the Little Red Reviewer

Two amazing short stories by Vandana Singh

Posted on: September 6, 2020

Someone on twitter (thank you, whoever you were!)  recommended Vandana Singh’s short story “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination”, and offered a link to the story on Tor.com.  I gave it a whirl, and was immediately hooked. In reminded me of Ken Liu’s short story “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species”, and I recognized my favorite method of story telling, which at first glance can seem to be stories that dance around a plot and characters while resolutely refusing to be trapped by said plot. And yet, so much is communicated about what is happening and sometimes why those thing happen, and what those things mean to the people they are happening to.

 

I guess it’s more like a fantastical story telling version of future archaeology?

 

Let me unpack that a little.

 

In Liu’s short story, there is no plot, there is no characters, there is no conflict. If you’re zipping through the story, you won’t recognize the beginning, middle, or end, but if you read a little closer, it’s all there. It’s just a story that gives a few paragraphs about a bunch of space-faring alien civilizations, and how they make books – how they ensure others can access their stories and their thoughts.  Within the story, there are no human interactions with the aliens, no earthly judgements of  their societies. It is as if to put a human character in would a barrier between the reader and the records of these cultures.    Singh’s “Ambiguity Machine’s” felt like that too – no barrier between the records of events and the reader, no “main character” to pass judgement or offer opinions,  just records of what had happened, along with a request that someone interpret the records.

 

For my brain, these two stories, read 8 years apart from each other, were like hearing two pieces of music that were different, but seemed to be talking to each other, even though they had never met. (yes, I know I’m weird) (and i don’t know, maybe Signh and Lui are good friends? I have no idea)

 

Suffice to say, after reading Signh’s story,  I immediately ordered a paperback copy of her collection, Ambiguity Machines and Other Select Stories. And when the book arrived, the first words out of my mouth were “oh, shit”.

 

 

You see, I like to read before bed.  Usually, i’m already half asleep when I crawl into bed, so I’m looking to read something that if I find myself reading the same paragraph 5 times, or fall asleep halfway through, it won’t matter too much.   A short-ish story, something 5-10 pages, out of an anthology or collection is perfect for this.

 

None of the stories in the Singh collection were short, and none of them looked like “easy reads”. As I got further into the collection I realized these were not stories to drift away to, while falling asleep at night, these were stories to read in the morning, with strong coffee, and to spend the day absorbing and thinking about them, so as to then dream about them at night.

 

Everything I have read so far in this collection has been heart achingly beautiful,  each story requiring me some time afterwards to come back to myself. These stories are vistas.

 

(I feel really bad for whatever I read next. No matter how good it is, I fear it will be mediocre in comparison to this collection)

 

I’m going to tell you about “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination”, and about “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra”,  even though I have more favorites.  Those others will have to wait for another blog post, I supposed.   “Ambiguity Machines” had me globetrotting via googlemaps, and “Somadeva” had me falling down the world’s best internet rabbit hole.

 

Ambiguity Machines was original published at tor.com in 2015, here’s the link:

https://www.tor.com/2015/04/29/ambiguity-machines-an-examination-vandana-singh/

Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra was originally published in 2010 at Strange Horizons, here’s the link:

http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/somadeva-a-sky-river-sutra/

 

warning, if I interpreted something correctly, there are major spoilers ahead for “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination”, and I guess maybe spoilers also for Somadeva? so hey, click on those links and enjoy some gorgeous fiction before reading the rest of this blog post.  😉

 

In “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination”, we learn of machines that blur boundaries and confound the laws of physics. These are machines that can not be explained by mathematics or backwards engineered.   Thus the perfect exam for an advanced engineer seeking to understand a new region of spacetime would be one in which the student, or the “candidate” as the story calls the person, is asked to decipher and explain a machine that can not be explained.

 

The candidate is presented with three related stories of an impossible machine, linked only by characters who yearn to be reunited with a person they love, or maybe they are just trying to find their way home.  In each segment, the characters use or seek out the ambiguity machine, in hopes the machine will help them find what they are looking for.  The machines exist in remote places on earth, they’ve become an urban myth, no researcher or archaeologist would actually go looking for that thing, everyone knows it doesn’t exist! But people tell urban myths of impossible machines, and they tell stories for a reason. And if you follow the stories backwards, maybe you’ll find the impossible machine.

