Vandana Singh was born in New Delhi, India, and grew up in a cultural milieu that fostered the traditions as well as creativity and independent thinking. She acquired an early interest in the sciences as well as in writing and art. In her teenage years she was involved in a student environment group, an experience that shaped her life-long interest in the relationship between humans and Nature.
Later she acquired a Master’s degree in Physics from Delhi University and a PhD from the U.S., where she currently resides.
She divides her time between teaching college physics, raising her family, and writing non-Euclidean tales of science fiction and fantasy, as well as children’s stories. Her science fiction and fantasy short stories, deeply rooted in an Indian ethos, have been published in various anthologies and magazines in the U.S. and U.K. Her stories have appeared in “Year’s Best” collections and have been short-listed for the BSFA and Parallax awards.
Her first book for children, Younguncle Comes to Town, was published in India by Young Zubaan in 2004 and in America by Viking Penguin (April 2006). The sequel, Younguncle in the Himalayas, was publishing in 2005 in India by Young Zubaan and Puffin books. Her novella “Love and Other Monsters,” reviewed in this issue of Ideomancer, is available from Aqueduct Press. A collection of her stories will soon be available from Zubaan.
Sean Melican: Though you say “The Sign in the Window” is your only mainstream story, two others (“The Wife”, “Hunger”) would be comfortable under the ‘mainstream’ rubric. Certainly, they don’t have the usual science fiction or fantasy signifiers. Why have you chosen to submit to genre markets, or have they chosen you?
Vandana Singh: I’m obviously not very good at literary taxonomy or don’t care enough about it! “The Wife” is to me a spec fic story and “Hunger” was written after “The Sign in the Window.” (And I don’t update my website often enough). The latter story, by the way, while being mainstream, has something of a spec fic sensibility. You know, the universe being filled with messages that we try to interpret, to fit into our lives and circumstances, rightly or wrongly-all that is to me very spec fic. There has to be some element of the non-Euclidean in every story I write. I am utterly, totally, completely incapable of writing straight mainstream fare.
This is also why I submit to genre markets-I feel at home in genre. I enjoy a lot of non-genre stuff, but I’m a denizen of the spec fic world.
SM: As a corollary, how did you become interested in reading generally, and speculative fiction specifically?
VS: How does one become interested in breathing? : Seriously, though, I grew up in middle class, urban India where education and learning are a VERY big deal and all the kids know the alphabet in at least two languages by age three. I grew up in a house full of books and no TV, and my parents both had master’s degrees in English Literature, and I could read in English and Hindi from a very early age. My mother and my paternal grandmother also told stories to us kids from the old epics: stories about demons and gods, monsters and flying chariots.
SM: While I understand what you mean by ‘non-Euclidean’ writing, how do you go about consciously or unconsciously doing so?
VS: Well, I don’t consciously try to do it but the few times I’ve tried writing mainstream fiction I’ve stopped after a couple of paragraphs because I’ve bored myself to tears. It is not that I find mainstream fiction itself boring-I love a lot of realist writing-but I can’t seem to do it myself. Even if there is no overt magic or science fiction in a story of mine, there is awareness of a subtext that hints that things aren’t as they seem on the surface; that there may be hidden relationships and connections. Which I think gives it a fantastical sensibility. It’s a reflection of the way I look at the world, as a sort of palimpsest. The universe is non-Euclidean. I have an urge to bring that into my writing because I find it exciting. That’s it in a nutshell.
SM: How does being a Hindu, an Indian, and a woman affect you writing and your perception of speculative fiction?
