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Literature / Changing Planes

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I never saw such a variety of people as were in that car - all shapes, sizes, colors, degrees of hairiness, featheriness (the street sweeper's tail had indeed been a tail), and, I thought, looking at one long, greenish youth, even leafiness.

A cycle of stories by Ursula K. Le Guin, each taking place on another plane - the word "plane" being used not unlike in the universe of Planescape or Magic: The Gathering, the main difference being that in Le Guin's book one can get to another plane only from the waiting lounge at the airport, provided that one is sufficiently stressed and tired. Differences between particular planes are primarily cultural, even if they are of biological or technological origin. People from Earth practice interplanary travel either out of boredom at the airport or as tourists who want to spend their holidays on a particular plane. When the stories focus on them instead of the natives of the other planes, it is done for Aesopian purposes. The stories are not very action-laden, as they resemble anthropological descriptions of foreign cultures and are based on the exploration of large but simple differences between the inhabitants of Earth and other planes.

The book contains:

  • Sita Dulip's Method
  • Porridge on Islac (Islac)
  • The Silence of the Asonu (plane of the Asonu)
  • Feeling at Home with the Hennebet (Hennebet)
  • The Ire of the Veksi (Veksian plane)
  • Seasons of the Ansarac (plane of the Ansarac)
  • Social Dreaming of the Frin (Frinthian plane)
  • The Royals of Hegn (Hegn)
  • Woeful Tales from Mahigul (Mahigul):
    • Dawodow the Innumerable
    • The Cleansing of Obtry
    • The Black Dog
    • The War across the Alon
  • Great Joy (Musu Sum)
  • Wake Island (Orichi)
  • The Nna Mmoy Language (plane of the Nna Mmoy)
  • The Building (Qoq)
  • The Fliers of Gy (Gy)
  • The Island of the Immortals (Yendian plane)
  • Confusions of Uni (Uni)

Provides examples of:

  • Author Tract: Several of the chapters exist less as stories and more as ideological screeds with thin veneers of plot, in particular "Porridge on Islac" (about the dangers of genetic engineering), "The Royals of Hegn" (a slap at celebrity culture) and most notably "Great Joy" (which even invokes Wal-Mart in its attack on consumerism).
  • Big Labyrinthine Building: On Qoq, one is built by the Aq for hundreds of years, for incomprehensible reasons.
  • Bizarre Seasons: The Ansarac plane has a unique orbit where seasons last 24 years. As a result, the populations migrate between hemispheres every time it changes.
  • Blue Blood: Averted on Hegn, where the commons are much less numerous than members of aristocracy.
  • Cannot Dream: The Supersmart children on Orichi. It has caused them severe psychological distress.
  • Christmas in July: On the Great Joy plane, Christmas lasts all year. Just like Halloween. And Easter. And the Valentine's Day. And any other holiday you could wish for.
  • Erotic Dream: A problem on Frinth where dreaming is social and this is sometimes added to the mix. The people have learned to deal with it.
  • Genetic Engineering Is the New Nuke: Nearly every person on Islac is genetically engineered with some other species, and generations of this have turned the gene pool into a melting pot. The protagonist shares a cup with a woman who is partially maize, who had to abandon her daughter to the sea when her seal genes manifested.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: The Veksi have this as their hat. This has the expected serious problems as far as developing a civilization, to the point most of their time is spent in single-occupancy dwellings because social interaction is too likely to result in a bloodbath.
  • Holodeck Malfunction: It's not clear exactly what happens to you on Uni, but it makes absolutely no sense, to the point it's not even clear if Uni is actually a plane at all.
  • The Multiverse: Reality consists of a seemingly-infinite number of planet-sized planes, which anyone with the proper training can slip between. The circumstances needed depend on where you're from; for those from our world, it involves a certain set of movements while experiencing a type of emotional turmoil that, for some reason, is best experienced while stuck in an airport waiting for your flight.
  • Mistaken for Profound: A traveler spent several years among the silent Asonu, recording the few things they said in the belief that it would reveal a greater truth. The end result is an entire religion built on the philosophical wisdom of “Careful, it’s hot.” and “Stop that!”.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Why are they building the giant building on Qoq? No one can tell you. Even the builders know nothing more than that it's for the other race.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: Parodied with the Veksi, who are perpetually angry. They can’t get organized enough to actually go to war and spend most of their time either lashing out at someone or sulking.
  • Psychic Link: There's one between the Frinth, who are able to share the dreams of those around them. There's a standing rule never to try to link what happens in a shared dream to any particular person (if children ask, "Did you dream the X?", the usual response is "We all did"). Travelers are considered suspect, because non-natives can insert their dreams into the mix but can't receive them.
  • The Sleepless: The Supersmart children of Orichi were genetically engineered to not require sleep after infancy (the first attempt revealed that they had to sleep to reach childhood). Unfortunately, not being able to sleep so badly stunts their neurological development that they're not even sapient.
  • Starfish Language: The Nna Mmoy language is this literally: "Texts written in Nna Mmoy are not linear, either horizontally or vertically, but radial, budding out in all directions, like the branches or growing crystals, from a first or central word which, once the text is complete, may well be neither the center nor the beginning of the statement. (...) We talk snake. A snake can go any direction but only one direction at the time, following its head. They talk starfish."
  • The Voiceless: The Asonu. Slightly subverted, as their silence is considered the proof of unspeakable wisdom, which eventually leads to breaking contact with them.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Some of the inhabitans of the Yendian plane become immortal. Sadly, this is the Age Without Youth kind, leading them to grow increasingly infirm and senile with no ability to die, until finally they shrivel into diamonds. The author concludes that this is why there's fly netting everywhere - all of the flies will bite you, but one immortal fly can do far worse...
  • Winged Humanoid: Some of the people from Gy have wings (and can fly, but most never do it, as winged Gyr are subject to the risk of sudden, catastrophic wing failure).
  • Women Are Wiser: On Mahigul, women from the opposing tribes of Hua and Farim make the war less violent by the intentional killing of the creature supporting the warriors.