 

Something I loved about this story (but which may annoy some readers), is that the character don’t have any names – they are the archaeologist, or the engineer, or the student, or the old woman, or the mathematician.  On one level, these are intimate stories of loss and heartbreak and of trying to find where you belong, so it’s odd that the characters have no names, when they have such lush personalities and vibrant passions.  But on another level, these are just examples given in an exam, so the people don’t really exist, they are simply part of a metaphor for a logic problem.   I know it’s a writing craft “no-no” to not name your characters, but personally, I love it when authors do this.  Or many Singh just does it exactly right.

 

Possible spoiler: The very end, where the narrator is giving testing instructions to the student, or rather, the “candidate”.  The Candidate is referred to as “it”.  Is the candidate an AI? A machine, that if it can untangle these ambiguities, it will have then taken that necessary state towards personhood? (ambiguitiy is quite the essence of life, isn’t it?).   This thought came to my mind, because I’ve been reading a lot of short fiction and essays lately about personhood, and about how and AI might prove it was a person, and how humans would define personhood to include (or not include) AIs. I guess the boundaries got blurred.

 

In a drastically different storytelling style, “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra” takes us into the near future (maybe), and also a thousand years into the past.

 

At the beginning of the story, a very confused Somadeva wakes up on a spaceship. A young interstellar traveller, Isha, discovered his life’s work, the 18 volume Kathasaritsagara:The Ocean of Streams of Story, and fell so in love with the epic and it’s author, that she re-created him as a digital version of himself, in hopes that he would teach her how to collect and weave together the stories of the alien civilizations she meets on her travels.

 

He reminiscences about how and why he wrote the Kathasaritsagara, he tells Isha he told these stories to the Queen, as a way to keep her alive.  Every day that they had together, he would tell her the next part of the story, in a way to bring some joy into Queen Suryavati’s life. More than having a little extra joy in her life, what the Queen wants from Somaveda is for him to tell her what the future will bring.

 

While Somadeva’s thoughts jump back and forth between his time with Isha and his memories of the Queen,  Isha does meet some aliens and starts to collect their stories.  She keeps trying to tell the aliens her interpretation of their stories, while at the same time asking Somadeva why he never wrote himself into his epic, as was common at the time. My favorite story that Isha came across, is the one that she couldn’t come up with an interpretation for.  This story that trips her up, among other things it talks about the blurred boundaries between groups of people (reminding me of the 3rd segment of the Ambiguity Machines, but that’s a different story).

 

Meanwhile, Somadeva is beginning to wonder – is he sitting on the verandah with Suryavati and telling her wild tales and maybe seeing her future? Or is he in the future, with Isha, reminiscing about Suryavati and learning new stories? Which reality is true?  Both Suryavati and Isha are convinced that their reality with Somadeva is the real one.  His reality is blurring.

 

And me?  I hopped on the internet to find the Kathasaritsagara. Written in the 11th century, it’s now in the public domain. This website could keep you busy for the rest of your life, with the translated text and pages and pages of notes.

https://www.wisdomlib.org/hinduism/book/kathasaritsagara-the-ocean-of-story

 

I myself was struck by the poetic beauty of the invocation.  These sentences alone, are an hours long ballet.

https://www.wisdomlib.org/hinduism/book/kathasaritsagara-the-ocean-of-story/d/doc64289.html

 

I’ve read other short stories in this collection that I’d like to blog about. But I need to sit with the stories and sit with myself for a bit, first.

 

Stay tuned.

7 Responses to "Two amazing short stories by Vandana Singh"

To continue this streak: why don’t you read one of Ken Liu’s collections (Hidden Girls and Paper Menagerie) or did you already read those? Or Chan‘s collection „Exhalation“.

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ooohh, excellent idea! I have Liu’s Paper Menagerie and Chiang’s Exhalation. I’m enjoying going through these stories at a slower pace – instead of rushing through the collection and trying to write up a review that talks about “my favorites”, I can go slower, and let all the story feelings process in my brain at their own pace. I’m enjoying getting so much out of 15-20 very focused pages of story.

Liked by 1 person

Short stories are slow food. Reading one story every other day and digesting them is an excellent idea and exactly how I do it. I couldn’t stand writing reviews for five stories or so in one sitting. So, going slow makes also sense from a review POV.

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This has now gone on the list – these stories sound all kinds of awesome.
(And I agree on the characters without names issue). 😀

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I can not wait to blog some more about this collection!! at this rate, at least I’ll blow up your TBR a little slower?

Liked by 1 person

Haha! Well, I hadn’t thought of it that way until you said …
I look forward to your further thoughts! 😀

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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