LeGuin takes readers on a journey of conceptual world-building. Review by S.K. Slevinski
Changing Planes is a unified collection of short stories that allows the speculative fiction master to flex her conceptual muscle.
This collection is a subtle genre cross-over in which LeGuin creates and explores a series of alternative reality cultures, infusing them with the weight of social and political commentary readers expect of good science fiction, as well as an emphasis on cultural world-building one typically seeks through fantasy. The impetus for this collection of inter-planery journeys is a discovery by air traveler Sita Dulip—in the correct conditions of anxiety and frustration while waiting at the airport for her connecting flight, Dulip accidentally makes the inter-planery jump to a different world—where time often moves at a different pace and one can wait out the two hour delay in the connecting flight with a paradisiacal vacation. Dulip's discovery and method catches on, and Earth-dwellers discover that such inter-planery travel has been going on among other worlds for centuries. Governed by the Inter-planery Agency, this cross-dimensional tourism is big business. But the narrator of these stories, a friend of Dulip, is more of a hobby anthropologist, exploring often the darker sides of the worlds she visits. One plane has an overcrowded city where genetic experimentation has run amok, human DNA mixed with plant and animal genes, and where life-spans have been genetically lengthened. Another tells us the story of the migratory patterns of the native people in a plane where the year is equal to twenty five of our years, and mating only happens in the spring. Still another tells of a world of bird-like people who prize their plumes and feathers, but who fear the vestigial and random appearance of wings among some young adults, where it is treated socially like a handicap and flying is a dangerous choice.
The variety of worlds created through these stories is fascinating and numerous, from the world where all non-essential non-human life has been eliminated—and so their language has turned into a wilderness—to the plane where rumors exist of an island where some people are immortal. Some of these conceptual experiments are more successful than others, but all are gutsy and thought-provoking. While these stories of inter-world travel are technically more fantasy than science fiction, the spirit behind them is one of exploration and social commentary. LeGuin turns many of these tales into a contemporary comment on a variety of issues from cultural imperialism to colonial commercialization—one plane has been co-opted by Earth businessmen and turned into a Disneyland-like series of artificial attractions, each modeled after an Earth holiday, from the island where it's always Christmas to another where fireworks daily celebrate the Fourth of July and native peoples work the menial jobs. These stories only rarely take the chance to explore any of the main characters in much depth, but LeGuin's agenda in these tales is rather one of characterizing both the conceptual worlds and the cultural groups found therein. Her work is, as expected, innovative and engaging.
Both science fiction and fantasy fans will appreciate Changing Planes for its cultural sensibilities and conceptual exploration. This book is also a good meeting point for fans of novels and of short stories; the story lover will appreciate the smaller, self-contained vignettes and the traditional novel fan will enjoy the overarching interconnectedness of these tales.
S.K. Slevinski is senior editor for ARWZ Literary Magazine and a long time reader of alternative reality fiction. She is currently a graduate student, specializing in folklore.