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their eyes, their glittering eyes

12.22.03

 

Ursula K Le Guin
Changing Planes
New York: Harcourt, Inc
2003
246p
$22.00
ISBN 0 15 100971 6

Michael Swanwick
Cigar-Box Faust; and Other Miniatures
San Francisco: Tachyon Publications
2003
94p
$14.95
ISBN 1 892391 07 4

The initial calculus that shoehorns these two volumes into one review is easy to articulate: each of these collections of short, densely evocative pieces (Swanwick's alone contains something like 70 separate items) is best understood as a series of games in the fields of genre. It may not be at all surprising, however, given the fact that one of our authors is a Crone and the other a Wiz, that it's all a bit more complicated than that. Changing Planes and Cigar-Box Faust may be games played in the fields we know; but in order to get at the their underlying nature, this metaphor needs to be extended a bit: because Planes and Cigar are books written at Thanksgiving time. Each of them is a sheaf of tales from the end of harvest.

They are books written with one foot left in Eden, books written at the beginning of the rip-tide years that augur Singularity, all the picket fences down, nothing left to be interstitial about. The heart of the game each author plays—as with all games played by Liminals in the Library of the Last Redoubt—is a bit like chess or noh, because every move is so irradiated with knowingness that it is the rigour and rightness of the move that counts, not its originality. What is new in these volumes is almost accidental; what is beauty is not. Le Guin's collection of linked stories is the more substantial of the two, and the lessons (there is always a lesson in Le Guin) they impart seem, at times, strikingly original; but the ultimate effect of both books is that of virtu achieved; each book is a collecting together of a love for the way certain things have been said, and may be said still, within the frame of the fantastic.

The premise that knits Changing Planes is both painful, for anyone who has ever flown (especially since 9/11 sanctified an intensification of some of the most inept security practices ever inflicted on the citizens of a free country), and hilarious, for anyone at all.

A frame story shows how to change planes: a tipping point is required, as Sita Dulip of Cincinnati, originator of the technique, discovered. Stuck in a provincial airport with stinking food and plastic seat fastened to a filthy floor and dosed by intermittent gabbles of surreally malicious disinformation from the airline, something began to mount. "She had long ago read the editorials in the local newspaper, which advocated using the education budget for building more prisons and applauded the recent tax break for citizens whose income surpassed that of Rumania," and it came to her. With a "mere kind of twist and a slipping bend," rather like the effort of imagination required to understand that a story has begun, "she could go anywhere—be anywhere—because she was already between planes."

It's not a great joke, perhaps, but it is a neat distillation of the nature of freedom for a writer out of a Late Culture like the West: freedom from the prison of an airport in 2003, the prison of genre after the harvest is in, the prison of expectation: for the exemplary planets visited by Sita Dulip and others when they change planes are neither real nor not real according to any genre fixative I might wish to apply. They are not, in other words, sf, or fantasy, or dreamwork, or utopia, or dystopia, though figurations of all these modes bundle and weave, intermittently, here and there, throughout. In the end, the stories in Changing Planes give you what you wish to take; but they do not take back, from our cookycutting minds, what we might wish to impose in turn. We would wish to impose metaphorical import; or use value; or "balance". But they slide away from our avidity.

Here are some of the worlds (or should one say worldings: worldings out of Word?). On Islac ("Porridge on Islac") too much tampering with genomes has generated a vast range of beings, some of whom (the "bookbears," for instance, being bears who eat children's books) are travesties of what happens when genetic engineering becomes literalist, but some of whom flower unexpectedly, like the woman who is four per cent maize, who is golden, a cornucopia. The people of the planet Asenu become almost entirely silent on reaching adulthood; humans from other planes have generated talmudic exegeses of the rare words spoken by these sages, or mutes. The people of Hennebet, on the other hand, generate language so copiously that all seems metaphor, until they are spoken to, when all seems utterly literal, until . . . . The inhabitants of Frin share their dreams. The history of Mahigul, though told in story after story, has a bleak blankness that seems to shrivel telling. There are 15 stories in Changing Planes. Each offers us a different plane—a different outcome—a different smiling muteness to our demands upon the author that she not only tell us what she tells us, but also tell us what she means.

The saddest of all the stories is perhaps that of the Island of the Immortals on the plane (or planet) of Yendi. Immortals there cannot die, no matter how terribly they are worn down by living. Eventually, their keepers bury them in the sand, where they gradually, over millennia, hungry and terribly athirst, turn into great sullen diamonds, still alive. Perhaps, the narrator thinks, the only way for a human to turn into something eternal is through

      

genuinely endless suffering. Perhaps "diamond" is only a name the Yendians give these lumps of ruin, a kind of euphemism.

This perhaps the Yendians do. It is not what Ursula K Le Guin does here. There may be lessons in this book, but they not are forced upon us. There may be images of the intolerable fate of being some kind of human being, but no soothing abstracting lessons are drawn to wise us up. There is not a euphemism in the book.

The stories in Michael Swanwick's extremely short Cigar-Box Faust are linked by size, nothing in the book being more than a page or two long. They are miniature diamonds of story, some perhaps mediated out of pain, some maybe not, we do not much care. The joy of the book is being pelted with recognitions. Sometimes we miss a point or two, but we're not meant to miss many. Some of the tiny tales end in slingshots, like "B is for Books"—second in a group of vignettes called "An Abecedary of the Imagination"—where, over the space of a hundred plus words, we read of a great laborious expedition to bring up from the the ocean depths a library of books. Months of restoration work pass. Finally, the first cover becomes legible,

      

and impossibly fragile gilt lettering could be read, as clearly as the day it was tooled into the kid leather:
PROSPERO

And we remember he buried his books in the sea. (We remember Alexandria burning. We remember the first book we ever knew we were reading.) It is like one of those great jokes that improve when you imagine living there. (When I think of Prospero, from now on, I'll think of raising his Books; I will think that everything might have been different if he hadn't buried them.) Quite a bit of the stuff in Cigar-Box is a lot less good than that, a few are pretty trivial; very little comes as close as "B for Book" to shifting gears in the mind. But every once in a while, with a shock, you realize you've just read something that feels as though a diamond on the Island of Immortals had sweetened for a nanosecond, and let a fragrance of story out, like "The Mask," a saga of Venice and sex and sagacity and high technology, wise and wry and arousing and evocative of a future darker and more complex than most novels manage to impart, all in a page and a half.

It is the kind of story that can only be told after the harvest has done its baring, though before the snow. "The Mask" is exactly what one means when one speaks here of Thanksgiving.




Editor's note: The remarkable Loren Webster wrote a meditation on Yeats's Lapis Lazuli that resonates with this review. You'll find it at In a Dark Time.
      —Eileen

 


John Clute is the pre-eminent critic of science-fiction and fantasy, co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and the The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and writer of more flinty, terrain-gobbling reviews than the normal mind can encompass.

His newest collection of reviews and essays, Scores: Reviews 1993 - 2003, which includes some written for The Infinite Matrix, is now available. It can be ordered from Amazon, and from Old Earth Books.

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