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Saturday, May 06, 2006

Changing Planes, by Ursula K. Le Guin

If both you and your plane are on time, the airport is merely a diffuse, short, miserable prelude to the intense, long, miserable plane trip. But what if there's five hours between your arrival and your connecting flight, or your plane is late arriving and you've missed your connection, or the connecting flight is late, or the staff of another airline are striking for a wage-benefit package and the government has not yet ordered out the National Guard to control this threat to international capitalism so your airline staff is trying to handle twice as many people as usual, or there are tornadoes or thunderstorms or blizzards or little important bits of the plane missing or any of the thousand other reasons (never under any circumstances the fault of the airlines, and rarely explained at the time) why those who go places on airplanes sit and sit and sit and sit in airports, not going anywhere?
In this, probably its true aspect, the airport is not a prelude to travel, not a place of transition: it is a stop. A blockage. A constipation. The airport is where you can't go anywhere else. A nonplace in which time does not pass and there is no hope of any meaningful existence. A terminus: the end. The airport offers nothing to any human being except access to the interval between planes. Ursula K. Le Guin, "Sita Dulip's Method," pp. 1-6, in her Changing Planes, New York: Ace, 2005. Quote is from p. 2.

From this memorable paragraph, one of many in this collection of short stories by Le Guin, she sets up her strategy for the book. She supposes that Sita Dulip discovered how to change planes, or change planets, while waiting in an airport. That is, she was somehow, because of the discomfort in the airport, and her desire to be away from it, instantly transported to an alternate world. Others eventually discovered her method, and some could use it in places other than airports. Using this fictional device, Le Guin examines a number of fictional worlds, each with its own peculiarities, each teaching us something about our own world.

She writes about many things. About corporations, and their evils. About hierarchies, and having kings and queens, about ordinary and exceptional things. About whether being conscious of one's self is a good thing or not. About the terrible things that war does. She is always a good writer, and always leaves you with insights you haven't had before, or with old insights put in a new way, such as:
I am no judge of danger. Only the brave can be that. Thrills and chills which to some people are the spice of life take the flavor right out of mine. . . . Cowardice of this degree is, I know, uncommon. Many people would have to hang by their teeth from a frayed cord suspended by a paper clip from a leaking hot air balloon over the Grand Canyon in order to feel what I feel standing on the third step of a stepladder trying to put millet in the bird feeder. And they'd find the terror exhilarating and take up skydiving as soon as their broken pelvis mended. Whereas I descend slowly from the stepladder, clutching at the porch rail, and swear I'll never go above six inches again. Ursula K. Le Guin, "Confusions of Uñi," pp. 223-239. Quote is from p. 225.

For another blogger's brief, but perceptive, take on this book, see here.

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