RogerBW's Blog

Ambiguity Machines, Vandana Singh 05 October 2019

2018 SF anthology, 14 short stories; all except the last have been published previously.

Not previously read by me, though, since the most recent publication date is 2015 and I didn't return to magazine reading until more recently. Singh writes with ideas that I don't often find done well in the SF I read: her people are generally on the oppressed side of power dynamics (and they think like actual oppressed people, rather than like toddlers annoyed because they don't have all the toys they want), and there's a constant thread that even if humans are the most important sort of life – something very much in doubt in many cases – they're not the only sort of life that matters; and societies are at least as important as individuals, possibly more so.

On the other hand she's too often entirely happy to do the modern short story writer's lazy trick of not actually establishing a narrative, or of cutting off just at the point where something's actually going to happen because we've established the situation, the reader has mostly worked out what's going on, and that's meant to be enough. Resolution is all often lacking.

But in spite of that problem the stories are often lovely, and frequently haunting. I normally read short stories rather faster than I read novels, but it took me a while to go through this book, as I paused to enjoy the imagery and ideas.

"With Fate Conspire" has scientists trying to save the world… but it's shown through the eyes of the woman from the underclass who's used as the probe tip of their time viewer. Falls a bit flat for me by cutting off just as I've worked out what's happening, rather than having a conclusion.

"A Handful of Rice" shows the old friend of the man who became King, suppressed the learning he'd used to do it, and fought off all challengers, except for this last one… and resolves it by means other than boring old violence.

"Peripateia"'s protagonist can look a short way into the future… until suddenly she can't, but it's another one that peters out rather than ending.

"Lifepod" is set after some kind of accident (was it a battle?) between human and alien spaceships, with the surviving humans in cold sleep. It's one of my favourites here.

"Oblivion: A Journey" is a solid story of obsession and revenge, and shows how much more interesting it can be not just to say "oh, I have killed him, my life is now empty" but to do something with it.

There was a bee buzzing in my ear, promising me seven kinds of bliss designed especially for my personality and physical type if only I'd agree to let the Samarin Corporate Entity take over half my brain.

"Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra" is told by an eidolon of the eleventh-century poet, and delves into multiple levels of story

"Are you Sannata3159?" is a bit too obviously a grim meathook future – and Singh can write grim, but I feel her heart isn't really in it

"Indra's Web" has a smart power grid that actually does some good, rising from the slums of Ashapur; it sins doubly in that it gets heavy-handed in making its point, then doesn't resolve its plot.

"Ruminations in an Alien Tongue" gives us the woman who discovered the civilisation-changing alien artefact, later in life; and the most scientifically reasonable approach yet to the Infinite Improbability Drive.

"Sailing the Antarsa" mixes science and strangeness, from the viewpoint of a lone interstellar voyager.

"Cry of the Kharchal" is something like fantasy, something like noir, and thoroughly effective.

"Wake-Rider" follows a space-salvager who's parasitic off other space-salvagers, discovering something worth spreading; there are ties to "Oblivion", but the ending only works because we've been told up front how it came out.

"Ambiguity Machines: An Examination" is structured as an exam paper for "the position of Junior Navigator in the uncharted negative seas of Conceptual Machine-Space"; it's three linked microstories, and what you're supposed to do about them.

"Requiem" has a student travelling to Alaska to pick up her deceased aunt's effects, and learning about the efforts to repair the Earth's climate… and other things.

The stories often aren't fun, but they usually are good. I've deliberately not gone into much detail because, without strong plots, much of the joy is in discovering what's going on (though the characters are also good); I don't expect to re-read this often. But there is some superbly good writing here.

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