In January 2019, I put on my best coat to attend the launch of Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories at the Oxford Bookstore, Connaught Place. First published by Small Beer Press in North America, the book was launched by Zubaan books in India. At the event, Singh, a speculative fiction writer and Physics Professor in Boston, was going to be in conversation with Manjula Padmanabhan. There is a tradition at Zubaan Books, Urvashi Butalia informed us, wherein they literally launch the books at the audience. As I sat in a sea of people, the second book launched at the audience landed squarely and undisputedly in my lap.
I had carried my personal copy of the book in hopes of getting it signed by the author even while I thought of topics for a stimulating conversation I could strike up with her. My hopes were however dashed at the entrance when I was asked to deposit my copy with the security guard. And now, as fates conspired and aliens manipulated the fabric of the Universe, there was my opportunity to get the copy signed by the author and also put to use the topics I had been thinking of for over a week! Such has been my relationship with this book; that of a momentary déjà vu, experiencing the magic of a book and a writer sitting in a bookstore.
Singh’s collection is exemplary for its precise and thoughtful curation. While each story stands alone as a piece, together they form a web of magnificent wondrous stories that respond to each other, often foregrounding each other leading the reader in and out of her Möbius strip of complex worldbuilding and storytelling. Most of the short stories have appeared in reputed science fiction journals and anthologies except the concluding short story “Requiem,” published here for the first time.
Singh often deals with classical SF themes and settings of adventure and romance, space operas, intergalactic travels, slaughterhouses, nanoplagues, and fantasies of the archaic mother from whom originates all life but each time she does she brings in a newness to the story interspersed with themes of compassion, loss, and connection. Singh does not elaborate upon the origin story of a new world or new technology, nor why and how it came about. Instead she is interested in how we talk about this new world and what stories we tell about this world.
Singh attempts to lay bare the relationship of disharmony and disconnect with dystopian worlds and that of connectedness, empathy and belonging with utopian ones. These new and disparate ways of being in the world are also a study of loss and love, grief and triumph, vengeance and forgiveness, history/memory and death.
Due to her interest in the ontological and epistemological possibilities of new worlds and technologies, Singh often leads the readers deep into the forest of human or non-human consciousness and the connections they form thereof. Here the narrative is non-linear—even experimental—with crisscrossing labyrinthine plotlines often bending genres like science fiction, fantasy, mythology, and steampunk.
Alien Other, Alien Selves and Alterity
The first story of the collection, “With Fate Conspire,” begins with the narrative voice telling us “I saw him in a dream, the dead man. He was dreaming too, and I couldn’t tell if I was in his dream or he in mine.” (p. 1) This relationship of the self with the other sets the tone of the stories to come. There is a possibility to not only know the self but also the other.
“With Fate Conspire” is set in a near-future drowned Kolkata where scientists have invented a machine that allows a select few individuals the sight into moments from the past. The story’s protagonist Gargi is an “illiterate woman, bred in the back streets and alleyways of Old Kolkata, of no more importance than a cockroach.” (p. 2) She has been entrusted to spy on an exiled ruler and poet Wajid Ali Shah living in Metiabruz, Kolkata, 1856.
Virtually a captive of the scientists, instead of observing the poet, Gargi’s attention is absorbed by a housewife who lived during the same moment in history, Rassundari Devi. She begins to construct stories about Wajid Ali Shah even though she is no longer watching the poet. The story ends with the meeting of time-streams, with the question if the future is capable of changing the past. The most interesting and compelling aspect of this story is how Singh challenges the observer-observed binary that is so fundamental to a scientific field of study.
In “With Fate Conspire,” as the observer-protagonist learns about her past, she becomes both the observer and the observed. The scientists assume that Gargi is a passive part of the machine which has the real agency in the story. With the rupture of the time-stream at the end, Gargi proves to be an agent by extricating herself and the Other from the Machine.
