Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin

  • Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Publisher: Harcourt
  • Published Date: 2003

I can see why this collection won an award (Locus Award for best collection in 2004). It is a series of vignettes set in different planes. In this world, people have discovered how to “change planes” and at which specific airports to do so.

Changing Planes is a look into different cultures, into different languages. If you’ve read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, CP is like that — just solely focused on the different cultures and peoples. Each story is tied together by a traveler from our own plane. She visits a plane where everything is genetically modified, to the point that people don’t know if their child will be part foal, fish, maize, or anything imaginable. In another story, she meets a group where a select number suddenly spout wings; to some they are seen as awe-inspiring, yet to others they are seen as diseased.

The topic of language is frequently brought up. There is a story featuring people who have a sort of non-language. The adults rarely speak. When they do, visitors record their words and revere them. After all, if they rarely speak (sometimes years in between utterances), every word must be profound — at least according to the people who revere utterances such as “Hot!” In yet another story, the peoples’ language is such that “every word is like had” in that by itself it doesn’t mean much. Every single one of their words requires context to be understood fully. (Although, personally, I would argue that most languages are similar to an extent. She brings up the word cat and how it doesn’t need context to be understood. But we all have different images of a “cat.” I could be talking about a “big cat,” “my cat,” “the tabby cat that wanders around the alley at night,” etc. Sure, it doesn’t need context to be understood in an abstract sense. However, just like with the language in the story, the specific meaning of the word “cat” changes depending on the context. Think of a cat. I can almost guarantee you the image you bring up does not match the image I bring up. )

Sorry! Went off on a tangent! In one story, we visit a plane where the majority of people are of royal descent. There is one family of commoners in this place, and they are the talk of the town. When one of the commoners dies, her funeral is attended by masses of distraught citizens. Tears stream down their faces all funeral long. Themes of life, death, and loss course throughout the collection.

In one, people’s ages are determined by how many migrations they make from a small town to a large city. No one has ever made 4. When they die, they are buried with their feet facing a certain direction. In the first story, we meet a woman who is part maize who had to release her daughter into the river in order that she might live. In another (the one with the migrations), a woman has two children, yet only one of them survives the night. The collection is rife with tragedy handled exceptionally well. The handling of each loss is so unique to that particular culture. The daughter in the first story is lost so that she might find life. Children in another story voluntarily lose their words (although they still hum songs) in order that they might become adults. But in every plane, in every story, there is a Spring season signifying new life.

Le Guin has created entire worlds in mere pages, and we are all outsiders. Just as in the story where everyone shares each other’s dreams, it is difficult to fully comprehend any of these cultures or peoples. They have a connection with each other that the traveler (and we the reader in a sense are the traveler, too) cannot ever hope to obtain. This is a collection about what it means to be human, even if that humanity doesn’t look like the person staring back from the mirror.

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