W hen I first began to read Ms. Le Guin's new book of short stories, the hair started to bristle on my neck. Maybe I shouldn't have signed on to review this book, thought I. Not being a lover of sci-fi novels myself, I felt like maybe this would be better left in the hands of a critic who adored reading about strange worlds with strange names. But then, shortly after the intro, I was hooked and transported to points beyond.
The title is derived from the premise that threads the stories together: simply put, while you are waiting between planes in an airport, it is possible, by using a meditative method, to change dimensional "planes." The stories serve as ethnographic explorations of a dozen or so worlds, their people, culture, history and environs. Like a modern, metaphysical Gulliver's Travels, Le Guin adopts a Swiftian eye, explaining details with minimal drama, as if this were an addition to the "Encyclopedia Planaria," an inter-dimensional reference book she refers to numerous times in Changing Planes. Each world is richly drawn and lovingly unique. The Asonu and their mysteriously silent ways (are they hiding a revelatory knowledge in their wordless society, or are they just quiet?); the migrating Ansarac, who live two separate lives, traveling between the North and the South based on a cycle of 6-year-long seasons; and the genetically modified creatures of Islac, living in a totalitarian state, where tiny living Teddy Bears eat the glue from the binding of books. Le Guin's matter-of-fact depiction of such glorious details is like a reading of a transcript from a PBS series, such as Nature or Nova, and is enhanced even further by gorgeous complimentary illustrations from Eric Beddows, whose drawings are like window glimpses into the strange planes.
The stories in Changing Planes are infused with subtle (and not so subtle) allusions to our own plane in its current state of unrest, injustice, disharmony and confusion. Le Guin's political bias is obvious and glorious. She is a kindred spirit of the disenfranchised and the dispossessed; like a Grandmother who has been telling us stories for years, making them more and more urgent as her children grow older. BRIAN BRAIT