Ursula K. Le Guin is considered by many observers to be one of our finest science fiction writers, but she is actually so much more. Although her best-known books including The Lathe of Heaven, The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness have pigeonholed her into that genre, Le Guin has written a fair amount of mainstream work, including fiction, poetry and children's books. She has also contributed to publications such as The New Yorker and Harper's hardly bastions of speculative fiction.
Even when Le Guin writes stories set in imagined worlds, she is more concerned with political, psychological or ethical issues than with technology and hardware. So, while her new collection of interconnected stories, Changing Planes, falls squarely under the sci-fi rubric, it is Le Guin the moralist who is at work here. The stories are parables, fabulistic tales about places very different from Earth, yet not so dissimilar from our own world in important ways.
The narrative device that Le Guin uses in Changing Planes to connect the stories is the kind of clever contrivance her faithful readers have come to expect from her fertile imagination. While sitting around an airport between flights, a woman discovers that she can, indeed, travel between planes planes of existence, that is. Soon anyone who wants to indulge in "interplanary travel" in lieu of waiting around the boring departure lounge can do so. Le Guin's narrator is an intrepid interplanary traveler, keen on visiting all sorts of lands.
Some of the interplanary adventures are amusing: There is Holiday Plane, featuring Christmas Island, a year-round consumer's paradise for lovers of yuletide tsatskes. On Hegn, nearly every inhabitant is of royal blood so, consequently, the local celebrities are the commoners. Other planes are living nightmares: On Orichi, a plane "in many ways very similar to ours," a biogenetic experiment gone terribly wrong has produced a group of people who never sleep. Another plane, U–i, is nearly impossible to navigate, cursed with the shifting perspective of an Escher drawing.
All of these worlds resemble ours just enough to drive home the point. "The people of Gy," we are told, "look pretty much like people from our plane except that they have plumage, not hair." A small percentage of them sprout wings in adolescence, and because of this "deformity" and its attendant ability to fly, they are ostracized from the greater community (in rural places they are killed; in cities, just ignored). It's not hard to make the jump from these fliers to those in our own society who are cast as different artists, eccentrics, dreamers. On the Island of the Immortals on the Yendian plane, most of the locals eschew the opportunity for eternal life, and our guide soon discovers why. In the telling of these tales, Le Guin or her narrator, at least is like an anthropologist, exploring with curiosity and reporting with as much objectivity as possible. This bent for the anthropological is no surprise, since Le Guin herself is the daughter of the renowned anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and the ethnography writer Theodora Kroeber. She dons the mantle of linguist when visiting a plane with a monosyllabic yet complex language, of folklorist on a plane with a long, bloody mythology, of cultural anthropologist when describing the migration of a people called the Ansarac.
Le Guin is a gifted storyteller, though, so none of this feels like social science. Her stories are told with an elegant simplicity that belies their message, yet the message is invariably present. The author's own references to Borges and Swift will trigger comparisons with those writers, but Changing Planes also has a strong connection to Ovid. Le Guin has tried her hand at a modern-day Metamorphoses, where human-like, sentient beings are stand-ins for us.
If I have one complaint with the book, it is with the decision to include illustrations. Not to fault Eric Beddows' line drawings on their own merit, but being presented with one artist's visual perception of what the writer is conveying strikes me as confining. The pictures unduly shape and limit the fanciful leaps of the imagination that I would think Le Guin wants her readers to make on their own. Robert Weibezahl has worked as a writer and publicist for 20 years.