What You Can’t Come Back From – Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Changing Planes” Part 1

There are doors that let you in/And out/But never open/But they are trapdoors/That you can’t come back from

“Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” by Radiohead

Characters in mid 20th century America dreamed of escape. Plenty of fiction describes the escape in romantic terms, though the significance of the escaping is often moot.

Revolutionary Road (2008) - Rotten Tomatoes
(2008) Dreamworks Pictures

Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio attempt escape in the adaptation of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. It ends badly. Another is Rabbit, Run by John Updike, the first of his four books in the series, each written ten years later. Harry Angstrom, fed up with his little life next to an infantilized wife Janice, taking to cartoons, drives away and takes up with a mistress. He returns by the end of the novel, barely the wiser.

Mad Men: 5 Times Don Draper Was A Good Guy (& 5 When He Really Wasn't)
Don and Sally with “Polly”

And I would never forgive myself if I did not mention Don Draper as the central figure in Mad Men, who escapes multiple times on benders. Two major ones, and plenty of minor ones. One involves his daughter Sally’s birthday. He leaves to pick up the cake and does not come back until late that night with a golden retriever instead. Draper’s escapes only tangentially pay off, and even the last one, the ending of the show, is not unequivocal.

In each of these experiences there is the lie, the belief that this life we live does not contain what we were sold on from before. Each one, then, is rejecting the American Dream. Now when we think of the term “American Dream” it reads as cynical and off-putting. Like a person who still believes in the reality offered by fairy tales to interpret the world. Or citing Old Testament logic onto a time where the Enlightenment seems here to stay. “Grow up” we would like to say. If the year 2020 was not a phrase that fired salvos at the concept of the “American Dream”, I’m just not sure what’s left for the convincing.

Abandonment. Dejection. This is how Ursula K. Le Guin begins her strange collection Changing Planes. In it, the narrator of the story begins by suggesting that airplanes and airports, far from offering the sort of magical escape we have read together in Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, is painstakingly aware of how mundane airports are. They are cramped, lacking sound air quality, with booksellers that sell only the bestsellers, and magazines speaking nothing. The quality of food once someone is on an airplane is the stuff of infamy. Hardly the fantasy we would like, the person who eventually sits next to us is not the put-together and cosmopolitan socialite we would like to trade ideas with, rather they are someone, as Don Draper eloquently put it, “Wearing a hairpiece and eating a banana”.

In other words, no place offers the purgatory feeling quite like an airport. Rather than feel this in one’s body all the time, the airport is suggesting that this is life as it is lived at the lowest level. A place where, in opposition to the changing natural world on the outside, the order in the airport is stymied, static, immutable, and therefore a version of hell that we did not realize we despised. Most people, I think, like the idea of consistency until it is realized in lined plastic chairs bolted to the ground. Until it is copy-pasted from one architectural design to another, until all airports ferry us to new places using the same old schtick.

Part of the trauma is rarely knowing when our flight will take off. The purgatory metaphor carries us because we know that any flight can be delayed, due to any sort of malfunction in space and time. So we find ourselves at the mercy of this immutability, pissing and shitting and listening to podcasts. It is in this tumult that Sita Dulip discovers the method that propels Le Guin’s book. Sitting there after a full cancellation of a flight, Dulip discovers that traveling to other “planes” is as simple as this: eat two dill pickes, tighten your belt, close your eyes, and breathe deeply in and out ten times. Seems simple enough, as it feels whimsical enough to be in Alice in Wonderland, yet the meditator in me knows enough to see that this sounds an awful lot like meditation. The pun in “planes” helps us to go into other dimensions, and other words will too along the way. For Le Guin in this first chapter, I already get a sense that she is less interested in metaphor, that jump from one idea to another, a leap, as it were, but rather a slide. Metonymy. The slippage of language is what helps Sita Dulip here, just as much as it is a slippage using meditation to arrive somewhere else.

