Unambiguously good: A review of Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories

Gautham Shenoy October 6, 2018 4 min

A new science fiction story from Vandana Singh is always good news, for it brings with it new wonders to explore. An anthology of her short fiction getting published is better news, as with her latest, Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories. But said anthology now getting published in India is perhaps the best news of all, with its attendant benefits of affordable pricing and easy availability.

Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories – published in India by Zubaan Books – and cements her status as one of the most compelling voices in contemporary literature, SF or otherwise. And yes, original. An adjective Vandana Singh’s stories truly deserve.

Left: Vandana Singh (photo by Claudia Gustafson). Right: Cover of Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, from Zubaan Books.

Invariably set in India or with Indian protagonists, almost always women, Vandana Singh’s stories in this collection span the gamut of sub-genres – steampunk, alternative history, space opera, cyberpunk, climate fiction, dystopia, utopia – yet there are none of the standard tropes and clichés we have come to associate with each of these, and even when they do appear, it is only so Singh can upend them, undo them into something new. Even when she invokes mythology it doesn’t end up being mythsploitation. When she writes about mahaprana and ayurvedic theory, it is still scientific. Singh is a scientist after all, a professor of physics. These two aspects of being a person of science and of being an Indian informs each story, with her soaring imagination rooted in science, and grounded in Indian culture.

The future and the past merge into one narrative, as in ‘With Fate Conspire’, in which Gargi, the protagonist who describes herself as an “illiterate woman, bred in the back streets and alleyways of Old Kolkata, of no more importance than a cockroach” has the ability to use a device that lets her look through time. The scientists – working a drowning Kolkata – want her to observe a long-dead male poet but she ends up instead being more interested in a housewife from the past. A long-dead poet is also one of the characters in “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra,” with the titular Somadeva – the 11th-century compiler of the Kathāsaritsāgara – technologically resurrected in the far future as companion to a space-travelling folklorist who collects stories from alien cultures.

In one of the stories, a young woman is convinced that the universe is a constantly-shifting ad hoc illusion created by aliens. While in another, Singh takes us back to the Mughal era – but one that has diverged from our timeline, and is now a steampunk world, with Akbar as an immortal emperor and the target of an assassin who soon makes a startling discovery about his relationship with the one he’s meant to kill. Over the course of the other stories in the anthology, we meet scientists in a near-future India looking alternative energy sources by learning from the Earth itself, accompany a solitary extrasolar traveller on a lonely journey in her spacecraft that sails on altmatter, an unusual journey in a story involving physics, the environment, biology, communication, and myth. Myth in the form of the Ramayana plays an important role in another story in which an interplanetary investigator tracking down a criminal finds parallels between her life and the events in the epic. In the titular story, exam candidates in the “Ministry of Abstract Engineering,” study “Conceptual Machine-Space, which is the abstract space of all possible machines”. In ‘Are You Sannata3159?’, a grim tale set in a dark undercity, a young protagonist finds himself in a slaughterhouse with a suspect source of meat. Meanwhile, in the story that is original to this collection, Requiem, an Indian software engineer visits a future Alaska, to retrieve her aunt’s effects after she was lost in a storm and ends up discovering new – yet timeless – connections between herself and the native people there, and between them and the creatures of this planet.

This theme of interconnectedness and relationships – of people, of humans and animals, of cultures, of places and technology – surfaces throughout the collection, as Vandana Singh explores love, longing, loss, revenge, hope, dignity, despair, camaraderie, belief, in her trademark lyrical prose. Those who haven’t read Vandana Singh’s equally excellent previous collection, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories, will find this new anthology an enjoyable introduction to her work.