"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen
Changing Planes is a delightful book. It delights me.
This anthropological tour through some of the stranger societies in the multiverse begins by explaining its basic premise: Airports are not only portals to other terrestrial cities, but also to other dimensions. Interplanar travel requires no machine or vehicle, no magical incantations or special knowledge. The remarkably simple method was developed by one Sita Dulip, who discovered it when her flight out of Chicago was delayed several times and finally canceled. Trapped, exhausted, uncomfortable, and bored, she realized that:
By a mere kind of twist and a slipping bend, easier to do than to describe, she could go anywhere - be anywhere - because she was already between planes.
(Normally, I would have no truck with any book whose premise was based on such a ridiculous pun - but over the years I have made a few grudging exceptions to this policy.)
The rest of the book is divided into fifteen short stories - or really, ethnographies - about life on the different planes. Some of them are moral allegories, some are social satires, some portray strange and unsettling alien philosophies. None of the chapters have much plot to speak of, but they are all fascinating vignettes. The formula is essentially: "Let me tell you a few things about the people of _____."
Despite this common approach, the stories are fairly diverse in style and theme. Four of the standouts highlight some of the different tacks Le Guin takes:
Seasons of the Ansarac is an ethnographic description of the migratory people of Ansar. On a plane where each season lasts for six of our years, the people spend spring and summer raising children in idyllic northern homesteads before heading south to the vibrant cities every fall and winter. Le Guin's detailed description of Ansarac folkways is fascinating, but the story takes a darker turn when visitors from another plane (one similar to ours) arrive, convince the Ansarac that they are primitive, backward, and hormone-driven, and offer to help them adopt a modern lifestyle.
Great Joy satirizes the American obsession with meaningless holiday kitsch, describing a privately-owned plane where one island is always Christmas, one the 4th of July, one New Year's Eve, and so on. This plane's sickly-sweet candy coating covers a horrifying system of slavery and exploitation - not that Christmas-loving midwestern Cousin Sulie and her fellow patrons give much of a shit about that. "I just get right into the spirit just thinking about Christmas Island! Oh, it is just such a happy place!"
Wake Island is a cautionary dystopia about science gone awry. Based on their theory that sleep is a vestigial trait that keeps most humans from accessing their latent genius, a group of scientists genetically design babies who need no sleep. This is essentially the same premise as Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain, but Le Guin's aftermath is much more disturbing.
The Island of the Immortals is in many ways a horror story, cloaked in the guise of classic science fiction. It reminds me quite a bit of the better works of H.G. Wells, where a lone traveler encounters a society he at first cannot understand - and then later wishes he never tried. In this story, the narrator has heard of an island on the Yendian plane which is populated by immortals. Curious to learn the secret of their longevity, she visits - only to find the locals quiet, standoffish, and oddly somber. There are immortals among them, yes, but they are not what the narrator expects. This is the story that has remained in my mind most vividly since I first read this book almost a decade ago. It is, in my opinion, one of Le Guin's most powerful and thoughtful pieces.
Ursula K. Le Guin died last month; I reread this book in part as a memorial (and in part because I just love it so much). Given her recent passing, this excerpt in particular struck me:
When I was twelve or thirteen, I used to plan what I'd wish for if they gave me three wishes. I thought I'd wish, 'I wish that having lived well to the age of eighty-five and having written some very good books, I may die quietly, knowing that all the people I love are happy and in good health.'
She was 88 when she died, and she wrote a great number of incredible books. I hope that the rest of her wish came true as well.