In “Lifepod,” the protagonist, Eavesdropper, is traveling on an alien ship in a life-sac with two other passengers, humans, a man and a woman. Eavesdropper has the ability to experience wakefulness from her cold sleep during the long galactic journey unlike her fellow passengers. This wakefulness has also given her the ability to enter the thought-worlds of the humans which makes her wonder about her relationship with the alien that has granted her this ability.
An encounter with a human from another ship leads Eavesdropper to a realization that the alien was within, and “she a creature not alien, not human, but a bridge, a thing that was new, the first of its kind.” (p. 77) There’s another way of knowing/becoming the Other in “Lifepod.” The alien tells the Eavesdropper, “To eat is to become yourself and another.” (p. 73) Singh thus links consumption of the Other with knowledge of the Self.
In postcolonial studies, cannibalism as an act has been linked to anti-colonial resistance. The relationship of sf with colonialism has been established by scholars like John Rieder as the otherworldliness of the colonies and the alienness of the natives created the conditions of estrangement for the production of science fiction and fantasy.
There is also a growing body of scholarship that contest literary metaphors of food, consumption and cannibalism, with post-colonial processes of identity formation vis-à-vis savagery and primitivism. In classic sf, cannibalism has been associated with the destruction of the self and the other, often energized through the metaphor of the slaughterhouse.
In “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination,” the anthropologist who has gone to study an indigenous society herself joins that society to be studied by her assistants. Singh uses the slaughterhouse trope in “Are you Sannata3159?”—a story that is based in an underground city, where the meat packer becomes the meat. Such an exchange is possible due to a certain understanding and knowledge of the Other.
In “Lifepod,” however, alimentary metaphor is extended beyond the self-stranger binary because the consumption of the other leads to the discovery of one’s own singularity, of one’s own alterity. In classic sf, the protagonist, one who has the capacity of knowing or discovering something/someplace new, lies with the human. In “Lifepod,” the very act of knowing is de-anthropomorphized. Here it is the humans that are passive and are observed by that which is alien not only to the humans but to its own self.
Singh’s stories are in fact populated by characters that non-human, alien, animal, machine, or otherwise. Three stories particularly draw upon intergalactic chase or explorer sequences only to lead to a discovery of the self.
In “Wake-Rider,” for example, Leli, the protagonist is on a long unpredictable journey home after having successfully completed a mission. She is a salvager of abandoned spaceships and her missions involve salvaging parts for the revolution that the rebels are waging against the corpocracy that has enslaved the entire human race with a virus called nanoplague.
During her journey, Leli recalls the words of her teacher, “To suffer thus is good… To get used to killing, to become indifferent to it, is a terrible thing. May we never become like the enemy.” (p. 241) Leli then performs a series of rituals of mourning and repentance for the death of sixty-four strangers. The regular science fiction premise of “Wake-Rider” eventually becomes metaphysical wherein one can become the very evil one is fighting against twinged with Buddhist philosophy. Also when read as a companion story to “Oblivion: A Journey,” the story gains further meaning.
In “Oblivion,” Vikram, born Lilavati, a female, after a near-death sexual assault by a Harvester, Hirasor, changes his sex and body, taking on implants to turn himself into a revenge-seeking cyborg. In this revenge tragedy, the desire to be the arch-nemesis of Hirasor, to obliterate him, erases Vikram’s own selves; it also comes at the cost of those Vikram loves. In a vulnerable moment, Vikram confesses “I want to die” which becomes a corollary to his mantra ‘I want to kill [Hirasor]’. (p. 87) At the end, Vikram becomes like his enemy, and the death of Hirasor ends his selfhood if not his life.
Connection, Community and Complex Systems
In Singh’s stories, characters not only experience alterity to learn something about themselves but also to form connections and community with those who are different from the self. If for Emmanuel Levinas alterity enables a self-identity that exists responsibly alongside the other in an ethical way of being, Singh extends this understanding of alterity leading to ethicality to encompass communion with aliens, strangers, outsiders, and Nature.
