Summer Reading: Ursula K. Le Guin

I was first introduced to Ursula Le Guin through that fantastic short story SF anthology I had the good sense to buy. It was her The Author of the Acacia Seeds that I read and really liked. If there’s an example of someone who takes a small, often-overlooked component of daily life and reworks that to make SF out of it, it’s her. Le Guin’s writing isn’t about huge galactic empires or battles, or even about technology and bionic arms and robots taking over the world. It’s about re-imagination.

T reintroduced me to Le Guin as part of this summer’s first haul – Changing Planes is what it’s called, and it’s a collection of adventures by the narrator. Those adventures take place in various “planes”, accessed by humans in this plane when they are waiting for connecting flights in the deepest misery. Apparently, it’s the total depression caused by the flight transportation industry that fueled the introduction to the plane changing method.

Le Guin uses a wonderful mix of gentle humour, understanding and sci-fi to construct her stories. The humour, especially, is very fun: “The airport bookstores did not sell books, only bestsellers, which Sita Dulip cannot read without risking a severe systemic reaction.” This is exactly the same way I feel about 99% of bestsellers (and why I can’t even give Khaled Hosseini a try), and is incredibly ironic because Changing Planes spent some time on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list.

The stories are incredibly varied – the first is about genetic engineering gone awry – an incredibly varied population of citizens on a plane, crossed with any number of plants and animals – and the political and social repercussions of such a thing. For instance, the friend that the protagonist makes tells her about how they made talking dogs, and how utterly asinine their conversations were.

Another one I loved was the story of the fliers of Gy. A people born with multicoloured feathers, only very few Gy people are able to fly. For some it’s a blessing, for others a curse, but overall, it’s seen as strange and unnecessary, because of the wing failure that can apparently happen any time. A flier speaks to the narrator about his love of flight; an earthbound winged lawyer scorns flight and the flightiness that apparently comes with it.

There are other wonderful stories – the people who share dreams, the royalty whose main preoccupation is with the commoners, the people who grow silent after they reach a certain age, people who build a huge structure for no apparent reason.

Le Guin’s talent, for me, lies in upending the things we take for granted, or the narratives we’ve come to expect. The unforeseen results of genetic re-engineering, for instance, or the immortals of an island who cannot, however much they are tormented, die. The people on different planes are very different – the narrator at first has trouble understanding who wouldn’t want to live forever, or want to fly – but somehow also the same in their ultimate responses to the strange and wonderful things in their plane.

Definitely going on my list of books to buy.

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