It inspires the same feelings of joy and wonder that reading books by Bradbury and Ellison caused decades ago.
To leap to the title story of Vandana Singh’s science fiction short story collection Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories is to fall in love. Structured as an exam for potential explorers from the Ministry of Abstract Engineering into “Conceptual Machine-Space, which is an abstract space for all possible machines,” Singh tempers her opening hard science fiction salvo by defining an ambiguity machine as one that cannot and should not exist, that defies the laws of known science to blur and dissolve boundaries. At once a science fiction trope, the ambiguity machine also becomes a statement of literary purpose for blurring narrative lines and genre fixations is very much a part of Singh’s intention.Ambiguity machines grant dangerous wishes and the story becomes a rumination on exploration, discovery, love and loss in three parts. In the first a kidnapped engineer tasked with building a weapon assembles a machine that shows him the face of the woman he loves. It leads him back to her, but the machine grows menacingly metaphorical, forcing the engineer to abandon his wife and their village before any harm befalls them.
In the second, a mathematician grows obsessed with the temporal fields and patterns of an inexplicable churchyard. She vanishes only to return to her lover years later as a wizened old woman. An impossible machine afforded her a time traveling adventure across the past but robbed her of a life with the woman she loved.
And finally, a young archeologist tracks down a machine to a village in Timbuktu. All the residents are considered insane by the local warlords who have deemed the village a neutral zone and bring its people food and clothing as an act of charity. The archeologist is a woman who has never felt at home in her native Mali or in America where she earned her doctorate. The loneliness she had accepted her whole life is removed by the effect a machine is having on the village. It connects everyone around in an empathic web that blurs the individual mind but does not erase it. For the first time in her life the archeologist experiences belonging only to have it torn from her when her assistants follow her instructions and “rescue” her.
Since this story is posed as a test, there are questions to consider at the end, the biggest being about the nature of story. Do we control the stories of our lives as their main recounters or does the story assume autonomy once it is told? If an engineer can dream a machine, can the reverse not be true? While telling stories about storytelling sounds like a tired postmodern impulse, Singh does so with great inventiveness and humanity. In “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra,” a woman named Isha becomes obsessed with stories of origins and ancestry after having her memories stolen by raiders. The only clue to who she might have been is a battered, multi-volume edition of the Indian epic Kathasaritsagara: The Ocean of Streams of Story. The epic was written by the poet Somadeva, who Isha falls in love with while reading the stories. She resurrects the poet digitally to travel the cosmos with her as she collects the stories of alien races the way he did of Northern India. It is a story about telling, listening and the sometimes improper imposition of meaning upon every story one receives.
In “With Fate Conspire,” a poor woman is held captive by scientists because she has a unique abnormality in her brain that allows her to communicate with a machine that offers its users the ability to view specific moments from the past. The moments can be viewed but not influenced and the poor woman is tasked with observing an exiled poet in nineteenth century Kolkata. Once the woman realizes that the scientists are trusting her to report what she sees accurately because they cannot see it for themselves, she begins to lie in her reports about the poet while growing fascinated with a housewife from the same period. As with “Somadeva,” the future starts affecting the past, but unlike poor Isha, the woman begins to discover her own story.
The examination of narrative isn’t Singh’s only point-of-interest. The stories include a fair share of spaceships, slaughterhouses, nanoplagues and alien races, but with each one the author is trying to create an ambiguity machine that defies and blurs the usual narrative and genre structures. The messiness of the term experimentation doesn’t properly define what Singh has done with these stories. There’s a specificity to her genre bending that garners the readers trust. She is also a master of the captivating first sentence, a talent that caused those feelings of love reported above, who trusts her audience to follow her fierce imagination with minimal expository guideposts. As a teacher of physics she is undoubtedly adept at communicating big ideas with ease and clarity, but how she does so in prose is a wonder. Aspiring writers should consider this collection a conceptual space they need to map and dissect to improve their craft.
This is Vandana Singh’s third book so her excellence has been well-documented in circles of literary science fiction, but discovery is the great pleasure of the book reviewer. Reading Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories inspired the same feelings of joy and wonder that reading books by Bradbury and Ellison caused decades ago. We are awash in science fiction and fantasy these days, but when the lists of important works are compiled for this decade, this book should be included as a touchstone. Singh’s work is unique and challenging and a reminder of how great science fiction can be when yield by a fearless imagination.