MAY 19, 2018
IN VANDANA SINGH’S short story “Ruminations in an Alien Tongue,” a character thinks: “I am myself and yet not so. I contain multitudes and am a part of something larger; I am a cell the size of a planet, swimming in the void of night.” Such movement from small to large scale is a hallmark of Singh’s tales, where history, myth, science, and storytelling all infuse each other while the personal and cosmic sit side by side.
There is a stately elegance to all the stories collected in Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, Singh’s second collection after The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories. Both books are rich with models of what science fiction can achieve as well as models of the short story as a form. Even when she is writing about far-future, faster-than-light-traveling aliens, Singh never resorts to the clichés familiar from space opera unless to undo them, never forces fast pacing with staccato sentences and short paragraphs, never plays gotcha! with the reader. Singh is a scientist — a professor of physics — and all of her stories show a scientist’s determination to develop ideas carefully and responsibly.
Yet Singh is also an artist, a writer who evokes sensual wonders in musical prose. Hers is a literature of ideas, but it is also a literature of myth and intertextuality in which stories are material things, living things, organisms that transmit knowledge, feelings, history, and magic. Stories are themselves ambiguity machines of a sort, and one of the strengths of Singh’s stories is that they do not balk at ambiguity, but embrace it. Few science fiction writers have as Chekhovian a sense of both story and world: a sense that the best stories suggest at least as much as they state, and that the world exists through interconnections of people and places, humans and other creatures, natural landscapes and technological innovations. The ending of Chekhov’s “Gusev,” in which a corpse tossed overboard is considered by pilot-fish and a shark while the ocean contemplates the sky — such an ending has what we might call a Singhian movement to it as the narrative point of view insists that the wonders of the universe are not exclusive to humans alone, and that we, the readers, must expand our perspective and sympathy beyond our selves.
Multifaceted points of view roam and float throughout Singh’s stories, one perspective leading to another, each gesturing toward webs of life and knowledge, giving a mosaic effect to much of Ambiguity Machines. The first story in the book, “With Fate Conspire,” works powerfully not only on its own, but also as something like a mission statement for all that will come after. The story features a machine that allows a kind of psychic time travel, scientists with good intentions who take questionable actions, a future India suffering the effects of global warming, and a narrator who describes herself as an “illiterate woman, bred in the back streets and alleyways of Old Kolkata, of no more importance than a cockroach.” The psychic time machine doesn’t work for just anybody; the narrator is one of the few, which is why she has been plucked from terrible circumstances into the comfort and privilege of the scientists’ world. The scientists seem to think that a solution to the world’s problems lies in the poetry of a long-ago man, but the subaltern woman is uninterested in simply gazing on the poet and repeating the occasional lines of poetry she hears — she is more interested in watching a housewife, and doesn’t hesitate to make up poetic lines of her own to placate the scientists. They see her as a tool to be used, but she has her own ideas and desires.
As a science fiction writer and a scientist, Singh is no technophobe, but the technologies that prove most fruitful in her stories are ones that align with old and often humble values rather than the miracle machines that as often as not don’t work the way they are predicted to. The distinction is especially clear in the final story, “Requiem,” where massive machines in northern Alaska blast soundwaves to the ocean floor in search of oil and methane deposits. The noise the machines create deafens the many whales that have gone north in warming waters. Another technology, though — a submersible boat capable of traveling with whales along their migration paths — may open new possibilities not only for knowledge, but for communication between species. The first technology was the product of greed, arrogance, desperation, and aggression; the second was inspired by the epistemology of the Iñupiaq, who have lived with the land, sea, and ice the longest, who know its history and creatures, and who have a powerful sense of the fragility and interconnectedness of it all.
“Requiem” is one of the most vivid, immediate presentations of an idea woven throughout these stories, an idea Singh stated outright in an essay for Strange Horizons about Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement:
Not only has indigenous resistance stopped or stalled fossil fuel projects, but the experience of peoples from the Dongria Kondh in India to the Standing Rock Sioux in the US reveals the brutal face of industrial civilization. Our modern urban lifestyles, now spread the world over, depend on the continued oppression of multiple and multi-species Others. This inconvenient truth gives the lie to the ideas of freedom, equality, and justice that are claimed by civilized people. The other inconvenient truth is that civilization as we know it is doomed — if we are to engage with climate change in a way that allows us to survive, we need wide, sweeping infrastructure changes that emerge from alternative ways of thinking and being. Indigenous cultures offer us some of these alternative visions.
