|Author:||Ursula K. Le Guin|
“Then came a child trotting to school with his little backpack. He trotted on all fours, neatly, his hands in leather mitts or boots that protected them from the pavement; he was pale, with small eyes, and a snout, but he was adorable.”
—from Changing Planes
The misery of waiting for a connecting flight at an airport leads to the accidental discovery of alighting on other planes—not airplanes but planes of existence. Ursula Le Guin’s deadpan premise frames a series of travel accounts by the tourist-narrator who describes bizarre societies and cultures that sometimes mirror our own, and sometimes open puzzling doors into the alien.
At first, readers may find Ursula K. Le Guin’s collection Changing Planes rather light, if not slight. However, as the reader continues through its sixteen stories (ten of which are original to this volume), the collection achieves considerable weight and power.
A punny conceit links the stories and provides the title of Changing Planes. Conceived before September 11, 2001, this conceit now, unfairly, looks odd. Trapped too many times in the misery of pre-terrorist airports, Sita Dulip discovered how to change planes: not airplanes, but planes of existence. Now the people of Sita’s earth travel between alternate universes.
The stories in Changing Planes are strong expressions of Le Guin’s considerable anthropological and psychological insight. However, these tales don’t follow traditional plot structures or character-development methods. They read more like travelogues, or socio-anthropological articles on foreign nations or tribes. They explore exotic literary planes lying somewhere between Jorge Luis Borges’s ficciones and Horace Miner’s anthropological satire Body Ritual Among the Nacirema. However, unlike Miner’s parody, Le Guin’s wise tales are rarely satirical, though “The Royals of Hegn” sharply skewers the absurdity of royalty-worship, and “Great Joy” rightly attacks the boundless corporate criminality familiar to anyone who’s read a newspaper since 2001.
One of America’s greatest authors, Ursula K. Le Guin has received the National Book Award, the Newberry Award, the PEN/Malamud Award, five Nebula Awards, and five Hugo Awards. —Cynthia Ward