In an essay titled “The Unthinkability of Climate Change: Thoughts on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement,” Singh argues that it is the modernist tendency to hold language as central to communication. Singh asserts, however, that there are “other ways of communication that are beyond language, perhaps even an inter-species pidgin”. In her stories, not only do we see community between human and non-human beings, but inanimate objects and organic matter like plants and rocks also form community and connections, forming the building blocks of a complex universe. In this process, she decentralizes man/human/individual from fiction of the anthropocene era.
“Indra’s Web,” a story about dynamic systems of change and networks between the natural and personal, individual and the community, and the micro to the macro, also displays Singh’s deep ecological concern. The story revolves around Mahua who is leading the Ashapur Project that has been helping rehabilitate “climate refugees from the drowned villages of Bangladesh” by transforming a former slum into sustainable community. (p. 144)
Mahua’s mission statement for Ashapur Project has been, “A revolution that might just save our earth from the climate crisis. One that comes up with not just new technologies but new ways to live that are more whole and deep and satisfying…blow old paradigms out of existence a near daily basis.” (p. 147)
Singh has variously argued for a non-Newtonian understanding of the Universe, a complex system that been reduced to a Clockwork Universe through individualism, human isolation, social atomism, mainstream economics among other facets of modernity. In her opinion, ancient cultures, along with various indigenous tribal cultures, view the universe from this complex perspective. Thus, she argues for a paradigm shift in our understanding of the universe; of the complex entanglements of space and time; of the interaction between the animate and inanimate universe, matter and non-matter.
“There is a fungal network, a myconet, a secret connection between the plants of the forest. They talk to each other, the acacia and the shisham and the gulmohar tree, in a chemical tongue. They communicate about pests, food sources, the weather, all through the flow of biomolecules through the fungal hyphae.” (p. 142)
It is Namita’s job to decode this subtle language which would further inform the complex smart-energy grid technology, Suryanet, modeled on the myconet, that is being developed for the Ashapur Project.
For Singh, imaginative literature or speculative fiction can play a significant role in challenging the existing paradigm blindness and the metanarrative of capitalism and imperialism. This is the potential of speculative fiction especially by people of color or those from postcolonial nations.
In “Sailing the Antarsa,” the protagonist Mayha tells us a coming of age story of her kinship with the trees and forest, especially the devtaru. This formation of kinship involved the thirteen-year-old Mayha to sit silently watching and being watched by the forest and by the creatures of the forest. The chaperone aunt had taught them, “A kinship is based on the assumption that each person, human or otherwise, has a right to exist, a right to agency… This means that to live truly in the world we must constantly adjust to other beings, as they adjust to us.” (p. 179) If classic sf has delineated an alterity to justify the colonizing and civilizing mission, then Singh’s post-colonial sf shows the possibilities of an expansive and ethical alterity, one which comes from decentering Eurocentric and anthropocentric perspectives.
A much older Mayha undertakes an intergalactic journey in search of the people who had travelled like her people but settled in another planetary system, the Ashta. On this long lonely journey, without the company of a living creature, Mayha discovers creatures of deep space sailing alongside her that she had first mistaken to be spaceships. These creature are completely different from her— not only are they non-human but they are also made up of altmatter as opposed to matter that makes up humans.
Mayha wonders to herself, “Space is so big, so empty. We have always assumed it hostile to life, but perhaps that is true only of our kind of life, made of ordinary matter.” (p. 198) Towards the end she reaches the destination planet, only to find that it is made up of altmatter and is inhospitable to humans. Instead, she lands in a moon where she discovers a cave filled with luminous fish-like creatures made of altmatter. And it is here in this cave that Mayha finds the statue of a woman made up of synthesis of matter and antimatter. It is this statue that leads to Mayha’s conjectures that her ancestors had instead of staying human, of matter that was in conflict with their environment, had radically adapted to form kinship.
Mayha can also feel herself changing and adapting due to the long years she has spent in the current of Antarsa much like the Moon-woman who had made radical kinship with the devtaru, from the fabulous story Mayha tells us about the worship of Moon-woman and devtaru. Mayha wonders if she herself is slowly transforming “from ancient, ordinary matter to the new kind.” (p. 208) In an interview to Malisa Kurtz of Science Fiction Studies, Singh said: “To see is to change, and to change is to let in the possibility of creating a different reality.” (p. 544) This mission statement is true for several of her short stories but is particularly explored in “Sailing the Antarsa.”
