The scope grows on us, it is potentially our own: “I imagined that if one could see the migration from above, see those people all threading along a thousand paths and trails, it would be like watching our northwest coast in spring a century or two ago when every stream, from the mile-wide Columbia to the tiniest creek, turned red with the salmon run.”
This is Ursula K. Le Guin, whose stories I have been reading and necessarily rereading, passing from one unfolding reality, and its language, to another. Her title for this elegiac book, Changing Planes, puns forgivably upon the plight of those “poor souls . . . trying to catch a little rest” in airport waiting rooms, which offer “nothing to any human except access to the interval between planes”; which in almost no time will get us to “planes” (in the sense of levels or angles of imagination) that take us to strange worlds. This is the point and method of the book.
Yet consider the folk of Gy, who grow feathers but rarely wings, who reject adventure and its perils, and brutally ostracize the winged elite. The narrator interviews one of these, “a specialist carrying dispatches overseas” whose great wings will give out one day unpredictably.
But to “soar with condors . . . ride the wind, not in a noisy metal box . . . how could that be anything but . . . freedom?” Visit the contradictory Veksi, who for all their violent anger against each other in their wooing, child-raising, street fighting, homemaking, and solitary avoidances rather strangely share what they have, “never destroy crops or orchards in their raids and vendettas,” and at funerals berate the deceased bitterly for having deserted them. Calvino comes to mind, and Swift; Le Guin’s novels and stories, while they can detour into bland wit and cozy agreeableness, have established a kind of anthropological fantasy upon abundant invention and a communal ethos and ecology.
In Changing Planes her field reports on groups pass to one side of story conflict and individual fate, but in the best of them the strange, bizarre, and eccentric become questions. Hear how the hand-tool-using Hennebet employ electronic technologies (“for information storage”) that they borrowed long ago, and whose elusive laws give the elderly extra votes, though (by some mingling of now with then) “you already have them” from when you “were living again.” Among so many odd languages requiring of the tourist something called a “translatomat” from plane to plane, “The Silence of the Asonu” attracts those who need a listener to confess to, a listener who for all one knows may be listening to something else. The advantage the Asonu have is “that they never say anything stupid.” “Social Dreaming of the Frin” seems to adapt Pascal, who saw why we so mix up sleeping and waking. The Frin, who have no word for “unreal,” truly share their nightly dreams, which are “not private property” after all (as the writer of Finnegans Wake might grant). In Le Guin, thought translates to further thought to find that Frinthian is not Freudian, for here interpretation and self give way to the dream “communion of all . . . sentient creatures.” Trees, too, which Le Guin leaves us to imagine.
A translator herself, Le Guin has been busy. In generously rendering into English Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was by the acclaimed Argentine fabulist Angelica Gorodischer, Le Guin has taken us to a world macroscopically limitless and in momentum quite unlike her own. In this centuries-vast succession of capriciously war-and-peace-ruled kingdoms marked both by the silence of “gutted cities” and the splendor of prosperity, the twin themes of wise and catastrophic governance are ruled by storytellers who tell or create at will the truth. A winged, dead fetus about to rot, an exquisite blond dragonfly that proves sexually disgusting, revolting dragons—Donoso, García Márquez, almost some legendary Asia, where “gardeners produced new varieties of eggplant, assassins lurked in shadows . . . madmen howled . . . and one day a girl was born with her eyes wide open.” Possibilities flower, uncontrollable and grotesque. It all passes bewilderingly through the reader, coupling Mahabharata-like swings of wild love and beautiful energy with a relentless exposure of folly.
Le Guin’s meditative fiction stays with me more. Its focus is close and lingering but its scope is great. Long after an “ecocatastrophe,” why do the anciently hostile Aq and Daqo populations, who barely communicate, work together in hauling stone over the seas, “stone faring” for an endless Borgesian building project without a clear purpose? Le Guin names our acts, though now I recall her great liberation story “She Unnames Them” (in the January 21, 1985, New Yorker) in which a contemporary Eve unnames the animals, freeing them and herself from Adam’s task and Adam. In “The Nna Mmoy Language,” people address each other not by name but by “ever-varying phrases” for “a thousand social and emotional connections.” Here, in the book’s most intriguing plane, we find “four different translations of the same nine-character inscription.” I prefer “On one side of every door is mystery.” And I glimpse some eerie nearness of my own distant and unachieved ideals in Nna Mmoy texts, which are “not linear . . . but radial,” like “growing crystals,” with a “polydirectional complexity [resembling] . . . roses, artichokes, sunflowers, fractal patterns.”