VS: Well, I guess in the same way that a white American writer’s identity and experience might shape their writing. So where it might be natural for an American writer to set his or her story in Boston or New York, for me the natural place is Delhi, where I grew up. I was part of various women’s movements in India in my own small way, and witnessed or experienced the contradictions of being female in Indian society. My own vast family has some wonderfully strong women in it, even where the structure is more traditional, and I learned very early on that human systems are complex, that you can’t easily generalize. Hence my strong allergic reaction to stereotyping. As for Hinduism, I grew up in a Hindu family, listening to myths and legends and being part of various religious festivities and ceremonies. At the same time I was taught to be curious and tolerant, and left free to reject any part of Hinduism that I did not agree with-all of which are very Hindu attitudes. So my Hinduism, as befits a religion that has no founder and no single creed, is personal; I’m religiously an agnostic but I have a sense of the sacred, a sense of being part of a web of existence, of living in a rich metaphorical space. Complexity, connectedness, a blurring of boundaries between (for instance) animal and human, a sense that the universe is changing and staying still all at the same time. The audacity to think big, like the ancient Indian philosophers and mathematicians who came up with names for unimaginably enormous numbers. I don’t know how all that shows up in my fiction; I leave that to interested critics.
I should mention that my background in physics contributes as much (I suspect) to my writing as any of the above. I teach physics at a small and wonderful liberal arts college and although I don’t do research any more I still ponder the great unsolved questions. My writing ties into all this very directly because it can be a vehicle for the wild speculations of my imagination, allowing me an intellectual high or two in a different way from research.
SM: Since you are perhaps the only Indian speculative fiction writer, at least within the Western ghetto, it is dangerously easy to (unfairly) assume that you are not only an individual but speak for Indians in general, to say that the experiences you write about are not simply an individual’s life but represent the lives of all Indian women. Are you aware of any such pressure? How much is autobiographical?
VS: First, I’m happy to announce that there are increasing numbers of Indian or Indian-origin speculative fiction writers now living and writing in the Western world (as well as in India). There’s Anil Menon, for instance, who is brilliant and has been published in many anthologies and also in Strange Horizons, and a whole crop of other talents emerging from Clarion workshops. There are also many writers in India who are writing spec fic of various kinds, and in fact there is a long tradition of science fiction in some Indian languages like Bengali. But when I first started to write this stuff (which was after I came to the U.S.) I didn’t know about most of that. I also didn’t know any other Indians in this part of the world who were into spec fic, and it was pretty lonely. My first writers’ conference (in Portland, OR) I stood out among the science fiction and fantasy crowd. An agent who was one of the guests advised me not to worry about writing SF and told me quite kindly that I was a multicultural writer who should be writing about saris and arranged marriages. That was the first time I realized that some people saw me as an alien in the SF field. This was both annoying and extremely amusing. Later on I became part of the Cambridge Science fiction Workshop and made friends among other writers, so that changed.
But to get back to your question: I don’t know if people take me as representing all Indian women or not; I hope they don’t! What I’d love to see are many more voices than mine in spec fic from Indians, including women, and that is happening slowly.
As for whether any of my writing is autobiographical: to an extent everything I write is, because it is the world as seen through my eyes, through the filters of my own experiences and discoveries. Some stories have a kernel based on actual events but I extrapolate wildly from those to form the story. For example my story Hunger took off from the memory of an old man who lived at the top of the stairs in our apartment building in Delhi, who had been thrown out by his son and who ultimately starved to death despite our attempts to help him. My story Delhi is filled with personal reminiscences of various places in the city of Delhi, although the events that happened to the protagonist certainly never happened to me. I’m also working on a novella set in the far future on a space station at the other end of the galaxy. Among other things it is about a woman’s search for scientific truth and for identity, and I’m no stranger to that sort of thing.
SM: Is there the beginning of a theme with “Hunger” and “Thirst”? Will we see “Exhaustion,” “Desire” or “Fear”?
VS: J Perhaps we can also add “Despair,” “Dyspepsia” and “Love-sick Yearning!” But seriously, no, there is no theme. It is sheer coincidence that I happened to write stories with those titles
SM: On your website, you mention that you “…discovered [you] wanted to be a writer.” Traditionally a writer says she or he has always wanted to be a writer. How did this discovery occur?
VS: Well, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve always been writing, but I never thought of being a writer in the sense of submitting stories and being professional and all that, until much later in life. To me writing, like reading, is akin to breathing: I do it because I can’t seem to help it. (I suppose that makes it some kind of pathological condition).