The title story “Ambiguity Machines” is organized as a collection of three interconnected narratives that are part of an engineering entrance examination. The third account is a story about about an archaeologist from Mali who having experienced a “nightmarish separateness” while working on a PhD from an American university, had carried that “disease of loneliness” even after she had returned home to Mali. (p. 254-55)
The anthropologist’s research leads her to a medieval university in Timbuktu where she learnt about the town of Tessalit inhabited by around sixty people “blessed or cursed with an unknown malady.” (p. 256) The village life was centered around a Machine that generated a field that had “the power to dissolve, or at least blur, the boundary between the self and the other.” (p. 261)
The villagers or anyone who came within the range of influence of the Machine had a keen awareness and empathy of the consciousness of those around them so much so that events happening with one person would be felt and experienced by all around. The self ‘I’ disappears and the loneliness that “afflicted” the anthropologist for so long began to disappear. This blurring of the self and other becomes another exploration of the experience of alterity and opens up possibilities of articulating planetarity. It is therefore not a coincidence that is the title story. It directs the concerns of the collection around improbable machines and alienness.
In Singh’s stories, the blurring of consciousness of the ‘I’ with the collective, in communion with other humans, non-humans, strangers, and aliens is an experience of planetarity i.e. a universal experience as a species on the planet. In “Requiem” when Rima asks her Inupiaq lover “How can you bear to eat such amazing creatures?” referring to whales, Jimmy thoughtfully responds “Because we are not apart, we are a part” (p. 287) It took Rima some time to understand this but she concludes this section thus: “Thus I am made of many things — mother’s milk, fruit of guava and mango trees, rice of the Indian Gangetic Plain, vegetables of a splendid variety, meat of many creatures, and now — bowhead whale!” (p. 287)
This relationality of the human body with the planet and its phenomena and creatures is further done through the association of a people’s culture directly with the environment. While mourning the Great Melt and the disappearance of the last of the multi-year ice, Vince’s grandfather had said, “When the ice goes…so does the way of our people.” (p. 300) Climate Change and Global Warming, thus, directly impacts the planet and the survival of humans and non-humans and their cultures that are dependent on the planet itself. The experience of planetarity, in Singh’s stories, is directly linked to the relations of reciprocity and of mutuality with the planet.
According to Subaltern Studies and Postcolonial studies theorist, Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak, planetarity is experienced as the uncanniness of the sense of our fragile inhabitation on Earth but of the awareness that our planet is a small part of a large solar system. The experience of planetarity thus creates shifts in scale that also creates epistemic shifts in those that inhabit Earth or other planets in her stories. These shifts in scale along with the blurring of the self into the vastness and minuteness of the universe is something that Singh has explored in an earlier collection of short stories The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet and Other Stories but not with the same effect and maturity as in the present collection. In a story titled “Ruminations in an Alien Tongue,” Birha ruminates “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 the night.” (p. 166)
Science Fiction, Storytelling and Narrating the Cosmos
“Science fiction is the only modern literature I know of where the great questions of our place in the cosmos—things of deep concern to the ancients—are still central. Today we view ourselves as separate from the universe around us, and we see this in mainstream literature where, most of the time, humans only interact with other humans and there is a physical backdrop reality as a kind of static canvas. But the ancients in many cultures were active participants in the cosmos, and they moved comfortably between one reality and another, whether these were physical, metaphoric, or psychological. And the facility that allowed them to do this was the imagination.” (p. 535)– Vandana Singh, ‘“Alternate Cuts”: An Interview with Vandana Singh”, Science Fiction Studies
For Singh then, the role of SF is to pose the great questions that make us akin to the ancients. These ontological and epistemological questions become central to our understanding of our place and role in the Universe. In the above interview, she further states that epics, folktales and urban legends are forms of cosmic storytelling and she adds science fiction to that list.
