Short Story Club: “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra”

The story is here; now, on with the commentary. Sadly I don’t have my Locus back-issues to hand right now, so we start with Lois Tilton:

This is a metastory, a story about storytelling and a warning about searching too hard for meaning in stories, which should be about people, not abstract ideas. It is notable that the stories in which Isha finds so much meaning are not very storylike or memorable, unlike the immortal tales of Somadeva. Recommended.

Pam Phillips:

There are moments of beauty, and wonderful little stories that Isha collects in her net, as she travels from world to world between the stars. One of them even coins a term that describes exactly how this sort of story tends to run into trouble. There’s too many elements competing for your comprehension, too many self-referential arrows pointing at each other. I enjoyed reading it, and had fun thinking about how all the parts interact, but they never quite settle down. It’s a collection of stories drawn together only by threads of narrative, caught forever in the moment just before it gels into a solid whole.

David Hebblethwaite:

The structure of ‘Somadeva’ mirrors that of the Kathāsaritsāgara, in that it consists of a number of interlocking stories, some embedded within others (Singh also writes herself briefly into the story, as the authors of some texts did and Somadeva here wishes he had). One result of this is to make it more-or-less impossible to tell for sure whether Somadeva is in the future with Isha, or in the past telling all this to Sūryavati, or perhaps somewhere else. It’s handled elegantly by Singh, the effect is not so much disorientation as a satisfying recognition of the shape of the whole.

One of the main themes of ‘Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra’ is the extent to which stories can – or should – be pinned down to one definitive interpretation. Isha is excited to discover that a tribe named the Kiha tell stories that can be interpreted as describing fundamental scientific processes; it’s an appealing way to read them, but then Somadeva reminds us that those tales could just as easily be read in other ways – none necessarily invalid.

Perhaps, following on from this, it’s best to leave one’s interpretation of this story open. But there is one thing I think I can say with some certainty: at the start of the tale, Somadeva says,’ I was once…a poet, a teller of tales’; by its end, he’s declaring that he is those things. Whatever else stories do, they bring Somadeva to life.

And Matt Hilliard:

The final section of the story suggests, to me, that we are intended to think of the reconstructed Somadeva as being recreated not in a computer through some technobabble mechanism, but in Isha’s head through her reading of his ancient writings. Isha herself could also be a construct, part of a story thought up by Somadeva to convince Suryavati to stay alive, since he tells us he wants to put himself in a story as other authors of his tradition have done. And of course Isha and Somadeva are finally constructs in the mind of the reader reading Vandana Singh’s story on Strange Horizons. I believe this is also the meaning of Inish section with its talk of combinations of people and of unformed meanings. There’s you and there’s Vendana Singh, and the combination results in “A Sky River Sutra”. The crypto-physics stories within the story demonstrate how the reader (Isha, but also the the reader of “A Sky River Sutra”) contributes meaning, or at least interpretation, to an author’s story.

All of this is interesting, or at least I think so, but the story itself doesn’t really work for me. Part of the problem may be I’ve read a lot stories along these lines lately (Catherynne Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales, Kelly Link’s “Magic For Beginners” and “Lull”, and Inception too I suppose) and all of them were longer, more elaborate, more complicated, and ultimately more sophisticated. More seriously, the worldbuilding is essentially non-existent. Isha, Somadeva, and Suryavati feel more like variables in an equation than actual people. No attempt is made to convince the reader that Isha is a real person living in a plausible future (one reference to “memory raid” doesn’t count as worldbuilding), Somadeva’s own context is allocated a few sentences of description, and the cultures Isha visits are, well, teso. I’m sure someone could write a setting where the naming rules of the Inish actually make sense and result in a functioning society, but this story doesn’t do that. Proportionally, “A Sky River Sutra” is devoted almost entirely to its ideas about stories while its actual story remains little more than a schematic.

So: did it work for you? I’ll also point out Singh’s brief remark on the story at her website, and the related earlier story, “Three Tales from Sky River“.

