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Telling it with a slant

  • Vandana Singh’s brown, feminist sci-fi world bristles with the big questions of the past, present and future
  • In many of the stories, Singh’s interests in history, music and early feminism are layered in between more conventional SF tropes

Singh’s interests in history, music and early feminism are layered in between more conventional SF tropes. Photo: iStock
Singh’s interests in history, music and early feminism are layered in between more conventional SF tropes. Photo: iStock

In her tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, soon after Le Guin’s death in 2018, Vandana Singh wrote on her blog Antariksh Yatra: “That representation matters can hardly be overstated.... Le Guin went beyond tokenism to present genuinely different perspectives arising from different cultural moorings…. Eventually she was instrumental in bringing down the walls around the almost exclusively male, boys-with-toys shoot-em-up club that was golden age science fiction."

It is telling that in most lists of authors belonging to this “golden age science fiction", who shaped an almost universally accepted idea of what constitutes sci-fi for decades (in good ways and bad),you would be looking for women writers in vain. It was not until Le Guin and Margaret Atwood—who examined ideas alien to early sci-fi, from gender and race to climate change, with hardly a spaceship in sight—that women sci-fi writers started showing up on such lists, along with nominations for Hugo and Nebula awards.

Singh’s new collection of short fiction, Ambiguity Machines And Other Stories, is unambiguously part of this legacy. Recently shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award, the book is possibly the first by a South Asian author to be nominated since the award’s inception in 1983. “It is somewhat unbelievable (and I doubt it will win) but perhaps a sign that the American SF (science-fiction) world is recognizing the value of non-Western voices in SF," says Singh, a professor of physics and earth science at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, US, over email.

In many of the stories, Singh’s interests in history, music and early feminism are layered in between more conventional SF tropes, including spaceships and time travel, though these artefacts and classic tropes often appear obliquely.

With Fate Conspire, the first story, illustrates this best—it positively bristles with dead poets and voices from the past as a group of scientists tries to find a loop in the slipstream of time that will save the world from its deluged state. They look for answers with the help of an illiterate woman, who is among a rare group of people that can use a “machine" the scientists have created to spy on the past. Along the way, the woman becomes obsessed with a housewife from 19th century Bengal. She later finds out that this woman is Rassundari Debi, whose autobiography, Amar Jiban, is one of the first Bengali books written by a woman. Incidentally, around the same time, another Bengali woman, Begum Rokeya Hossain, was writing Sultana’s Dream, a feminist SF fiction novel that imagined a utopian reality where women ruled the world with the help of new technology.

“I am a physicist, an earthling, an Indian and a woman (in no particular order), so I am fascinated by the non-human (perspective), whether it is an elephant or a proton or an alien from another world—and I am interested in the experience of alienation among humans, and in general the experience of being othered," says Singh. Growing up in Delhi as a shy child, with limited interaction outside of family, Singh learnt to see the world from the perspective of the street dogs and birds she “hung out with". “What most people ignore—the non-human context of our lives—was actually home to me from early childhood," she says.

One of the ideas that comes up often in her work is the limited ordinary human perception of the universe, more vast and complex than we can even imagine. Does SF give us a way to imagine? While its scope to provoke shifts in perspectives is unmatched, it doesn’t always do so, Singh believes. “What should have been the most imaginative and revolutionary of our literatures began and persists as a deeply conservative, white-man’s-burden-in-space, techno-fetishizing narrative," she says. According to her, the golden age of SF glorified exploration and conquest, and in its portrayals of aliens, non-white humans, or women, fell back on xenophobic and gender stereotypes.

Even though some of these attitudes persist, SF today is more diverse than it has ever been, with writers belonging to a variety of ethnicities, countries and genders breaking down the old mythos and building “something new and strange in its place". “The best science fiction today examines all our contemporary issues, from climate change to colonialism to the impact of new technologies—in all their irreducible complexity," says Singh.

Her work, like almost all provocative SF, dwells again and again on the “what if" question—what if there were a universe just like ours, “but with your personal parameters adjusted ever so slightly"? What if we could see, but not interact with, the past? What if we could build a machine that would be able to blur boundaries of time, space and identity? “There is no more revolutionary a question than asking ‘what if we extrapolate this aspect of the real world and see what happens?’" says Singh, naming Le Guin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness and The Dispossessed, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, and Nnedi Okarafor’s Who Fears Death as some of the books that have come out of SF’s “what-ifs".

Ambiguity Machines And Other Stories: By Vandana Singh, Zubaan Books, 328 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>495.
Ambiguity Machines And Other Stories: By Vandana Singh, Zubaan Books, 328 pages, 495.

One of the more delicate balancing acts SF writers have to perform is between retaining an awe for science and its inherent inventiveness while using it as a springboard for more abstract ideas. Singh excels at this. “The balance between the supporting elements of a story and the story itself is something that comes from experience. The story dictates whether the detail of the lichen on the rock, or how the new propulsion drive works, is really necessary to include. That said, science fiction does allow us some leeway for the infodump, although there are elegant and inelegant ways to do it!" she says.

Her own experience as a scientist informs and sparks her work. As a former particle physicist now working on a trans-disciplinary understanding of climate change, Singh visited Alaska as part of a project on sea ice melt in the Arctic a few years ago. She calls the visit “paradigm-shifting", and says she knew it would lead to a story. Sure enough, the last story in this collection, Requiem, is set in Alaska in a near-future scenario, in which an Indian-origin woman travels to the icy north on the trail of a beloved aunt, who was involved in Arctic research. “Emily Dickinson asked us to ‘tell all the truth but tell it slant’, which seems to me to be as good a definition of speculative fiction as any," says Singh.

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