For Singh, humans become active participants in the cosmos when they move actively move between one reality and another with the use of imagination. Three things are of note here: one, there is more than one reality as opposed to what the mainstream realist novel represent. Two, it is possible for the human mind to traverse these different realities. Three, this traversing leads to a knowability of the cosmos that can be narrated through certain forms of storytelling, sf being one of them.
“Somadeva :A Sky River Sutra” is a story about a woman named Isha who is obsessed with stories of origins and ancestry after having her own stories stolen by the History Raiders. The story is set in a far-future timeline. Isha technologically resurrects an ancient poet who lived in 11th century Common Era North India, Somadeva, who composed the Kathasaritasagara: The Ocean of Streams of Stories. The duo travels from one planet to another collecting stories and folklores from alien cultures.
Somadeva tells the reader about his book and storytelling: “I took these stories and organized them into patterns of labyrinthine complexity. In my book, there are stories within stories — the chief narrator tells a story and the characters in that story tell other stories and so on. Some of the narrators refer to stories of the previous narrator; thus each is not only a teller of stories but also a participant. The story frames themselves form a complex, multi-referential tapestry.” (p. 105)
This “labyrinthine complexity” is the form that Singh’s storytelling takes and in fact Somedeva could very well be voicing Singh’s opinions of her own book Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories. (p. 105) Singh has variously used the term quilting or tessellation for this mode of storytelling. It is therefore not surprising then that she calls this story a sky river sutra, sutra being a Sanskrit word thread and is also a kind of storytelling within the Indian literary tradition. This complex storytelling is also reflective of the complexity of the Universe itself. It is then this kind of storytelling that is an act of participation and narration of the cosmos. It arises out of the condition or experience of planetarity itself.
In Singh’s short stories, the narrative voice begins the story which is often interspersed by multitude of voices and stories. The stories narrated by these characters often contain within them other stories, fables, myths or stories narrated by other characters. For example, “Ruminations in an Alien Tongue” begins with a third-person narrative voice interwoven with first-person accounts or ruminations of the protagonist, Birha, who further tells us stories about herself and her lovers. Similarly “Requiem” is woven together with extracts from Rima’s diary, “Sailing the Antarsa” with mythologies of the Moon-Woman and the People of the Ice and “With Fate Conspire,” historical characters’ voices emerge as agential in a near-future world after the Big Flood.
In “Somadeva,” Isha and the re-created ancient Indian poet Somedeva collect stories from different worlds, the latter being the narrator of this story too. Here, Singh melds form to concept in presenting us with stories within stories, stories about storytelling, telling stories while also showing us characters listening, recording, interpreting and misinterpreting stories as the two main characters collect stories about ancient origins and past of the Kiha people.
To the Kiha “a story is a gift not easily given to strangers.” (p. 110) They only tell these stories to Isha in return for the gifts she has brought them. Singh’s narrator Somadeva tells us: “To the Kiha, what is real and 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… These old stories have as many meanings as there are stars in the sky.” (p. 111)
In this Singhian mode of storytelling both the storyteller and the listener are participants in the world made up of stories, in meaning-making through stories and worldbuilding through stories. If the world is made up of stories and the world is known only through stories, then the figure of the storyteller and the art of storytelling become central to the universe of the story just like the sutradhar of the Indian literary tradition, the weaver of stories, the one that holds the thread.
Ambiguity Machines is a collection of stories about storytelling. All the stories in the collection have an internal audience, or address the reader. Singh’s “Somadeva” is, in my opinion, a magnificent commentary on how storytellers are the creators of the world as they narrate creation myths and stories of origin. It is therefore not surprising that Somadeva should reflect on storytelling thus: “Sometimes I wonder if I have made her [Isha] up as much as she has concocted me. If we are fictions of each other, given substance only our mutual narratives.” (pg. 113)
If Isha has technologically conjured up Somadeva, then Somadeva could also have created Isha through his stories. This reversal of the machine and the creator is in itself an ambiguity machine, that blurs and dissolves boundaries between the physical and metaphorical realm. Singh, through her short fiction, challenges the binary of digital and technological novums and instead blurs boundaries, the boundary between the observer and the observed, the boundary between the self and the other, the boundary between the subject and the object, and the boundary between the creator and created.
