Changing Planes

Ursula le Guin, Changing Planes, Gollancz, 2004

This book describes itself as “armchair travel for the mind”. It’s a kind of travel guide, written by people who have visited interesting places. Only in this case, what’s on offer isn’t different parts of the country, or different countries, but a whole variety of different worlds and places. Imagine, for example

  • a people whose experience of time is not sequential like ours
  • a society based entirely on anger and ill temper
  • a world in which people routinely overhear their neigbours’ dreams at night
  • a world where it is permanently the worst kind of commercialised Christmas
  • an island population created to live without sleep as a scientific experiment
  • a language too complex to be translated, based on words which individually have no meaning
  • a world where some people grow wings and can fly, but are ostracized by the rest of society.

In my previous post I talked about the value of alternative worlds for thinking about ours. Here we have a whole host of them, described in a gentle and witty style: sometimes reflective, sometimes loaded with deadly satire, always beautifully written and very readable.

People visit these worlds during tedious waits at airports, using “Sita Dulip’s method”, described in the first chapter. Sita Dulip discovered it while trapped “between planes” in the hell of waiting for an increasingly and horrendously delayed flight which was eventually

taken off the departures list. There was no one at the gate to answer questions. The lines at the desks were eight miles long, only slightly shorter than the lines at the toilets. Sita Dulip had eaten a nasty lunch standing up at a dirty plastic counter … She had long ago read the editorials in the local newspaper, which … applauded the recent tax break for citizens whose income surpassed that of Rumania. The airport bookstores did not sell books, only bestsellers, which Sita Dulip cannot read without risking a severe systemic reaction. She had been sitting for over an hour on a blue plastic chair with metal tubes for legs bolted to the floor facing a row of people sitting in blue plastic chairs with metal tubes for legs bolted to the floor, when (as she later said), ‘It came to me.’
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.
She found herself in Strupsirts…

We learn later that the method requires “a specific combination of tense misery, indigestion, and boredom” to work, making the airport an ideal place to use it. People relieve the agony by travelling to other “planes”, and the book recounts some of their experiences.

The stories are highly inventive, diverse, and wonderfully written. Some are reflective, some satirical, some challenging; all immensely readable. It’s tempting to quote the whole book. I’ll content myself with a few highlights.

“Seasons of the Ansarac” describes a world where the “humans” are a migratory species, travelling north every twenty-four years (in our terms) to breed; on their planet this means they breed each spring. In their terms, it takes someone one year to reach adulthood from birth, and their lifespan is about three years (72 of ours).

The story describes a typical cycle: people live in the cities during autumn and winter, getting on with their lives and feeling no sense of sexuality. Then comes the urge to migrate; everyone just feels like travelling north. There they form or renew partnerships, and have children; they then migrate back to the cities. By next spring, the children have grown up and it’s time for the new generation to migrate north and repeat the cycle… It’s hard to express the beauty and sensitivity of the way le Guin paints this unfolding picture.

The Ansarac encounter a medically advanced people, who don’t see the point of the lifestyle and want to “cure” them:

‘They said, “All that will change. You will see. You cannot reason correctly. It is merely an effect of your hormones, your genetic programming, which we will correct. Then you will be free of your irrational and useless behaviour patterns.

The reply is telling:

‘We answered, “But will we be free of your irrational and useless behaviour patterns?” ‘


The most challenging story, “The Island of the Immortals”, does not describe a place of eternal youth populated by people who live forever. The truth is far more disturbing. An extremely rare disease can be caught there, wjhich prevents the sufferer from dying, but doesn’t prevent ageing–for hundreds of years. A truly horrifying picture. Real, alarming questions in our own world inevitably come to mind: this is a world we have already glimpsed. Suppose medicine could keep someone alive indefinitely, regardless of their condition… Suppose you could be kept alive forever. Would you want to be? The story doesn’t explicitly mention these questions at all, yet we’re brought powerfully face to face with them.

In more humorous vein–but still with a serious point in the end–we hear “Woeful tales from Mahigul”, relating a variety of historical incidents. One is of a highly pointless war over a tiny piece of land. A river boundary is involved. One side discovers how to make explosives. This does not, however, lead to the result you’d expect, but to something much more creative. Why not move the river, and hence the boundary?

Given the highly infectious nature of technologies of destruction, it was inevitable that Meyun should discover explosives as powerful as those of their rival. What was perhaps unusual was that neither city chose to use them as a weapon. As soon as Meyun had the explosives, their army, led by a man in the newly created rank of Sapper General, marched out and blew up the dam across the old bed of the Alon. The river rushed into its former course, and the army marched back to Meyun.

Under their new Supreme Engineer, appointed by the disapointed and vindictive Councilwomen of Huy, the guards marched out and did some sophisticated dynamiting, which, by blocking the old course and deepening access to the new course of the river, led the Alon to flow happily back into the latter.

Henceforth the territorialism of the two city-states was expressed almost entirely in explosions…

and the story continues to its logical conclusion… which I will not describe here.

All of the stories are as inventive as these. Ursula le Guin’s skill is in painting a full and believable picture of each society, or at least as much of it as a tourist might experience. If you liked the quotes, and would like to read something entertaining and inventive, I hope you will give the whole book a try.

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