The inconveniences and exasperations of airplane travel (described in a bilious prefatory Author’s Note) are the starting-point for a sparkling collection of 16 linked stories.
This latest from Le Guin consists of delineations of different “planes” of reality visited by passengers who opt for “interplanary travel.” In “The Royals of Hegn,” for example, a race of blue-blooded epicureans indulges a paparazzi-like fascination with the scandalous misdeeds of oversexed “commoners.” Conversely, in “Feeling at Home with the Hennebet,” a traveler encounters a placid people who exist quite happily without convictions of any kind. “The Silence of the Asonu” introduces a people who “abstain” from speaking. Elsewhere, Le Guin (The Birthday of the World, 2002, etc.) doesn’t refrain from sardonic political commentary, but gives it several ingenious spins. “Seasons of the Ansarac” depicts people who relive their lives in seasonal migrations, to the annoyance of their briskly efficient colonizers. In “Porridge on Islac,” genetic engineering has obliterated distinctions among human, animal, and plant life; and in the chilling “Wake Island,” scientific efforts to create “supersmarts” unencumbered by the need for sleep instead produces generations of amoral monsters. A peaceful society has paradoxically evolved from a lengthy history of territorialism, tyranny, and genocide (accomplished with the ultimate weapon of an uncontrollable “Black Dog”) in “Woeful Tales from Mahigul.” And Le Guin’s mythmaking power is brilliantly displayed in a story of winged people whose mutant birthright is both curse and liberation (“The Fliers of Gy”). One wishes she had avoided some all- too-easy targets (e.g., on “Hollo-Een ! Island . . . [children are] dressed as witches, ghosts, space aliens, and Ronald Reagan”). But her stories’ unconventional premises are more often than not shaped into entrancing, provocative narratives.
Inventive and highly entertaining tales. Le Guin’s touch is as magical as ever.