The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet

The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet coverI have seen it said that it’s a bad sign when a review begins with discussion of a work other than the one under immediate consideration: that it betokens a lack of confidence in the book on the table. It’s not a stricture I particularly agree with, but neither is it a tactic I find myself deploying very often, simply because I usually find the text at hand suggests the most immediate and direct route to whatever it is I want to say. When it comes to The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet and Other Stories, however, and considering what the collection is and is not, I find my thoughts returning to a story of Vandana Singh’s that isn’t included. Distances, published as a standalone volume by Aqueduct Press at the end of last year, is by some way Singh’s longest work to date — it is on its own about half the length of The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet — and her most science-fictionally complex and ambitious tale. Set, unlike any of her other stories that I’ve read, far in the future and far away, Distances tells the story of Anasuya, a “rider” who explores mathematical problems via a technology that renders abstract mental landscapes into navigable simulations. (I was reminded somewhat of Rez.) It’s an absorbing tale, if perhaps one that doesn’t quite earn all its length, but what I want to highlight here is how beautifully apt its title is, not just because of the many distances that are worked into the narrative — geographic, intellectual, emotional, societal — but because of the way the abstract notion of distance is seen as an integral part of human existence. Distances, in other words, lend Anasuya’s society its sense of completeness; and indeed, perhaps the most satisfying thing about Distances is how irreducible it feels, how Singh mixes mathematical, artistic and sociocultural speculation in a way that feels holistic precisely because it is aware of where those different domains intersect and interact. The distances in The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet are more familiar; and the speculations are smaller, if not more tame; but for Singh’s characters, the negotiation of the two is usually no less challenging.

Or, to put it another way:

Meanwhile, she continued to read her science fiction novels because, more than ever, they seemed to reflect her own realization of the utter strangeness of the world. Slowly the understanding came to her that these stories were trying to tell her a great truth in a very convoluted way, that they were all in some kind of code, designed to deceive the literary snob and waylay the careless reader. And that this great truth, which she would spend her life unraveling, was centered around the notion that you did not have to go to the stars to find aliens or to measure distances between people in light-years. (18)

That’s from the very end of “Hunger” (2007), which opens Singh’s collection, and which I have written about before. Or, to put it yet a third way:

So much modern realist fiction is divorced from the physical universe, as though humans exist in a vacuum devoid of animals, rocks, and trees. Speculative fiction is our chance to rise above this pathologically solipsist view and find ourselves part of a larger whole; to step out of the claustrophobia of the exclusively human and discover joy, terror, wonder, and meaning in the greater universe.

But also, speculative fiction has a revolutionary potential that is perhaps unique.

Why do I say this? Because imagination — that faculty that expands the human mind to the size of the universe, that makes empathy possible (you have to have some imagination to put yourself in another’s shoes — also allows us to dream. […] While speculative fiction has not yet fully realized its transgressive potential, dominated as it has been by white, male, techno-fantasies — Westerns and the White Man’s Burden in Outer Space — there is still a strong undercurrent of writing that questions and subverts dominant paradigms and persists in asking uncomfortable questions.
But it is also true that when it uses symbol and metaphor in certain ways, speculative fiction is about us as we are, right now. This may be the case even if the story is set on another planet, in another age, and the protagonist is an alien. Because haven’t we all felt alien at some time or another, set apart from the norm due to caste and class, religion and creed, gender and sexual orientation? (201-3)

That is from “A Speculative Manifesto”, which closes the collection, and can be read as positioning sf as a literature centrally concerned with the negotiation of distances: between the self and the world, or the other; between what is and what is possible; between what is here and what is elsewhere. All of these are tensions visible in Singh’s work. (Most of them are refracted such that they become iterations of the distance between the speculative and the real.) Never, aside from the end of “Hunger”, are they explicated so directly; but the sincerity of her stories, the belief they evince in their chosen mode — the irreducibility of Distances — and, ultimately, if sometimes obliquely, their belief in humanity, are qualities that I value. They can perhaps be described as old-fashioned, but after the self-consciousness of much contemporary sf, which is a kind of anxiety, Singh’s stories feel like a relief. The uncertainties they explore do not spring from an uncertainty about their right to exist. They feel like coming home.