When I took a nine-year break from academia in order to home-school my daughter, I realized that I wanted to write, not just for myself, but because I thought I might actually have something to say to the world. So it was a discovery. Not a one-time revelation but something that dawned on me over time.
SM: You seem to move easily between adult fiction and children’s fiction, and while you’ve said you don’t have an interest in the taxonomy of fiction, at the very least, they have different audiences. What differences are there in your approach to each? Many writers say they write for a particular person (sometimes persons). Do you have such a person or persons? Are they different for each type of writing?
VS: I still read a lot of children’s fiction. I haven’t outgrown that and hope never to do so! There’s a part of me that is always eleven years old, and I like to honor that when I write. So for me the boundary between children’s fiction and adult fiction is blurred. The only difference is that I limit such things as sex and violence and similar themes that kids may not be ready for. But I do put in things that all kids go through: the pain of having to grow up, the realization of their parents’ fallibility, the realization that security in this world is a fragile, illusory thing. And spades of the whole sense-of-wonder thing, which is how I still remember seeing the world as I grew up.
I don’t have a particular person or persons for whom I write, although my Younguncle stories for children were first told to entertain my daughter when she was sick. To some extent I’m writing for myself, for the eleven-year-old inside me, as well as the alleged grown-up.
SM: Is some of the artwork for Younguncle Comes to Town intended to resemble the art in Curious George books? I realize writers rarely have control over the art, of course.
VS: The American edition has cover art by Sandy Nichols, but the interior art is by the New Delhi artist B.M. Kamath. I am not aware of any deliberate attempt to make the art resemble that in the Curious George books.
SM: What particular impulses have driven you to tell your stories?
VS: Well, the world is a complex and endlessly fascinating place. In various ways my writing is an attempt to help me make sense of this complexity. And to celebrate it or comment on it in some way. I don’t seem to be able to stop myself from doing that.
The things that excite me about the world generally show up in my writing: the quirkiness of human beings, animals, the physical universe, the mental spaces we inhabit. How we impose structure on the world-from sociological expectations, customs and rules to our attempts to scientifically model Nature-and yet, despite these attempts, the world keeps wriggling out from under our various schemes. So people and animals confound our expectations and the universe turns out to be mostly made of dark matter, all of which makes it a lot more interesting than it would be otherwise. The impulse that leads me to ponder scientific questions is at heart the same one that leads me to write: to try to make sense of a gorgeously complex tapestry while being the size of a mite crawling about in it. The green and red threads indicate a sort of pattern, and that works for a while, but then there is this unexpected blue weave. You know? And what can you do but follow one thread or another, and make your little hypotheses and thought experiments, and be hilariously wrong much of the time before you discover another local truth. And you have to step back from it at various times and just celebrate how confoundedly crazy and interesting everything is. The way I choose to do that is to tell a story.
SM: Thank you!
Adams, John Joseph, editor. Wastelands. Night Shade Books: 2008. ISBN: 978-1-59780-105-8
Živkovic, Zoran. Alice Copple-Tošic, translator. Steps Through the Mist. Aio Publishing Company LLC: 2007 ISBN: 978-1-933083-10-0
Singh, Vandana. Of Love and Other Monsters. Aqueduct Press: 2007 ISBN: 978-1-933500-16-4
Mallet, Nathalie. The Princes of the Golden Cage. Night Shade Books:2007. ISBN: 978-1-59780-090-7
First, several caveats:
It is always good to have collections of short stories. They are an endangered species and like all endangered species, the more space available for them and the more of them, the better.
John Joseph Adams deserves a great deal of credit for the extensivity and reach of his research (see my notes on research below), and for picking recent post-apocalyptic stories that have not been heavily anthologized.
But most of these stories have been reviewed elsewhere, including Locus, Tangent, and elsewhere. Therefore, rather than reinforce or refute reviews of these stories on an individual basis, I’ve chosen to discuss the value of, and some of the trends within, the sub-genre.
