anthropological Ekumen stories. The fifteen stories describe worlds that are accessible through a sort of astral travel across planes of existence, governed (in an indirect way, reminiscent of the Ekumen) by the Interplanary Agency, which seems to be a strange combination of the United Nations, a travelers’ aid bureau, and a scholarly organization. The tone is lightly satirical, with not a little debt owed (and paid) to Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”. People can move from plane to plane by placing themselves in a state of anxiety and boredom and discomfort, perfectly matched in a modern airport “with rows of plastic chairs boltedto the floor, and a horrible diner with no seats which is closed but reeks of stale beef fat, and a flabby man with a nose cold overflowing from the chair next to you”; and it is from airports that most travelers on our plane begin their interplanary adventures, while stuck between flights.The worlds LeGuin’s traveler visits (this traveler may be LeGuin herself: a woman with LeGuin’s characteristic bob appears in some of Eric Beddows’ whimsical illustrations) are exaggerated more for satire and humor than in the thought-experiment style of “The Birthday of the World” or “A Fisherman of the Inland Sea”. They include a world where genetic manipulation has run amok, creating people who share their genes with dogs and birds and corn; an island paradise overtaken by an entertainment conglomerate that forces the natives to play out the denatured rituals of Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth of July all year round (until Sita Dulip campaigned for their liberty); a world where science has conquered sleep, resulting in a race who “live in pure fact” but “can’t live in truth”; and a plane populated by people who are so taciturn, speaking less than a dozen times in their adult lives, that visitors from other planes attach incredible meaning to the most banal utterances. The swipes and jabs at contemporary culture are hardly veiled at all, but the tone is far more gentle than LeGuin’s critiques of culture and economics in “The Dispossessed” or “Four Ways to Forgiveness”. (Well, there is the grim history lesson of “Woeful Tales from Mahigul”, filled with ethnic cleansing, religious warfare, and capricious power, but most of the planes LeGuin explores have an underlying sweetness to them…)All of the tales are delightful, but some are incredibly haunting and affecting. In particular, the accounts of the migratory people of Ansarac (inspired by the lifestyle of ospreys), the social dreamers of the Frin, and the infinitely recursive and malleable language of the Nna Mmoy are pure poetry. LeGuin’s books and stories can sometimes be hard going: they’re so full of ideas, so passionately moral (without being moralizing), that the reader comes away exhausted (though deeply affected for the effort). These stories, though no less intriguing and committed, are more refreshing and playful than one would normally expect from LeGuin; they have a loose quality to them, like fireside yarns from someone who has traveled to far and frequently happy places.