Home, indeed, is central to The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet: fully half of the collection’s ten stories are rooted in domestic experience, and with one exception the rest are still domestic in the sense that they don’t venture beyond Earth. The domestic alienation of “Hunger”, as I’ve noted, opens the book, serving double-duty as a gateway to the distances in the everyday, and a gateway from the real to the speculative. In this company (as opposed to the anthology in which I first read it) I thought the story slightly less impressive, but I still admire its scrupulous detail, and it does both the jobs it is required to do here with aplomb. The collection’s title story (2003) tells a similar tale — of a woman whose science-fictional perspective is ultimately matched by reality — from the point of view of her uncomprehending husband. After Kamala tells Ramnath she has had a revelation, and that she is a planet, he calls a doctor, whose considered verdict is that “women are odd” (44; there’s no doubting where our sympathies lie); and bafflement turns to horror when, at night, he sees “dark stuff … gathered about her mouth, on her chin, like a jelly … not blood but composed of small, moving things” (47). But the alienation here is Ramnath’s, not Kamala’s: she is comfortable with her condition, even telling her husband she wishes he would agree to be colonised and ultimately, in a well-placed moment of comedy, floating away into the sky, the better (it is implied) to care for her new inhabitants. It’s a deft story, if not a terribly penetrating one. Rather better is “Thirst” (2004), whose title and opening — a wife, Susheela, waking up after a vivid dream and finding her surroundings “imbued with remoteness” (88) — seem to indicate another forerunner of “Hunger”. But this iteration of the story is more overtly fantastical, perhaps because it involves more transgression than capitulation. After a buildup that evokes various kinds of longing — for the monsoon; for a local gardener; for self-knowledge — with great intensity, Susheela’s hallucinatory reconciliation with the otherness she discovers within herself is a consummation, perhaps the most visceral release in the book. But as in “Hunger” and the title story, the purpose of the fantastic is to illuminate and accentuate the stresses that result from unequal relationships between men and women.

Other stories examine other inequalities. The BSFA Award-nominated “Delhi” (2004) is a hymn to that city as channeled through the experiences of an itinerant called Aseem, who is prone to seeing “tricks of time” (20) that unpeel his home’s layers. The city — “its ancient stones, the flat-roofed brick houses, threads of clotheslines, wet, bright colours waving like penants, neem tree-lined roads choked with traffic” (19) — is the undoubted star of the show, and Singh is not at all ashamed about using her chosen device as an excuse to provide history lessons. (More and less successfully. “His grandmother,” we are told, “was one of the Hindus who never went back to Old Delhi, not after the madness of Partition in 1947, the Hindu-Muslim riots that killed thousands” [24]. “Hunger” can perhaps be read as directed as Indian readers not familiar with sf, but works as well [at least for me] as a celebration of sf; this similarly feels directed, at Western readers perhaps not familiar with India, but the complete lack of knowledge assumed is surprising: surely everything after “Partition” is unnecessary.) But the story is also an acute rendering of urban alienation. Aseem’s search for a mysterious woman, who he is told is important to his future, is poignant; but what endures from the story is the sense of Aseem’s place within the greater urban organism of which he is only a part. “The Wife” (2003), in which Padma, having made being a wife the cornerstone of her identity and adjusted herself, and even moved to America, for her husband, is now forced to adjust to being abandoned by him, makes a similar point about the importance of human perspective, when her husband insists that “We make realities out of words, Padma, words in our minds and on the page” (172); though it is one of the thinnest stories in the book, and its point is rather more sharply made by “Three Tales From Sky River” (2004). The titular tales are the myths of human cultures many millennia after a galactic diaspora: they are witty pricks to human hubris, and a reminder that how we tell it is not always how it is. (“The Room on the Roof” [2002], which closes the collection, reminds us that sometimes it can be.)