Having said that, none of the stories in Wastelands is a weak story. Some are better than others, but that is always the case with any collection. It is worth buying.
Why collect post-apocalyptic stories as opposed to, say, favorite stories (these are the best-of-the-year collections) or, well, anything else? Because, ostensibly, post-apocalyptic stories are allowed, even encouraged, to break the rules. Stories in the (real or mythological) past must adhere to economic, physical, geographical, historical, social, or cultural rules. Stories in the future must make an attempt, feeble or otherwise, to connect the imagined future to the past: they can break certain rules—most scientific laws, as it is known as science fiction—but they must maintain continuity with the historical past. With post-apocalyptic stories, however, anything goes. To borrow Larry Niven’s phrase, it is a playground for the mind. It is the opportunity to do thought experiments. Of course this leads to a great amount of apparent but not real (see below) authorial laziness: research is hard. Done well, though, post-apocalyptic stories break the rules (they fracture the speculative fiction mirror, as it were) to reflect upon, well, ourselves. Therefore, I propose renaming the genre after-the-break stories, at least for purposes of this review.
There is an insidious largely unexamined assumption regarding the above-mentioned authorial laziness: many stories reinforce certain implicit lessons, particularly that of the lone hero (abducted from the Western genre) who can, through sheer goodness (and maybe a touch of madness) conquer the overwhelming forces of chaos or evil. Road Warrior, The Postman, and I Am Legend are typical of the cinematic versions. Worse, however, is the reinforcement that democratic republicanism and capitalism are good things, both the apex of modern government, and the glue which maintains order and decency. In the Western canon, there almost certainly has never been an after-the-break story emphasizing, say, the strength of Muslim or African religious, social, governmental and economic structures. This is rather myopic considering that communities (however they are defined) in after-the-break stories are almost certainly closer to the size and structure of a small, tightly knit, highly interdependent tribe or communal group (the !Kung and Bedouins come to mind) than that of a distant, anonymous, capitalistic society. In fact, “The Last of the O-Forms, “Artie’s Angels,” “And the Deep Blue Sea,” “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus,” and “A Song Before Sunset” require capitalism to remain the dominant economic model (sans a fiat money system). Despite all this elbow room for thought experimentation, despite the opportunity to break the dominant paradigms (these are after-the-break stories), the same themes echo in the narrow box of Western ideology.
This is NOT to argue that these stories are BAD stories, but to outline the point that for all the malleability available in after-the-break stories, most maintain a very narrow, very Western view of human societies.
Now, in Dale Bailey’s “The End of the World as We Know It,” Mr. Bailey juxtaposes historic end-of-the-known-world scenarios, such as that of the black plague (which must certainly have seemed like the end of the world) with the anti-hero’s rather blasé actions or lack thereof (what the hell else is he to do?) while the story itself is self-aware, acknowledging well-known tropes. For example:
In the second variety, irresponsible human beings bring it on themselves. Mad scientists and corrupt bureaucrats, usually.
Stephen King’s “The End of the Whole Mess” is a paint-by-the-numbers of this type capped by a ludicrous, painful ending—clearly a riff on the popular ‘it’s in the water’ notion. Sadly, the story never rises above cliché, with cardboard characters (brilliant, mad scientist intent on saving the world and his skeptical but admiring brother) and an ending that is telegraphed from the title—one would expect a surprising twist at the end to undercut, comment on, or offer an ironic interpretation, but the story is exactly what the reader expects. If I have one critique of Mr. Adams, it’s that he chose this story as an example of its type rather than the vastly superior “The World, as We Know’t” from Howard Waldrop. What makes it superior? It takes a single, disproven theory—the ether—assumes that it’s true and extrapolates. And, oh yeah, it’s well-written. Whereas Mr. King has to invent not one but two ludicrous, laughably implausible scientific discoveries. If Occam’s razor holds true, which story is better?
With this one exception, the other selections are excellent examples illustrating a wide range (other than the narrow Western viewpoint) of after-the-break stories.
