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Monday, July 31, 2006

Changing Planes

Changing Planes
Ursula K. LeGuin
Publisher: Harcourt
ISBN: 0151009716

The Basics: I’ve loved LeGuin’s writing ever since my father introduced me to the Wizard of Earthsea trilogy when I was a child. I even named one of my dogs after the main character in that trilogy (though, as my father was fond of pointing out, the dog was no wizard). I’ve yet to read a story of hers that I really disliked; some are, of course, better than others, but I love ‘em all.

Changing Planes is a collection of sixteen short stories grouped around a single conceit; in a world very much like ours, it is possible to travel to other dimensions, but only if you’re stuck in an airport for long enough to become sufficiently frustrated, bored, and irritated to simply will yourself into another dimension. It’s a neat little idea, and mostly just serves as an excuse for LeGuin to shunt her narrator to a bunch of different planes where she can play with different ideas. As is her wont, most of the stories involve her playing with ideas about alternative social structures, or ordinary people thrust into strange circumstances. It’s social-science fiction, essentially.

The Good: I love Leguin’s writing style; it’s simple, but evocative. She paints beautiful pictures with words, and it all just flows. There are very few writers who can keep me distracted enough to nearly miss a T stop. LeGuin is one of them.

The stories themselves are all fairly interesting. I particularly enjoyed “Porridge on Islac”, more for the atmosphere than for the bits about genetic engineering; “Woeful Tales from Mahigul” does some interesting story-within-a-story things, “The Building” tells a weird and sort of haunting story about a race of people who keep constructing an enormous building for no apparent purpose, and “The Fliers of Gy” posits an society where some people get wings, and it often kills them.

Really, all the stories are excellent. I can’t think of any I didn’t enjoy.

The Bad: Not much, though some readers might be turned off by the political/moral messages in some of the stories. “Porridge on Islac”, for example, is pretty clearly a parable about the dangers of playing with genetics. I enjoy LeGuin enough that I tend to just enjoy her stories regardless of whether or not I agree with her politics (and I don’t, always), but those more firmly entrenched in their politics might not enjoy it so much.

The Ugly: “The Immortals” is kind of gruesome, in a subtle sort of way.

Overall, I liked this collection a fair amount. It’s not my favorite LeGuin collection ever (I think that goes to Birthday of the World), but it’s definitely worth reading.