… or at least I was, now being back in England, at least in body. And on the journey back from Australia I found the perfect plane book: Ursula le Guin’s Changing Planes: Armchair Travel for the Mind. It is a collection of short stories, broadly in the style of The Left Hand of Darkness, one of my all-time favourite reads, tied together by a delightful conceit:
“It was Sita Dulip of Cincinnati who … discovered the interplanar technique most of us now used.
Her connecting flight from Chicago to Denver had been delayed by some unspeakable, or at any rate untold, malfunction of the airplane. It was listed as departing at 1:10, two hours late. At 1:55, it was listed as departing at 3:00. It was then taken off the departures list…
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 in a row of people sitting in blue plastic chairs with metal tubes for legs bolted to the floor in a row of people sitting on 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. [Original itals, p. 3, Orion, London, 2004] (Don’t you just love that daring use of repetition, entirely typical of Le Guin in its originality of form.)
My favourite “plane” was Asonu, where the people “once past early childhood … speak very rarely to anyone, under any circumstances. They do not write; and unlike mutes, or monks under vows of silence, they do not use any signs or other devices in place of speaking.” Given all of the junk conversations that inevitably assault your ears during travel (I had the misfortune to get a pair of incredibly fat young honeymooners beside me on the Sydney-Singapore leg, whose conversation was positively sickening) that had an obvious attraction.
In a typical dry aside, – the narrator, who often takes a sociological/ anthropological approach – says that the Asonu are peaceful. “No hostile relations between groups are apparent, and in fact no observer has reported seeing adult Asonu fight or quarrel. Arguments are clearly out of the question.” (p. 21)
Many of the other stories take a similar approach, one of course that has a long history, of imagining societies much like our own, except for one significant factor – they might even be labelled “thought experiments”.
There’s the Finthian plane, where “dreams are not private property”, with everyone – and every animal – within a certain radius sharing their REM sleep experiences; the society of the Ansarac, which involves two entirely different lifestyles linked by regular migration; and the Nna Mmoy, with its untranslatable language: “Each syllable is a word, but a word with no fixed, specific meaning, only a range of possible significances determined by the syllables that come before, after or near it.”
Other stories are obviously allegorical, including that of Mahigul, where an utterly pointless war between two cities eventually creates a massive tourist attraction; and the utterly commercialised Great Joy Corporation destinations, including Christmas Island, where it is always Christmas Eve and “the prices are really just as low as Wal-Mart, and a much better selection”, and “Fourth Island”, which features a “reenactment of the Flag Raising on Iwo Jima to the Rockets; Red Glare Four-Hour Fireworks Display every night” (p. 124).
Finally the operating corporation was tracked down, banned, and the resorts “now operated by the islanders themselves as a cooperative venture”. The narrator says: “This makes sense, in that the modest subsistence economy of the region was completely destroyed … and cannot be restored overnight … On the other hand, it boggles the mind a bit. Especially Fourth Island. An orgiastic monument of American sentimental nationalism operated entirely by people who know nothing about the United States except that they were ruthlessly used by Americans for years? Well, I suppose it is not wholly improbable even on this plane. Exploitation can cut two ways.” (p. 129)
There’s a serious political, philosophical side to this book, but unlike say Asimov, Le Guin is also a delightful, witty writer. I often laughed out loud, which upset the honeymooners by interrupting their cooing. I didn’t mind, but you might want to read it in private instead, if you don’t want to be a Le Guin-style character.