In the first story of Vandana Singh’s latest collection Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, “With Fate Conspire”, a dead man shows a living woman a vision of “a delta...made by a river of time” and tells her how “the weight of events and possibilities determines how the rivulets of time flow.” At the end of the vision, the dead man declares “I must save the world” before he breaks down crying. The story ambiguously hints at how he’s attempting to fulfil his promise by creating a time loop and changing the future. But this epic quest is almost arbitrary compared to Singh’s focus on Gargi, the poor, illiterate woman he is talking to.
No single story
Even when Singh’s stories are about saving worlds, they’re not. They’re about how we tell stories about saving the world. The book itself is like a delta, rivulets of possibilities exploring different presents, futures, and worlds that don’t exist, and saving each one by the mere act of telling, of preservation. Sometimes saving something involves listening, recording different viewpoints that branch away from what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “the single story”.
Gargi’s loss of agency at the hands of a privileged group (scientists who hold her captive in a waterlogged suburb of Kolkata because she’s among the few who have the brain structure required to observe the past through a machine partly composed of the dead man who talks to her) leads to her changing her own personal future. She ends up saving the world – her own, by choosing her own liberation over the ill-defined exploits of a group of scientists who would have been the protagonists in a great many science-fiction stories.
By the end of the story, it’s unclear whether Gargi has aided or botched the scientists’ attempts to ward off the drowned future they fear. What is clear is that their attempts to “act as Kalki”, to play god and change the future, are a continuation of the same godlike manipulations of the world that led humans to drown it in climate cataclysm, stripping away the rural homes and livelihoods of people like Gargi. It’s her story that matters most to Singh because it’s the one that is submerged in the louder mono-narrative of global capitalist progress, the endpoint of which involves saving itself from its own disasters.
An understanding science
It’s not that Singh is a Luddite, or anti-science – she’s a scientist herself. Originally from New Delhi, she teaches physics at the university level in Boston, where she currently lives. Science, in her stories, is a tool of understanding and communion, not submission or extraction. It doesn’t negate the mysteries of the cosmos so much as illuminate them; the pursuit of knowledge opens numerous new pathways to the infinite unknowable-ness of the universe that cradles our little habitat of Earth.
The journey towards that infinite is where the paths of Singh’s stories reside. She knows that journey will never end unless humans dig up those pathways and pave them over with hubris and greed, demanding an unchanging edifice to dam the ever-transient flow of information, space and time into static mono-narratives that aid the pursuits of a privileged few. Despite their gentle humanism, there’s no denying the urgently political subtext that emerges from the gestalt of these narratives. Spanning years of her career, Singh’s stories here are unified by the subtext that humans should stop trying to dominate reality into shapes it cannot conform to, or die trying. That, she hints, is a task we built stories for.
Tinkering with tradition
But even at their most serious, the fourteen stories in the book have a sense of play about them, of tinkering with spacetime to see what happens. This may involve altering the flow of history just a little to evoke a non-existent era of Indian history where the Mughal Empire was followed by a splendid, syncretic empire of steampunk wonders, as in “A Handful of Rice”. It may mean glimpsing the dreamlike aftermath of a war between humans and aliens from the point of view of an interstellar castaway who may be a survivor, a prisoner, or a “bridge in the darkness” between species, as in “Lifepod”. It may involve seeing what happens when an eleventh-century poet is resurrected as a construct to help a traveler among the stars chart the folklores and myths of distant worlds, as in “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra”. Even the least original of the batch, including the Metropolis-meets-Soylent Green dystopian riff “Are You Sannata3I59?” or Ramayana-inspired galaxy-spanning revenge quest narrative “Oblivion: A Journey”, are infused with a distinctly South Asian sense of folkloric temporality that makes them resonate as mythic rather than cliché.
Singh takes many familiar science-fictional tropes long explored in the Western tradition of genre, and subverts their colonialist underpinnings. Alien worlds may be settled by humans, but these worlds aren’t imagined as colonies. They are instead new homes where humanity has found kinship and balance among alien ecosystems, creating new cultures. In “Sailing the Antarsa”, one such extrasolar human, Mayha, tests a new form of space travel – literally “sailing” an invisible current that runs through the universe and all matter except “altmatter”, which her sails are made of. She is sent to investigate a generation ship that disappeared on the way to another extrasolar world.
