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STYLE & CULTURE | BOOK REVIEW

A thrill for delayed travelers

Changing Planes;Ursula K. Le Guin;Harcourt: 246 pp., $22

September 05, 2003|Nick Owchar | Times Staff Writer

The best science fiction doesn't call attention to itself as science fiction. When it does, focusing on the oddities or inventiveness of its setting, then everything becomes like cardboard props on a stage. This is why the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, who brings so much reality to her fantastic worlds, is taken seriously by even the most high-minded literati. Though she imagines strange, alien realms and dark visions of the future in such books as "The Dispossessed" and "The Lathe of Heaven" (both newly reissued by HarperPerennial), the focus is always on issues familiar to Earth dwellers: identity, power struggles, sexuality, love, compassion, family, greed.

In the story collection "Changing Planes," Le Guin gives us the same sort of cosmic culture clash one finds in "The Left Hand of Darkness," in which the inhabitants of the planet Winter come in contact with humans, but here she adopts a much simpler, very amusing approach. Weary air travelers, stranded at airports around the world, convert their misery into energy that propels them into other dimensions -- the perfect way to while away the time between flights.

Discovered by Sita Dulip, a traveler going from Chicago to Denver, the method is easily described: "She had discovered 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."

No elaborate science to explain traveling between dimensions. Nothing, in fact, to distract us from the 16 chapters offering colorful travelogues of life with the birdlike Ansarac, whose relationships wax and wane according to the mating season, or the Veksi, centaurish creatures for whom rage and anger are normal states of being (Travelers beware!). "On the Frinthian plane, dreams are not private property," begins "Social Dreaming of the Frin," which seems to have Freud and Jung in mind. "A troubled Frin has no need to lie on a couch recounting dreams to a psychoanalyst, for the doctor already knows what the patient dreamed last night, because the doctor dreamed it too...."

Le Guin's approach is deceptively simple, the sign of a great storyteller. The stories start off on a lark, on the slightest whim of fantasy, deluding idle page-skimmers into thinking, "I could write a story like this." "They were amazingly various in size, in color, in shape," one traveler remarks about the natives of Islac: an 8-foot-tall woman decked in feathers; a waist-high businessman; a child trotting by on all fours, like a dog -- the scene is carnivalesque, Boschian. Then the story turns even stranger.

"I'm corn, myself," a mournful woman named Ai Li A Le tells the narrator. She explains how, long ago, the science of applied genetics was brought to Islac from another plane, and the result was that the people conducted endless experiments, changing the populace into one big, unstable melting pot. " 'Only 4% of my genome [is corn],' she said. 'There's about half a percent of parrot, too, but it's recessive. Thank God.' " The story turns us back to our own world, which has only just peered into the mysteries of the human genome.

Ai Li A Le's sorrow contains a warning about what might happen if we fail to place limits on our experiments. While her parrot gene is thankfully recessive, her daughter has a dominant gene that led to the oddest and most painful of partings, which makes her want to cry:

"Her face worked and she had to compress her lips before she could go on. 'My daughter lives in the North Sea. On raw fish. She's very beautiful. Dark and silky and beautiful. But -- I had to take her to the seacoast when she was 2 years old. I had to put her in that cold water....I had to let her swim away, let her go be what she is. But she is human too! She is, she is human too!' "

There's not much of an overall narrative to "Changing Planes," no central action that knits together the chapters. But there's plenty of action in each chapter (the description of a fragile political alliance's destruction in "Woeful Tales from Mahigul" has the manner and style of Gibbon's history of the Roman Empire) as well as plenty of alien tongue-twisters (in "The Royals of Hegn," gossip abounds about "old Prince Levigvig," "the Duchess of Mabuber," and "the great-grandson of the Bastard of Egmorg").

We see ourselves, our habits and behaviors, reflected in these alien landscapes. Rather than providing escape from the humdrum, which science fiction and fantasy mostly do, Le Guin offers insight. "The Silence of the Asonu," for example, satirizes our tendency to dogmatize. The Asonu plane is a quiet place, because adult Asonu rarely speak, uttering perhaps a word or two every few years. Over time, one traveler records their often banal comments ("Not there") and expands each into a creed ("What we seek is not in any object or experience of our mortal life"). The Asonu, of course, neither approve nor protest, and the story ends in uncertainty and mystery -- much like what confronts the adherents of most religions.

Such moments of alien deja vu make Le Guin's books a pleasure to read, and one finishes "Changing Planes" in awe of her imagination. Like many who follow Sita Dulip's method, we're glad we made the trip.

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