Reading Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories (February 2018), the new collection from Small Beer Press by writer and physicist Vandana Singh, I couldn’t help but think of the controversy at the 2015 Indian Science Congress, where a paper claimed the flying rathas of Indian myths were in fact ancient, advanced aircraft. Though deservedly derided at the time, the moment exemplifies the ubiquity of tradition and technology in South Asia, where cities are dotted by ancient temples and cell phone towers, in a sponge-like culture seemingly able to soak it all despite any overt contradictions.
As such, Singh’s writing exists in this dynamic where scientific possibility still brushes up against the human narrative. Her stories infuse classic sci-fi setups of time travel, space exploration, futuristic technologies, and unexplained thingamajigs with South Asian characters, historical allusions, and a perspective — that feels very Vedic-inspired — notions of coexistence, acceptance of the past and future as fellows, existing hand-in-hand in the present.
We open with “With Fate Conspire,” in which the narrator Gargi is held captive in a tower of scientists, long after the world has flooded and pushed many to dire conditions. She peers through The Machine, a temporal-scope that allows her to spy on de-throned poet-king Wajid Ali Shah as he recites an unrecorded love poem. Her captors tell her, “Poetry can save the world.” But there is no world-saving. Instead, Gargi begins to communicate with the dead, and deepens her understanding of a world lost to time. Themes of humanism, environment, and metaphysical life are established here and returned to often in the book.
“Themes of humanism, environment, and metaphysical life are established here and returned to often in the book.”
More importantly, Singh is laying the groundwork attempt to re-write the plots of Chosen Ones, dystopian governments, and self-actualizing hero tropes common to Western literature, where the quest for “the meaning of life” is often seeking a single endpoint, an origin. Singh’s characters wish only to know for the sake of knowing. Life isn’t defined by linear time, it is the richness of experience.
This becomes critical frame to sustain a reader through the stories, which border on languid momentum, but are rich in their world building. Often, plot threads get re-used. For example, in “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra,” the title character travels to alien worlds and collects the stories of each community and race. There is also anthropological planet hopping in “Ruminations in an Alien Tongue” and Singh’s previously published novella “Sailing the Antarsa,” but we are rather spending time with different relationship dynamics: siblings, co-workers, lovers.
But then this may be intentional, as I felt while reading “Oblivion: A Journey,” a re-writing of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando with overt allusions to the Ramayana. Singh tells us stories are meant to be retold and tweaked, much like the latter epic.
Always expanding, trying to envelope the discovery of alien worlds, or meeting with ghosts, spirits, clones, and avatars (to be so blunt) as extensions of how the characters already understand the world. Nothing is ever new, it simply grows, withers, and is reborn.
“Singh tells us stories are meant to be retold and tweaked…”
I’m reminded of Jorge Luis Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” wherein the histories of three fictional lands are defined by their ontology rather than geography. Indeed, Borges’ shadow weighs large here. Like his fantastical speculative work, Singh is less concerned with physical spaces than imaginative ones.
It’s not until the end we arrive at the title story, “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination,” written in the form of three collected case studies of individuals who create machines that “blur and dissolve boundaries.” The machines themselves are given minimal description, sometimes are not even tactile objects. The machine is the unknown beyond a person’s power, as she describes: “Is the negative space of ambiguity machines infinite? Is it continuous? Are the conceptual sub-spaces occupied by each machine connected to each other — by geography, concept, or some other as-yet-undiscovered attribute?”
The stories themselves are machines; myth is itself perhaps the most ancient technology, though that may not please the Indian Science Congress. With this collection, Vandana Singh shows us how, despite what further breakthrough innovations the human race and its machines may have, the imagination will still have to fill in the gaps between.
Aditya Desai lives in Baltimore, currently teaching writing and revising a couple novels that he keeps threatening to finish someday. He received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Maryland, College Park. His stories, essays, and poems have appeared in B O D Y, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Margins, District Lit, The Kartika Review, CultureStrike, and others, which you can find most of at adityadesaiwriter.com. Find him on Twitter @atwittya.