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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Friday, August 15, 2003

Changing Planes by Ursula K. LeGuin. Illustrated by Eric Beddows. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt, 2003. ISBN: 0151009716

Whenever I see anything new by Ursula LeGuin come into the library, I immediately grab it. Not only does she reside right here in the NW (she makes her home in Portland, Oregon) she has written some of the most profound and entertaining science fiction and fantasy ever. Her Earthsea trilogy (a fourth volume was added later, making it a quartet) remains IMHO one of the best fantasy trilogies ever written, and a favorite of mine that I enjoy rereading every few years. Her novel, The Lathe of Heaven, has been made into a movie not once, but twice! How many living American authors can say that about one of their books?

The conceit which controls this latest book, Changing Planes, is a subtle pun on the word “planes.” While waiting to change planes in the airport, LeGuin’s first-person protagonist learns how to change planes astrally, or at least, to visit other physical planes, other planets or realities.

The book is a series of vignettes describing the indigenous inhabitants of the various planes she has visited. These range from ordinarily strange to the completely bizarre. On one of the first planes she visits, the people have transformed themselves through genetic manipulation, so that no pure stock remains. People are combined with genetic materials from all manner of plants and animals.

On another plane, no one speaks aloud after becoming adults. Only children speak. Several other planes feature peculiar language or communication difficulties, to put it mildly. On yet another plane, the entire race migrates much like our migratory birds, except that these mass migrations only occur twice a generation or so. Their planet has years and seasons that are equivalent to about 25 of our years.

Overall, the book reads much like a modern Gulliver’s Travels. LeGuin even makes the connection herself, in one of the stories. The bizarre quirks exhibited by the inhabitants of these planes could perhaps be read as satire on some of our all-too-human foibles and absurdities or some could even be interpreted as warnings of possible future problems if we continue in certain behaviors or trends.

But LeGuin somehow manages to make each of these planes absolutely fascinating while you're reading about it. You are completely caught up in the attempt to make sense out of the behaviors and actions of the inhabitants, invariably intrigued even though perhaps puzzled and disturbed all at the same time.

My only complaint about the book (a minor one) is that these aren’t really science fiction stories in the traditional sense. There are no plots, no story lines. In science fiction, generally speaking the author uses the guise of a story to tell us about the unusual aliens or strange flora and fauna of other places (planes, if you will). This book just tells us about them directly, reading more like an ethnographic treatise than fiction. I recommend the book anyway. You won't be bored.

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