Book Talk: 'Changing Planes' by Ursula K. Le Guin - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'Changing Planes' by Ursula K. Le Guin

Alexander Wallace experiences déjà vu.
Of all the authors I first read during the pandemic, Ursula K. Le Guin is among my favorites. She takes what Isaac Asimov did in works like the Foundation trilogy and goes one step further, writing science fiction laser-focused on societal changes, not technological changes, on what humanity can be. She was an author who challenged the reader to ask hard questions, to reckon with uncomfortable answers, all in the service of a single, overriding truth: a better world is possible if we are bold enough to dare to make it. Here, we turn our attention to a lesser-known work of hers, with nowhere near the number of praises sung for it than the likes of The Dispossessed, the Earthsea series, or The Left Hand of Darkness: her 2003 collection of stories Changing Planes.

Changing Planes is a collection of linked stories sharing a mode of interdimensional travel. The well-read reader may notice a clear influence from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Each story is a new odd take on some seemingly commonplace aspect of life; one can see similarities to the works of Jorge Luis Borges and Ted Chiang. For the very current reader of speculative fiction, one may feel some elements reminiscent of Susanna Clarke’s Hugo-nominated novel Piranesi here.

That mode of interdimensional travel is a strange one: a form of deliberate mental disassociation that is perfected by people waiting in airports. This starts the book on an amusingly true-to-life tack; who hasn’t been bored out of their wits waiting for a plane to land, so that you can finally be on your way?

Much of the book concerns, subtly, the concept of ‘being on your way,’ and where it is you are on your way too. The different dimensions (called ‘planes’ therein) are under the control of a nebulously defined but very present authority that regulates travel. Time and again, you are confronted with a metaphor for the questionable effects of modern tourism, from how it molds the local economy in its own image to how it can cheapen so many forms of human culture. It’s a book that’ll make you think the next time you go on vacation.

It’s bewildering, in a delightful way, to see what sort of alterations to things you’d fancy yourself familiar with Le Guin has furnished for you. She tackles language in a bedazzling way, and the travails of having wings growing out of your back in a distressingly believable way. There are stories about child-rearing and migration and the massive octopus of ‘economic development’ that has ensnared everywhere in its tentacles. It’s a level of originality that reminds you of many other works but surpasses the majority.

Changing Planes is one of Le Guin’s lesser known works, which is in its own way a travesty, for it is magnificent. But when an author’s oeuvre is nothing but gems, how can only one sapphire stand out?

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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