Singh’s stories take various approaches to showing us alternative ways of thinking and being, they delineate alternative visions, and, perhaps most importantly, the structures of the stories themselves often goad readers toward a wider epistemology than they might otherwise apply. In the near-future India of “Indra’s Web,” for example, scientists search for alternative energy sources by learning from the Earth itself: “There is a fungal network, a myconet, a secret connection between the planets of the forest. They talk to each other, the acacia and the shisham and the gulmohar tree, in a chemical tongue.” Mahua, the protagonist, has brought a group of young scientists together to try to get them to observe and learn from the natural systems that may offer solutions to at least a few of the problems humans have created in the world. This idea is not what makes the story extraordinary, however. Singh is never content simply to illustrate a nifty concept; instead, she draws connections between the natural and personal, the individual and the community, so that the alternative vision a story like “Indra’s Web” offers is one of planetarity, where the smallest scale is connected to, and reflected in, one much larger. Mahua was raised by her grandmother, and her grandmother is dying. Mahua teaches a younger generation to think and dream more carefully, but, as always, an older generation is going away:
She thinks of the forest on the ridge. The forest lives on because it accepts death – with every twig that falls, with every ant that meets its annihilation, a thousand life forms come into being. Danger walks there and so its denizens learn adaptation; here, too, we must rebuild ourselves, define ourselves anew with each loss, each encounter. She remembers a story her grandmother once told her about Indra’s Web, the ultimate cosmic network in which every node mirrors the whole.
Her grandmother’s story connects Mahua’s ideas to the ancient world’s beliefs and to her grandmother herself, showing that the ideas of connection that Mahua hopes to bring to bear against the contemporary world’s disasters align with longstanding cultural knowledge and the convictions of her own beloved relative, the woman who taught her much about life and the universe. Additionally, the story of Indra’s Web is one her grandmother told her; storytelling is a great force within Singh’s fiction, a force she explores evocatively.
In “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra,” the narrator is a technologically recreated Somadeva, collector of the stories that became the Kathasaritsagara around the year 1070. In Singh’s story, Somadeva now analyzes his original tales (why he collected them, why he shaped them as he did) while also collecting stories from alien cultures such as the Kiha, a nomadic desert tribe on the planet Jesanli. “To the Kiha,” Somadeva tells us, “what is real and what is not real is not a point of importance. To them there are just stories and stories, and the universe has a place for all of them.” Melding form to concept, Singh presents us with stories within stories while also showing the characters interpreting the stories and disagreeing about the interpretations. Stories from Singh’s imagined interstellar future mingle with stories and characters from Earth’s ancient past. Stories become tools for linking realities and histories. The artificial Somadeva thinks longingly of the queen his stories could not save in life, but saved otherwise: “Her mind ranges far across the universe, carried by my tales.” Stories allow a peculiar immortality; their structures and situations extend thought beyond a single person or a single culture, perhaps even beyond a single world.
Singh links the long, mythic history of epic narrative to science fiction. Perhaps surprisingly for a physicist, she doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining how intergalactic travel works, nor does she write much about, for instance, where the raw material and fuel for giant spaceships comes from. Such questions are no more important to her stories than are questions in an epic of what its hero eats every day or where that hero goes to the bathroom. The most detailed scientific discussion is in stories set in the present or near future, not the stories built from space opera conventions. The far-future stories are more on the metaphysical level of legends and folktales than blueprints. It makes sense that a story like “Oblivion: A Journey” is full of references to the Ramayana, because such stories suggest that science fiction and fantasy may function for us as the ancient epics did in previous eras. Singh’s genius is to put them side by side in the same story to see what happens.
It’s not always a perfect match. “Oblivion: A Journey,” for instance, struggles with a rather vague and not particularly interesting main character, and the story is so full of events that it sometimes feels like an outline for a novel more than a fully realized work unto itself. Nonetheless, the mash-up of the Ramayana and space opera is provocative, and even in Singh’s less successful stories, the sentences are a pleasure to read.
While there are tremendous individual stories in the book — I haven’t even mentioned “A Handful of Rice,” a perfectly balanced and deeply satisfying story of friendship and revolution — it is worth considering Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories as a whole, because it is truly a collection, not a grab-bag. Stories that on their own work well but are not especially significant gain richness and import when considered alongside each other. “Sailing the Antarsa,” for instance, tells an entertaining but not especially original story of a long, lonely, one-way voyage on a spaceship; reading the book in order, the reader will soon come to “Wake-Rider,” a more condensed, efficient story that involves a long spaceship voyage at the unsuccessful end of its journey. These stories do not seem to be set in the same future, but there are enough similarities that thinking back to the earlier story from the later, we gain a greater intimation of hope than is possible solely with “Wake-Rider,” while thinking of the later story from the earlier allows a frisson of peril and tragedy that may not be fully available in “Sailing the Antarsa” alone. Here we see one of the great values of a story collection. “Wake-Rider” is an effective tale on its own, but one that would fit comfortably within the pages of a 1960s Galaxy magazine. It’s perhaps the most classically science fictional story in the book, a story that does what it does well, but which isn’t seeking to do a whole lot beyond its basic concept. “Sailing the Antarsa” is also effective, but not as multilayered and efficient as other stories in the collection. Together, though, they resonate, provoking thoughts and feelings beyond the abilities of either story alone.
Resonances are possible between all the stories in the book in one way or another, and the power such resonances offer us — the power of tales to weave through each other, to achieve synergy — is a power many of the stories themselves suggest is key to our survival. Humans’ ability to put history, knowledge, imagination, and passion together in narrative may point toward ways of living, thinking, and feeling that save the world rather than destroy it. If there is hope, Singh suggests, our hope lies at least as much in the stories we tell as in the machines we build.