“Salvage” and “Judgment Passed” (the only original story) are an interesting pair, contrasting the value, durability, and necessity of religious faith in the former with a healthy does of skepticism in the latter. Another common idea (so common, several writer’s guidelines advise readers to avoid it) is that of a man and woman repopulating the world—never mind that it’s genetically impossible. Gene Wolfe’s “Mute” turns the story on its head, so that rather than finding a story of hope, it’s horrific. Mr. Bailey’s story loads the idea with the possibility that if two are left, what if one doesn’t care?
Blame, of course, plays a large part. Stephen King lays the whole damn mess on one man’s shoulders while Richard Kadrey writes:
I wish there had been a war, a plague or some new, grand Chernobyl. Something we could point to and say, ‘That’s it. That’s what killed the world.’ But it wasn’t like that.
while Nancy Kress, in a refreshing counter-extrapolation writes:
And the sociologists came in droves, minicams in hand, ready to record the collapse of the ill-organized and ill colonies into street-gang, dog-eat-dog anarchy.
Later, when this did not happen, different sociologists came in later-model sani-suits to record the reasons why the colonies were not collapsing on schedule. All these groups went away dissatisfied. There was no cure, no cause, no story, no collapse, no reasons.
There is, of course, a reason. But in a reversal of the usual, Ms. Kress creates a working society of outcasts (colonies of victims of a strange disease) isolated from the supposed ‘normal’ world, which is falling apart:
… he talks about the latest version of martial law, about the failure of the National Guard to control protestors against the South American war until they actually reached the edge of the White House electro-wired zone; about the growing power of the Fundamentalist underground that the other undergrounds-he uses the plural-called “the God gang.” He tells us about the industries losing out steadily to Korean and Chinese competitors, the leaping unemployment rate, the ethnic backlash, the cities in flames. Miami. New York. Los Angeles-these had been rioting for years. Now it’s Portland.
(I have to avoid the trap of saying something like, ‘Sound familiar?’ with the intention of drawing attention to the commonalities between the story and today’s news stories—but Ms. Kress is not, as far as I know, a seer. If it’s familiar, it’s because history is strewn with the wreckage of failed societies, cultures, governments—and the causes of failure are very few and quite common.)
Many after-the-break stories assume civilization falls apart when external forces collapses: governmental, legal, religious, etc., systems. Implicitly and collectively, these stories construct the argument that we need either strong agreed-upon structures, such as courts and legislatures, or a single, strong-willed individual to keep us from our ‘natural’ violent, brutal behaviors. To say it differently: savage (I don’t want to say animal, as many animals construct non-violent collectives benefiting the more than just the individual) behavior is our primary mode of behavior; civilized behavior is a very distant second. But Nancy Kress’ story, “Inertia,” argues that while we are savages primarily, civilization alone cannot keep savage behavior at bay. Somewhere, in Umberto Eco’s ‘black box’ of individual thought, behavior is strongly and primarily driven by biochemistry. It can be fixed, but not by laws or Codes (“Artie’s Angels”).
Aside from the previous, the most unusual anti-expectation story (and my favorite) is Jonathan Lethem’s “How We Got Into Town and Out Again.” Gloria and Lewis, reminiscent of Lennie and George, enter a town (again, expectations from the title, but take note, Mr. King) looking for food and shelter after some undisclosed catastrophe has disrupted civilization. Utilizing the after-the-break freedom, Mr. Lethem sets up a world where electricity and virtual reality exist, but are used for vastly different purposes than we would ever expect: to survive, Gloria and Lewis agree to a marathon VR performance, which, according to Mr. Adam’s story notes, are based on the dance crazes of the 1930s. Rather than exploring the cause of the break, or sending us on a somewhat picaresque/horrific tour of the post-apocalyptic world, Mr. Lethem uses the freedom to criticize VR technology. If he were to set it in the present, he would of course be bound by current limitations; if he set in a future contiguous with the present, he couldn’t set up the isolation and desperation of the people who perform or watch what are voyeuristic and pornographic live performances. He would have to account for exactly who these displaced people are, both the performers and voyeurs, as well as the laws or lack thereof. With the after-the-break scenario, he has the template—we already know about how hard survival is in such a world, and the types of people who inhabit it—so Mr. Lethem is free to critique something, in this case VR technology, without overburdening himself or the reader, or tying himself into knots justifying the world.
My other favorite is Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds,” which is relatively simple superficially—the story of one woman surviving with a gun and maybe a man (how hoary!)—but, like Ms. Kress, hers is a critique of the (supposed/assumed) difference between animal and human.
Finally, and most importantly, Mr. Adams demonstrates the sub-genre is not a static, but is a dynamic, continuously evolving fractured mirror, in dialogue with, and sometimes refuting, its basic assumptions, particularly Mr. Bailey’s story (an amalgam) and John Langan’s direct, brilliant response to “The End of the World as We Know It”: “Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of Purple Flowers,” which takes each old trope—vicious beast, mutant flowers, the last woman and man on earth—and wonderfully inverts them: the man is a fanboy-turned-(literally)-superhero; the woman is already pregnant and not by him; no reason is ever given for the emergence of odd flora and fauna (the world is inexplicable, really, so why should its end be any different?) though the woman wants to study a flower or tooth, even while acknowledging that not only can she not add to their understanding, but that it would be fruitless to even try; and even the writing itself, which is largely a stream of consciousness using sentences fragments as chapter headings.
There are several others I haven’t touched upon, largely for reasons of the length of this review. What Mr. Adams has collected is (with the exception of Mr. King’s story) an excellent cross-section of post-apocalyptic stories well worth reading.
I find it difficult to express the reasons for my delight with Zoran Zivkovic’s writing. His ideas are very old—”Geese in the Mist” has at its core an idea I recall from the original “Twilight Zone”—and the actual sentences (at least those in translation) are fairly short, direct, and without noticeable flair: he does not seem to expect his readers to delight solely in the original fires of his imagination (which has unfortunately forgiven many wooden dialogues and cardboard characters) nor to be (cliché alert!) dazzled by his literary pyrotechnics.
Instead, the strength of his stories is the slow accretion of details, which lead to a profound, emotional, if sometimes inexplicable, conclusion. For those unfamiliar with Mr. Zivkovic, he writes what he calls ‘story suites’, which are essentially short stories linked by a common theme, the final story generally pulling together the threads of the previous stories. Sometimes, this last is inconsistent with the tone of its parts, resulting in a story that, while not exactly thudding, doesn’t quite sing either; however, in Steps through the Mist, Mr. Zivkovic has successfully integrated his components, perhaps because he has inverted the usual order: the first story sets up the following stories.
Each story by itself is a masterpiece in short fiction but the whole, ah the whole! The whole confronts, literarily, nothing less than the notions of fate and free will.
In “Disorder in the Head” we are introduced to Ms. Emily’s class of girls, whose assignment was to record their dreams. One student, Ms. Irena, dreams other peoples’ dreams, so she knows in advance what the other girls have written and describes them in detail. Miss Emily, believing herself to be a whole person and not merely another’s figment, is faced with a terrible choice: walk through the classroom door and discover if there is merely a hallway (therefore she’s not a figment) or discover that there’s only a mist (therefore she’s merely another’s momentary dream). As is typical with Mr. Zivkovic, we do not know what becomes of Miss Emily, whether she opens the door or not, and if she does, what she finds. In a sense, Mr. Zivkovic is creating the textual equivalent of Schrodinger’s cat. (But notice, that there are twin paradoxes: first, Miss Emily has to decide whether to open the door; and second, before the first even occurs or not, there’s a second paradox regarding what lies beyond.)
In “Hole in the Wall,” we are presented with the dream of one of Miss Emily’s students. (So is Miss Emily real, or is Miss Irena creating dreams within dreams? I believe the previous parenthetical statement answers this one.) A young girl in an asylum is convinced that she is not only able to see the future, but that she is able to choose which one of many potential futures is actualized. The proof lies in her final action, which is statistically impossible. But if she is only a figment of a figment… Perhaps, and the text does support this, the girl of “Hole in the Wall” is actually Miss Irena. The mind reels.
In “Geese in the Mist” a girl on a skiing adventure discovers that there are unseen observers (who are made visible for a moment, perhaps through dreams).
‘But what decision? You’ve still got me confused,’ [I said.]
[He said,] ‘Which run you choose to ski down the mountain.’
‘Why is that important? This run or that. They all lead down, don’t they?’
‘That’s right. But what happens afterward is not the same. Each run has its own continuation in the future. It’s the start of a chain of events and each has a very different outcome… You’ve heard the story of the butterfly harmlessly fluttering its wings and ultimately causing a hurricane on the other side of the world? Of course the butterfly is not to blame, but should one stand idly by and do nothing to lead to the chain of events that leads to misfortune?’
Not only does Mr. Zivkovic combine quantum uncertainty with the butterfly effect, but he questions the morality of action or inaction (Supposing you had knowledge outcome of an event before the even itself, what should you do? The question of this unbearable weight is answered in one of the other stories.), and infuses it with a very dark possibility: perhaps she picks the wrong run and to avert a misfortune, he must act.
In “Line on the Palm,” a young man with an abnormally short lifeline confronts a psychic, who guarantees that despite his deficiency, he will live a long life. Appearing to be a weak, unrelated story on first (and second) reading, its strength comes from the inversion of reader expectation: when the psychic is faced with the young man’s challenge to her legitimacy, she breaks down (as we expect) and admits she is a fraud. But the ending leaves us with the question of whether she is a fraud, or if she admits to fraudulent behavior for selfish reasons. Who wants blood on their hands? But the story gains strength when set beside “Hole in the Wall” and “Geese in the Mist.” In “Hole…” a young girl is incapable of bearing the weight of knowledge; however, in “Line…” a young woman bears said weight with nary a shrug of her shoulders; in “Geese…” a young woman knows that some undefined weight rests on her shoulders, but without other information, the weight remains undefined and ultimately irrelevant. If you don’t know which action will lead to which result, then what does knowing that it matters matter? Conversely, if you do, it is impossible to live with the desire to act, as each action, no matter how positive, must lead to a negative result. It is only possible to live with pre-knowledge if one abandons all efforts to decide.
In the final story, “Alarm Clock on the Night Table,” an old woman (notice the obverse to the youth in the previous stories) discovers that her alarm clock doesn’t work. She doesn’t need it to wake. She needs it to sleep. When does an old woman no longer need to sleep? When does she no longer need to wake? I don’t wish to say any more, as the pleasure from the story itself, as well as its relation to the others, comes from the gentle (almost hypnotic) revealing of the importance of the clock and her “…slim collection of love poems that had been with her as long as the clock.”
Others may have more original ideas, but no one more beautifully, lyrically, or subtly uses traditional (in less capable hands: fusty) tropes to illuminate life.
Ever since I read “The Wife,” I’ve been deeply in love with Vandana Singh’s stories. Admittedly, I haven’t read them all, but a collection will soon be available from Zubaan Books. Why do I love them? Partly because her writing is slow and languid, but never meandering, almost always leading to a sharp realization, and partly because even in her most mundane (which isn’t very) stories, her characters are Indian which makes them as, or more, alien than most literary supposed aliens (who tend to share a surprising number of Western cultural values). One example: in Of Love and Other Monsters, the main character’s (sort of) guardian encourages him to, “‘Learn computers and get a proper job, every idiot is doing it.'” Compare this cultural admonition to the characterization of American programmers in Cory Doctorow’s “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” (from Wastelands):
Van was a type-two sysadmin, over six feet tall, long pony-tail, bobbing Adam’s apple. Over his toast-rack chest, his tee said CHOOSE YOUR WEAPON and featured a row of polyhedral RPG dice.
Felix was a type-one admin, with an extra seventy or eighty pounds all around the middle, and a neat but full beard that he wore over his extra chins. His tee said HELLO CTHULHU and featured a cute, mouthless, Hello-Kitty-style Cthulhu.