Singh’s stories in this collection present a new way of articulating planetarity and narrating the cosmos and map out a new terrain of science fictionality. She incorporates the fantastic, the magical and the wondrous to create a mythopoetic engagement with the cosmos. For her myths, ancient and new, urban legends and fables are all ways of that engagement and she uses them amply in her stories to create a complex intertextual and self-referential storytelling. In fact, there are some subtle hints into her earlier stories. So while the stories relate to each other in the collection, they also relate to stories by her from earlier collection or independent stories.
Conclusion: W/ri(gh)ting Climate Change
In her essay “The Unthinkability of Climate Change,” Singh elucidates the new geopolitics of the Arctic and its commercialization. She argues that the problem with our collective silence on the subject of climate change is that while some of us go on with life as usual, there are others who are “deliberately planning for control of a climate-changed world.”
Ambiguity Machines concludes with an original story titled “Requiem.”Set in the near future, it is a story about Varsha, an Indian software engineer who visits Alaska to retrieve her aunt Rima’s belongings after she has been declared dead by the North Point Research facility where she had worked as a scientist with her partner and lover, an Eskimo scientist called James Young.
Varsha’s journey to Alaska leads her to a journey of getting to know her aunt better, getting to know Inupiaq culture and people better and finding connections with the world around her. This layered story is as much about whales and TRexes, the megamachines seeding the Arctic floor for oil, often depicted as alive and sentient monstrous creatures, as it is about trust and connections between the human and non-human world and storytelling.
In my opinion, ‘“Requiem” is the strongest story in the collection bringing together several themes and motifs introduced in earlier stories in a complex web of possibilities: near future technology, science of complex systems, ancient cultures, encounters with alien beings, inter species communication and mutuality, the wonders of the Universe, the experience of alterity and planetarity, the story within a story of labyrinthine complexity, and paradigm shifts and challenges to Newtonian science.
In the story, Rima and Jimmy (James Young) are involved in researching the Alaskan bowhead whales and the possibilities of an inter-species communications network. The latter informs their technological invention unlike the TRexes of GaiaCorp; the squid-propulsion amphibious boat would help them dive deep with the whales on their Arctic migrations to learn the context in which they sing their songs. Jimmy believed that only a relationship of mutuality would lead to true knowing. This idea lies at the centre of the story, this possibility of inter species mutuality.
In 1902, Peter Kropotkin, Russian naturalist and anarchist, called the solidarity within species, mutual aid. This story extends this mutual aid to an inter species mutuality and solidarity; the bowheads hang out with humpbacks and blue whales lower the pitch of their call to be heard across an ocean basic become cues to non-human responses to climate change and global warming. This story especially reveals Singh’s academic, political and creative engagement with the urgent issues of climate change. With this story and otherwise, she shows us a new way of telling stories about a changed or rapidly changing world.
Towards the end of the story, Varsha states, “You’ve just destroyed everything I took for granted about the world,” echoing the thoughts of the reader (pg. 310). From “Indra’s Web” to “Sailing the Antarsa”, Singh’s characters confess to a shift in perspective and an upturning of their previously held assumptions. This paradigm shift is central to Singh’s storytelling as she has variously mentioned in essays and interviews. Through her unique mode of storytelling, Singh’s narratives explore the space between things, the zones of fuzziness and indiscernibility in order to oppose the inertia, the solidity and the self-evidentiary nature of the “real”. She calls these in-between spaces the “intra-actions.”
Singh concludes her essay with a question, “Can we move beyond apocalypse-du-jour to radically imagined, seismic conceptual shifts whose reverberations change minds, hearts, and worlds? Can we begin by breaking the spiral of silence?” And she concludes this collection with a fine line, an acknowledgment to our vulnerable planet: “A so-far habitable planet of unsurpassed gorgeousness has also been crucial to the writing of this book.”