(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.)
Ursula Le Guin's latest publication, Changing Planes, is a fascinating
collection of sixteen linked short stories that are part
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
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!
Elsewhere in infinity plus: