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Changing Planes

by Ursula Le Guin

(Gollancz, £8.99, 214 pages, hardback, published 22 January 2004; ISBN 0-575-07564-3. Gollancz, £6.99, 214 pages, paperback, this edition published 13 January 2005.)

Review by Lawrence Osborn

Ursula Le Guin's latest publication, Changing Planes, is a fascinating collection of sixteen linked short stories that are cover scanpart travelogue, part caricature of anthropology case studies.

The first short story, 'Sita Dulip's Method', provides a kind of frame for the collection by explaining the discovery of interplanary travel. It contains a wonderfully savage description of modern air travel, which can be summed up as a 'combination of tense misery, indigestion, and boredom'. The silver lining, as Sita Dulip discovered, is that this is 'the essential facilitator of interplanary travel'. Thus, 'by a mere kind of a twist and a slipping bend, easier to do than describe, she could go anywhere -- be anywhere -- because she was already between planes'.

Armed with this knowledge and a copy of Rornan's Handy Planary Guide (so much more convenient than the 44-volume Encyclopedia Planaria), the narrator sets off on the interplanary travels that are described in the subsequent stories -- 15 stories, 15 contrasting planes, 15 opportunities for Ursula Le Guin to let her imagination run riot.

Among the worlds visited by the narrator is Islac, where 'human' society has been devastated by unfettered genetic engineering. On the Frinthian plane dreaming is a social experience -- 'The Frinthian unconscious, collective or individual, is not a dark wellspring buried under years of evasions and denials, but a kind of great moonlit lake to whose shores everybody comes to swim together naked every night.' In 'The Royals of Hegn', Le Guin applies her imaginative skills to a savage inversion of the tabloid obsession with royalty.

Inevitably Sita Dulip's Method comes to the attention of the entrepreneurial class. In 'Great Joy' Le Guin describes the attempted commercialization of the plane of Musu Sum. The Great Joy Corporation takes over the plane, effectively enslaves its people and turns it into a kind of global Disneyworld.

'Wake Island' parodies the notion that we could achieve far more if somehow we could sleep less. 'The Islands of the Immortals' is Ursula Le Guin's take on the old SF theme that immortality is a curse rather than a blessing.

In spite of Le Guin's reputation as a science fiction writer, these stories do not fall neatly into that genre. Nor are they fantasy or satire (though there are moments of both within the stories). There is perhaps a vague family resemblance to Jorge Luis Borges's Ficciones. But, however, you categorize these stories, this is an original, very enjoyable and sometimes disturbing collection. Perfect reading for when you are stuck between planes in an airport!

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