Visits to Other Possible Worlds

From the Argentinean journal Ñ
November 5, 2005
Not signed

From its title on, Changing Planes chooses to settle on thresholds, bridges, places of pure ambiguity, pure possibility. The English word "planes" means both levels and airplanes,* and Le Guin's story keeps running on different tracks, never on one alone. For example, the narrator moves between airplane trips such as we're familiar with, and journeys that lead to alternate planes of reality, both starting out from the no-place of an airport waiting room.

On such multiple, never single, bases, the book locates itself among literary genres and kinds of discourse. It is both a novel and a story collection. This might mean simply that it's fiction, but in fact narrative is a minor element of the book, which proceeds essentially by description. It's an "idea" text, but without the philosophical manner: what the narrator gives us is a sort of notebook of journeys through an Internet geography, an infinite geographical hypertext.

Le Guin selects a peculiar narrator, presented as an opposite to the typical 19th-century author of travel notes or protagonist of 20th-century adventure movies, usually male, and different from other people through his courage -- a hero. The narrator of Changing Planes is a woman, who flatly confesses to being a coward, somebody who hates adrenalin. She's an ordinary human being who travels anxiously on airplanes and other planes, and whose particular qualities are skill in description and an open, accepting mind — not pleasure in violence or the habit of it.

Each plane (formally presented as a story, in proporton to the size of the text) is a picture of a possible world, built up from the projection of certain traits of human nature. As Le Guin isn't a hard science fiction writer, these traits aren't technological — technology is carefully avoided — but philosophical, psychological, social, or linguistic. ** Each "tale" is a window open on another possible reality, a window which turns out not to consist of answers, but questions.

For example: which is preferable, a life close to the nature of the species, in harmony with its origins and the planet, or a life dedicated to technological progress, speed, accumulation of wealth? Or: How would social life be possible in a reality where the prime value is violence and aggression? Can we conceive of intelligent life without language? Where might unlimited genetic manipulation lead?

To such question, there are no firm answers. At most, sometimes, doubt. This makes sense: On the threshold, everything's possible, nothing's certain. And so, when she penetrates such environments, dares to doubt, to visit others, the narrator is in fact braver than any hero who believes his own power to be pure, indestructible, definitive.

Notes by UKL (the semi-competent translator):

* Spanish planes means only levels, or plans; airplanes are aviones. My foxy title is a big headache for all my translators. Lo siento mucho!

** I have to differ with my admirable reviewer here. Like all my books this one is full of technologies, of course — some elaborate, and quite carefully described.

We have been so desensitized by a hundred and fifty years of ceaselessly expanding technical prowess that we think nothing less complex and showy than a computer or a jet bomber deserves to be called "technology." As if linen were the same thing as flax — as if paper, ink, wheels, knives, clocks, chairs, shoes, were natural objects, born with us like our teeth and fingers — as if steel saucepans with copper bottoms and fleece vests spun from recycled glass grew on trees, and we just picked them when they were ripe...

One way to find out whether an object is the product of a high technology is to ask yourself, Do I know how to make one?

But I agree with my reviewer that I don't write hard science fiction. Maybe I write easy science fiction. Or the hard stuff's inside, hidden, like bones.

First published in Ñ
Reprinted with the kind permission of the [ib;osjer
Copyright © 2005 by Ñ

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