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Changing Planes by Ursula Le Guin

01/03/2004. Contributed by Paul Skevington

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pub: Gollancz. 214 page hardback. Price: 8.99 (UK). ISBN: 0-575-07564-3.

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This is a strange little book, you know. From the description I'd read previously and from the blurb on the jacket's inside cover, you would imagine that it was a straightforward novel with a central character and a linear narrative.

This is not the case though, rather it is a collection of stories all coherently lead by a central theme and idea. This volume centres on something called, after its inventor, the 'Sita Dulip' method, that allows individuals to move between different planes of existence.

The triggering factors required for this enterprise to work are the severe discomfort and irritation produced by air travel. Subsequently, airports are the only places where this type of journey is possible.

With this assertion the tone of the collection is firmly established, it is a work that is heavy on dry humour and irony.

The stories that follow the introduction are well-written satires that address many areas of life, but are principally social in nature. They seem to concentrate on larger, more global ideas, whilst avoiding direct confrontation with any real-life political figures or entities.

It is here that the collection splits from what it clearly seeks to emulate: 'Gulliver's Travels' by Jonathan Swift. Le Guin's style is definitely evocative of this earlier classic. Le Guin herself nods in its direction by mentioning it in 'The Island Of The Immortals', where the narrator confirms that she has read it before (much to my chagrin, as until that point I had been engaged in a vigorous session of backslapping for noticing the connection).

This collection is far more than just a simple homage, however. The reference to 'Gulliver's Travels' serves to remind us that Swift was using the as then undeveloped tropes of fantasy and SF to construct his satire. Le Guin adopts this approach but updates it and throws in a bundle of fresh new ideas that add a relevance to her book that Swift's novel is starting to lose.

Le Guin uses travelling between planes in the same way that Swift used a journey to new, undiscovered lands. It frees her up to present to the reader the cocktail of worlds, societies and peoples that she will use to present her satires to us. One defining feature of all the tales is that the societies depicted are principally low-tech in nature and if a high-tech society appears, it is usually intruding upon or invading these less developed worlds. These low-tech settings are idealised by Le Guin.

They do have their problems but they are almost universally depicted as being preferable to our own reality. For instance, in the story 'Great Joy', a group of businessmen from our plane enter into another realm, bringing with them their alien value system and a technology that subverts the plane's population into living in what is effectively a kind of slavery.

When the tale is concluded, these unfortunate citizens go back to their previous lifestyles, although it is clear that they have been irrevocably tainted in some way by the intrusion. From this assumption, the individual stories diverge to satirise more specific elements of modern western culture.

'The Royals Of Hegn' attacks our devotion to the church of celebrity as Le Guin depicts a plane where the majority of the populace are members of the Royal family. The remaining minority are known as the 'Commoners'. The 'Royals' scrutinise every aspect of the 'Commoners' lives for their own entertainment, in an ingenious inversion that lampoons the absurd attention paid to people in publications such as 'Heat' magazine.

Le Guin is equally effective when the tone of the piece is more serious, such as in 'The Fliers Of Gy'. It concerns itself with a plane whose inhabitants have a risk of developing wings during puberty. This phenomena divides the citizens into three categories; the wingless masses, those who have wings and choose not to fly out of fear and the Fliers.

In the end, it is those who risk danger and use their gifts that seem to be the happiest of all three categories. It is a familiar metaphor but in Le Guin's hands it is given an affecting ring of truth. This satirical approach can sometimes implode upon itself, however.

'The Building' strives towards a meaning that is not as clearly defined or accessible as other entries in the volume, even a family of Doozers would have had trouble enjoying this one (my first Fraggle Rock reference, oh joy!) This is faint criticism though, as you would be hard put to find a more thought provoking collection in the genre or one constructed with such allegorical beauty and skill.

From this volume alone it is understandable to see why the critics have heaped so much praise on this remarkable author. Long live the Queen of SF!

Paul Skevington

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