In our lives, we cross thresholds where we ask ourselves if we have done something that is irreversible, that cannot be undone. When I was graduating with an English Master’s degree, I thought about the trade-off of getting this degree instead of others, wondering what limitation this would place on job prospects, or what could open up instead. The truth I found was that life, as I saw it, progressed as naturally as ever. Still other moments endure. When I was 23, my life with my college girlfriend had imploded, and I was leaving Memphis, Tennessee with a blue tarp taut over my belongings in the back of my truck because it was raining. A pathetic fallacy, because I considered that year and a half to be a failure. I would have a follow-up trip to Memphis to see my friends over spring break, and afterward I would find myself in an airport with the worst hangover in my life, refusing to take off my sunglasses in the airport because the light stung my eyes. That week was the least put together I had ever been, and part of me thought that, returning home to my parents in Houston, and applying for teaching jobs, I had broken something. And to repair it would still leave the marks behind of where I attempted the fix. A Japanese version of this idea is called “kintsugi”, which involves repairing pottery with lacquer mixed in with powdered gold. A finished product, one still sees the gold lines like scars across the smooth surface. This was the closest I felt to flourishing, that I had scars that would not heal. The concept of something like a phoenix, of arising from the ashes to be stronger and better than what I had been before, was a theory I was unwilling to entertain.

Once Sita Dulip learned the art of trans-dimensional travel, he taught his method to others, leading to our narrator to try it for him or herself. The results take us first to Islac and a discussion with a woman named A Li A Le as they eat a porridge-like substance. It becomes abundantly clear as the narrator encounters others in their travels that other trans-dimensionals seek a tourism devoid of responsibility. They speak of earthquakes in California with a kind of amusement park glee, as they shake and rattle and then settle in afterward with their two dill pickles, off to another destination.

A Li A Le is here to say that some things stick with you, regardless of your method of travel. She is part maize, part corn. Islac, her home, had an explorer return home from changing planes with profound research into genetic engineering. Without the scientific background or understanding, the people of Islac began tampering with DNA on all fronts. Crops that doubled their yields, superintelligence, dogs that could talk!

It backfired. Unwieldy genetic changes caused die-off in crops, leading to famines. Clever humans used their powers over others to create superhuman hierarchies, proving true Yuval Noah Harrari’s deepest fears in Homo Deus, and perhaps creating the hellscape similar to what occurs in the 2007 videogame Bioshock, “splicing” their DNA until the concepts of identity miss their mark. And it turns out that all dogs care about is shitting and pissing and fucking, (and whether or not they’re loved). Now A Li A Le may travel like our narrator does, but at all times she thinks of her daughter out in some ocean, who was born a fish and must stay a fish, estranged from her progenitor. And A Li A Le cannot stop thinking and eating corn products.

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom, Paperback |  Barnes & NobleĀ®

Nick Bostrom’s thesis in his book Superintelligence explores the concept of irreparable “progress” more fully. Imagine that there is a jar, opaque in its surface, that contains a series of marbles. These marbles are colored in white, gray, and black, and that each time we reach into the opening of the jar without looking, we are pulling out one of these marbles. For most of human history, we have pulled out white marbles. These are the technological advances that have been unquestionably good for human history. Metalurgy, double-entry bookkeeping, in effect most of what you use in a game of Sid Meier’s Civilization series. But then there are the other marbles. Gray marbles are tools that could provide either. We are unsure as of yet whether social media has promised beneficial change, or has led to political polarization. We do not know whether the industrial revolution has caused unprecedented prosperity or doomed our species to climate change. That story has yet to conclude. And then there are the black marbles.

Nuclear winter, destruction of the world by radioactive thermonuclear warheads, is one such marble. Once the first one exploded, the story of humanity finally had a means to erase itself, and from there we have other marbles that may be black and we do not know what it means. Could AI be sentient enough to take over our species? What of genetic engineering, as A Li A Le found out the hard way with the people of Islac? Part of the terror arises because the promise of what the new development COULD do was too enticing to ignore. The internet as a phenomenon was not going to fall backstage into obscurity. We could not unlearn its promise. So it goes.

Though we can now like Sita Dulip change dimensions as we make our way through the novel, time only moves forward. The only way to progress through the book is to read word after word, phrase after phrase. As such, even in relative freedom, we are bound up in multiple prisons, including our own desires toward progress.

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