“Conservation Laws” (original to this collection), a story written, we are told, in tribute to the Bengali sf writer Premendra Mitra (1904-1988), is the moment when the collection feels closest to classic Western Golden Age sf. It is a story that is cheerfully blatant about its exposition, with a tenuous framing device that exists to set up a closing gotcha, and is at its heart about how limited human perspective may be. An elderly astronaut recounts a mission to Mars during which he claims that a figure, who may have been the ghost of a first wave of explorers, or may have been an alien, lead him into an underground city, and to a revelation as to the nature of the cosmos: “I saw vast fields of stars and all manner of strange beings. I saw strange and wonderful worlds, and pathways in utter darkness, that led to distant universes” (121). It is perhaps gimmicky, but heartfelt. A more serious exploration of the same ideas comes in “The Tetrahedron” (2005), Singh’s take on the mysterious alien artefact story, in which a student is caught up in the events following the appearance of an enormous tetrahedron — black, obviously — in the middle of a Delhi street (at, we are told, precisely 10:23 IST). Facing the prospect of an arranged marriage, Maya, a student, finds that the arrival of the tetrahedron makes her realise “how useless and insignificant” her life is “against the unending mystery of the universe” (144). She strikes up a conversation with Samir, an astrophysics student helping with the work on the artefact which, far from quenching her thirst, merely reminds her of the other implacable boundaries shaping her life (most particularly, class); and so she takes matters into her own hands. Her escape — at least as imagined by the story’s narrator — is most fulfilling because it appears to involve true partnership, denied elsewhere in her life. Tellingly, those left behind receive a few paragraphs of thought: even as one distance is closed, another opens up.

Probably the most accomplished tale in the collection, and perhaps Singh’s best to date, is “Infinities” (new here). Like “Conservation Laws” and Distances it takes its rigorous shaping metaphors from mathematics: here the Continuum Hypothesis, the statement that there is no infinite set of numbers with order between a lower order of infinity (such as the integers 1, 2, 3, 4…) and the next highest order (such as the real numbers, 1.4, 1.56, 1.659…): you can see, I think, how this fits into Singh’s concern with separations. The protagonist of “Infinities”, Abdul Karim, is a fastidious mathematics master; as with Maya, the domestic detail of his life is contrasted with his desire to see infinity, to escape from “the prosaic ugliness of the world” (57). A long-ish story, split into sections headed by epigraphs from (mostly) Indian (mostly) mathematicians, “Infinities” gradually unwinds the infinite moments that define Karim’s life and obsession — how he threw himself into mathematics after the death of his sister in a riot; how that career was cut off when his father died; how he sees shapes, sometimes, at the edges of his vision; the death of his wife; his friendship with a Hindu writer, Gangadhar — and, in doing so, creates a more nuanced portrait of India, and the tensions that shape it, than is to be found anywhere else in the collection. (For all the specificity of many of her stories, the India-ness that lingers when you close this collection is, as Singh notes in her afterword, “less the man-made political entity than a set of philosophical attitudes toward the world” [205]. And a few brief glimpses in “Delhi” is as close as she ever takes us to the future of her country.) The diverse threads of the tale are beautifully entwined and, as in “Delhi”, as in “Hunger”, the speculative is revealed to be lurking beneath the skin of the present: Karim is granted an epiphany that, heartbreakingly, reveals how far the messy real world is from the seductive abstracts of his chosen field.

In uncovering the speculative within the world we know, “Infinities” is characteristic of The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet; the most satisfying aspect of this collection is that its stories, even the less successful ones, feel of a piece, like an exploration of a coherent and urgent set of concerns. This is a hallmark of a book worth reading. There is a sense, however, in which the collection is incomplete, and I think it explains why I felt the need to talk about Distances at the start of this review. It is to be expected that there are Other Stories not included: The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet does not pretend to be comprehensive, and the stories I’m about to name may not even have been written when it was being compiled. But as noted above, between “Hunger” and “A Speculative Manifesto”, the collection presents itself as an argument for the value of sf; and in the collection as constituted, that argument is incomplete. Divya may assert that her treasured pulp novels approach a great truth; Singh may assert the value of stories set on other planets, in other ages, seen through other eyes; but with momentary exceptions, this collection takes place within the frame of the familiar and contemporary. In the best stories, this setting is itself recontextualised by a shift in perspective of one kind or another; but sometimes Singh doesn’t do more than simply articulate that there is a distance that needs to be considered. What’s missing, in fact, is precisely a story like Distances, that steps away from the immediate familiarity of most of the stories in this collection and yet clearly addresses the same concerns; or perhaps a story like Singh’s other novella, Of Love and Other Monsters (2007), with its alien protagonist and arguably more radical perspective shift. Those are the stories of Singh’s that most fully use the codes of sf, that — in concert with the work collected here — make her case; and, for all the other pleasures in The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet, I missed them.