Instead of ending in violence (though there is great danger), her journey leads to a breathless sense of wonder, and a sign, once again, that humans may yet survive impossible odds if they allow themselves to adapt and change with the “currents” of space and time rather than bend them to their will. Even when Singh’s protagonists aren’t scientists (and they often are), they move through her universes like scientists, with a healthy respect for the imbalance between humanity’s insignificance on a cosmic scale and our ability to perceive the universe and transform ourselves using its resources.
Fiction in the time of climate change
Singh thus uses stories to imagine what seems impossible in this era of accelerating greed and climate change (Amitav Ghosh might want to pick up this book): that humans can change to better fit into their worlds, rather than the other way around. To better imagine this, she looks to the real-world cultures of marginalised and indigenous people who struggle to maintain sustainable ways of life amid the world-devouring, nigh-science-fictional juggernaut of post-colonial, global capitalist civilisation. The final story, “Requiem” (one original to the book), for example, sees a young Indian woman, Varsha, bear witness to a potential union of modern technology with the sustainable cultures of Inupiaq people in a post-climate-change, near-future Alaska. Following up on her aunt’s disappearance and presumed death while researching the migration patterns of whales, Varsha encounters the possibility that a resurgent population of arctic whales is actively resisting the robotic mining attempts of a global energy corporation.
It’s to her credit that Singh’s portrayal of the Inupiaq doesn’t fall into the exoticized spirituality of the “magical native”, but rather an observation of a pragmatic people who know how to survive under great duress because of a cultural awareness of humanity’s limits when it comes to shaping the world to give more than we need. As seen in Varsha’s painful longing for her lost aunt, the elaborate thematic machinery of these stories never crushes their human occupants, who are always driven by their loves, losses, and remembrances. Singh goes from the intimate to the cosmic in ways that are often breathtaking, transcending the risk of didacticism.
In the title story, “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination”, Singh dubs the reader an “intrepid explorer” venturing into “Conceptual Machine-Space”, which is “the abstract space where all possible machines reside”. The reader is told that this space also contains “negative space where impossible machines reside, the ones that cannot exist because they violate the known laws of reality”. What the reader is actually entering, both here and elsewhere in the book, is the conceptual space of story, an impossible machine if there ever was one. We can see into others’ minds, into other worlds that exist only in the head of another human. That too is an advanced technology, one Singh is fascinated by. We imagine robots and spaceships before we make them, after all, as we do the machines that help us conduct war and extract the very resources poisoning our only current home in the universe.
Storytelling is the human engine that can ignore all the known laws of reality – which is how you get speculative fiction, myth, folklore, religion. Ambiguity Machines posits that these forms of story are powerful machines that affect our reality – for better, if we but try harder. But Singh also demonstrates that being the reality-bending “literature of ideas” doesn’t mean science-fiction and fantasy can’t be as beautifully written and emotionally true as literary fiction (also showing that attaching a literary hierarchy to such generic marketing distinctions is a silly game). Consider the unabashed poetry of this sentence: “he could no longer distinguish her countenance from standing water, or her intelligence from a meteor shower, or her swirling hair from the vortex of a tornado.” There is immense beauty and aching longing to be found in these stories.
Singh’s gorgeous prose and high-concept ideas clasp hands like perfectly compatible lovers, putting her on par with some of our finest living writers of SFF and “literary” cross-genre short fiction, such as Ted Chiang and Carmen Maria Machado. One can only hope that this book, her first to be published in North America (by Small Beer Press), will garner Singh a long overdue nomination from science-fiction and fantasy’s most prestigious awards, the Hugos and the Nebulas, if only because she deserves more readers both in India and abroad. If not, we can still be glad that South Asia has its very own Vandana Singh – not an Indian version of a venerated Western writer, but an icon in her own right.
Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, Vandana Singh, Zubaan.