As a guide to sailors this book is not to be trusted," remarks Ursula Le Guin of her latest collection of stories. "Perhaps it is too sensitive to local magnetic fields." Local magnetic fields or not, these 20 variously pointed swings through the compass headings of charted and uncharted existence have an odd tendency to steer us back to certain shores. And very nicely kept shores they are, filled with a steady perspicuous light and the sound of a clear, thoughtful voice saying fine and well-phrased things about the nobility of human aspiration. In some future Armageddon, for instance, a librarian crawls through the smoke of his burning library to save a few books from the flames ("The Phoenix"). Or: as mankind prepares literally to drown in the consequences of its own folly, the lofty of soul send their voices out over the abyss by way of playing the viola and inventing the perfect solar battery ("The New Atlantis"). And: in a society of punitive mind-censorship, a candidate for memory-erasure dreams of Beethoven and brotherhood ("The Diary of the Rose"). But, if these are the Le Guin of "literary" science-fiction, also on display here is her marvelous and unpredictable streak of comic invention: "Schredinger's Cat" explores the celebrated paradox of subatomic phenomena being altered by the very act of observing them; the even more irresistible "Intracom" is a kind of manic allegory about a pregnancy projected as an event aboard a spaceship. Furthermore, unlike most practitioners of speculative fiction, Le Guin is also genuinely interested in small lives observed in minutely sympathetic detail--as in "Malheur County" (an elderly woman and her son-in-law) or "Two Delays on the Northern Line" (a brief diptych set in the fictional Eastern country of Orsinia). And her rich feel for the past as well as the future is reflected in the gem of the collection: "The First Report of the Shipwrecked Foreigner to the Kadanh of Derb," a celebration of Venice as remembered by someone who will never see it again. Le Guin can be awfully cloying when she utters grave and euphonious pieties. But, for the most part, there are inexhaustible playings and seeings and imaginings--from a shrewd and various writer who can think something through till it seems to cohere in the mind's eye.