On the not-small list of books coming out this autumn that I’m looking forward to, Vandana Singh’s The Woman who Thought she was a Planet and Other Stories is near the top. It will be published by Zubaan Books sometime before the end of the year; I know this, despite the fact that I can’t find any information about it on Zubaan’s website, because it’s been mentioned in a couple of interviews (for instance this one at the Aqueduct blog), and because Singh’s entry in Interfictions, “Hunger”, is jointly credited as appearing in that anthology and in the forthcoming collection. And I’m looking forward to the collection despite the fact that I haven’t actually read that much of Singh’s work, or perhaps because of that fact, because everything I’ve read has impressed me — the past and future visions in “Delhi”; the intensity of “Thirst”; the feeling of escape at the end of “The Tetrahedron”. The only reason I haven’t read more already is that the stories have been published in such diverse venues that tracking them all down becomes unrealistic.

But all the ones I’ve read have been science fiction. “Hunger”, as mentioned, appeared first in Interfictions, which might lead you to expect it’s a departure. It is and it isn’t. It is lower-key, not science fiction, and barely fantastical (if that); but it is also, ultimately, an argument for the empathic power of sf that is almost embarrassing in its uncomplicated sincerity. It starts with a woman waking up:

She woke up early as usual. The apartment, with its plump sofas like sleeping walruses, the pictures on the walls slightly and mysteriously askew, pale light from the windows glinting off yesterday’s glasses she’d forgotten on the coffee table — the apartment seemed as though it had been traveling through alien universes all night and had only now landed in this universe, cautiously letting in air.

That long second sentence is perhaps trying a little too hard (“walruses” sticks out to my ear, though it’s undeniably a vivid image; and the repetition of “the apartment” feels just a bit too self-conscious), but it does its job. The suggestion of alienation it sets up is elaborated through the first few pages of the story: she (Divya) gradually realises she’s “lying in a strange bed next to a strange beast that she slowly recognised as her very dear husband, Vikas”; she stands in the doorway of her daughter’s (Charu’s) room, thinking about alien universes; she steps cautiously into the kitchen because at night it belongs “to the denizens of another world”, cockroaches and other insects; and most explicitly, when warily looking ahead to the day to come, she thinks “she wasn’t made for such things — she was from another planet, where you danced with trees and ate parathas and read trashy science fiction novels.” The mix of domesticity with a more distanced perspective echoes, in places, Pamela Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe“, although not in structure, and Singh’s story is not so feverishly intense.

Only gradually does the setting and do the other characters come into focus around Divya. But like Sarah Boyle, Divya is preparing for a birthday party: her daughter Charu’s twelfth. The shadow hanging over her preparations is one of expectation; Vikas has been promoted, and is now expected to socialise with VPs and CEOs and other abbreviations, all of whom have (Divya knows) homes far more spacious, and in far better neighbourhoods. Divya is nervous to the point of resenting the promotion in the first place. But the preparations run on schedule, with the help of a cook and a cleaner, and in spite of Charu (who would rather talk to the old man who lives upstairs) and Vikas (who is more concerned with putting out poison for the mouse he just spotted in their bedroom). Just before the guests arrive, we get another sfnal nudge, when Divya thinks of the book she’s reading, which has a body-snatchers plot: “she stared wistfully at the lurid cover … the plot had to do with Viraa discovering aliens disguised as humans, living in the town of Malgudi. They were from some planet light-years away. Divya wondered how she was going to survive.” The ambiguity of “she” in that last sentence is, I assume, entirely deliberate.

So with all of that in mind, when the guests have arrived and the party is in full swing, it’s somehow not a surprise that the story’s tone shifts slightly. But it doesn’t become sf; the body-snatching is only a metaphor. What we get are a series of sketches that are broader, a bit more cartoonish than what has come before if not outright farcical; portraits of guests who are larger-than-life if not outright grotesques. It matches how Divya feels about the events whirling around her. If the style of “Hunger” is less dense than that of “Delhi” or “Thirst”, it is no less careful or effective; and it can and does absorb a sudden shift, as when the old man upstairs is discovered to have died. The description of the body is quite sober, if not dignified — “What Divya saw was the old man curled up in a nest of rags, clutching his throat with both hands, quite dead. His hooked nose, protruding from his too-thin face, gave him the appearance of a strange bird; his heavy-lidded eyes were open and staring at some alien vista she could not imagine” — and in this context, the reference to an “alien vista” has an extra resonance. But the guests and their reactions remain buffoons and bluster, respectively:

[Divya] turned to face the Lambas. Mrs Lamba gave a high-pitched cry and fell against her husband, who, not being built to handled the weight, tottered against the wall. Mrs Bhosle took over, muttering words of comfort and calling for brandy, giving Divya an unexpectedly sympathetic look. Mr Lamba drew himself up to his full height. Divya noticed that the tip of his nose was quite pale.
“What is the meaning of this! Who is this fellow?”
“The father-in-law of my neighbour’s servant,” Divya said. “They don’t feed him–”
“I don’t care who he is,” Mr Lamba said. “How can you tolerate having riffraff living in your building? The man could be dangerous! Or have a disease! Like AIDS!”

Mr Lamba’s pronouncements are absurd — AIDS is pretty much the most ridiculous disease he could have chosen, in the circumstances — but reading this passage, what struck me is how neatly those pronouncements are prefigured by one word, earlier in the scene: “tottered”. The one we might have expected to totter, stereotypically, is Mrs Lamba; but no, she solidly falls, and it is her much less large husband who totters. His full height, we suspect, is unimpressive; the shrillness of his complaints, when we reach them, is already half-anticipated. (Although it is Mrs Lamba who, when she has recovered her composure, insists she has never been so insulted in all her life; because obviously, the old man’s death is only important insofar as it affects her.)

As the party breaks up the tone shifts yet again, this time undergoing a more wrenching transition into a harsher realism. The reason for the old man’s death becomes clear, but the police have no appetite for an investigation: “If we launched an investigation each time some old fellow dies of starvation, we would be overwhelmed”, says one, bluntly. (But if it had been Mrs Lambas’ father, we think …) Time skips on. Vikas leaves his job, unhappily, and a silence grows between him and Divya. Charu carries a new sadness within her — “after the incident she could no longer bear any kind of cruelty, nor could she, as a consequence, watch the news without tears” — and a silence grows there, too, although the daughter occasionally tries to bridge it: “There were times when the girl would come upon her mother and give her a fierce, deep hug for no reason at all, and Divya felt Charu was trying to tell her something in some other language, and that she was able to comprehend it in that other language as well.” All of this is building up to the change in Divya, which is the story’s fantastic element, which is that she has become sensitised:

When she looked upon the faces of strangers they appeared to her like aliens, like the open mouths of birds, crying their need. But most clearly she could sense those who were hungry, whether they were schoolchildren who had forgotten their lunch or beggars under the bridge, or the boot-boy at the corner, or the emaciated girl sweeping the dusty street in front of the municipal building.

Two things to note here. The first is that the sfnal imagery has become pervasive, the references coming thicker and faster than they have through the rest of the story — this mention of strangers-as-aliens is immediately after Chura’s attempts to communicate in a different language. The second thing is that the world beyond Divya’s family is a darker, more claustrophobic, less welcoming place: Singh writes of “the hungry and forgotten, great masses of them, living like cockroaches in the cracks and interstices of the new old city”; the contrast with the rest of the story is almost too much to bear, even as we remember the cockroaches that owned Divya’s kitchen when she wasn’t there at night.

And then there’s the ending. We return for a final time to the science fiction stories that Divya reads. There is the sense that now more than before she is finding consolation in them, and that though in part that may be a consequence of her trauma it is, on some level, not wrong. Quite the opposite. It is, as I said, almost embarrassingly sincere (or if you can swallow it, a rallying cry), and it works only because of Singh’s absolute control of tone in this story, the nuanced shifts which I hope I’ve mapped at least a little, enough that to leave you with this last quote won’t seem entirely facile. But it is, when you come down to it, a big reason why I want to read Singh’s collection:

Slowly the understanding came to her that these stories were trying to tell her a great truth in a very convoluted way, that they were all in some kind of code, designed to deceive the literary snob and waylay the careless reader. And that this great truth, which she would spend her life unraveling, was centered around the notion that you did not have to go to the stars to find aliens or to measure distances between people in light-years.