Tell me again why the U.S. is outsourcing skilled labor to India, among other nations?
Of Love and Other Monsters is perhaps Ms. Singh’s most ambitious story to date, incorporating aliens, a variation of panspermia, mind control, gender/sex issues, shadowy supermen, shadowy conspiracies, and of course love; a heady mix, but she never loses control of her topics, keeping them sharply focused on how they affect the main character Arun, whose name means ‘red’ but may also foreshadow Arun’s identity. (A reference, I think, to Aryan invasions.) Arun awakes in a fire, “… lying on a bed of warm ash, with sharp bits digging into my back.” He had a form of retrograde amnesia, able to remember language, for example, but not his identity. His rescuer is Janani, an Indian woman with (of course) many secrets, which are slowly uncovered through the course of the story. She essentially raises Arun, who discovers that he has the ability to create meta-minds, a weaving of individual minds. Some people are closed to him, which he calls ‘blanks,’ and some, which he labels ‘solitons’ (a rare type of wave) are able to move through a meta-mind, “Taking nothing, leaving nothing behind.” While he never uses his powers for great things, good or evil, he fears blanks and falls in love with a soliton.
In the area of gender issues, two observations arise: first, as I read through, I initially believed Arun to be female, perhaps because of the voice. (Indeed, a number of times in the preceding paragraph, I mistakenly wrote ‘her’ instead of ‘him’ before correcting myself.) Second and related to the first, because Arun is capable of creating meta-minds, his connections with people occur on an entirely mental level: he falls in love with, and has sex with, both men and women and, “But for an accident of gender and the cruelty of convention, I would have married him in a minute.” Coupled (pun intended) with the idea that humanity arose from a coupling of aliens with our progenitor species who have the ability to manipulate and connect with minds, it calls into question the notion of ‘male’ and ‘female’. If love is a meeting of minds, either literally (as in the story) or figuratively (as in presumed real life) what are we to make of the arbitrary notions of ‘male’ and ‘female,’ ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual?’ Indeed, Arun determines there are thirty-four distinct types of minds. So much, says the story, for simple dichotomy.
(A quick primer: ‘sex’ is generally reserved as a designation for the type which has either a penis or vagina; ‘gender’ connects these previous types with secondary characteristics, what we call masculine and feminine traits. For example, sex-designated boys are supposed to be tough, like sports, earn more money, not cry, and so forth while sex-designated girls are supposed to be coy, curvy, emotional, maternal, hate sports and like makeup and Barbie dolls. Total bullshit. For example, in New Guinea, young boys performed fellatio on the elder men, to absorb their masculine traits from their ejaculate. Is this homosexuality? Certain Native American tribes allowed sex-designated women to be gender-designated men, if their dreams led them to it: they wore men’s clothing and performed masculine not feminine duties, and could even marry a woman. The reverse was true, for sex-designated men could be gender-designated women. Again, is this homosexuality as we know it?)
In the course of the rest of the story, Arun loses his soliton-lover to marriage and dissipation, discovers his identity and that of his nemesis Rahul Moghe (are they so different?) I hate to criticize Vandana Singh (her writing is so extraordinary: who am I to say anything negative?) but I wish the story had focused more on the “… dangerous place outside conventional boundaries: man/woman, mind/body,” as the copy on the back cover says, rather than on the cat-and-mouse game between Arun and Rahul Moghe. But perhaps this is not a minor failing. Perhaps it is a success. If, as Wastelands suggests, science fiction, despite its advocates insistence that it is a much less conventional genre than others, is thoroughly tied to the conventions of Western ideology, it may not be possible to discuss contrary and complex notions unless they are cocooned within an identifiable conventional narrative: the thriller, which is in a sense what “Of Love and Other Monsters” is a token of.
Following through on the previous thought, the genre shelves frankly suffer from the weight of the enormous quasi-medieval fantasies which more often than are romantically idealized and painfully naive. (Remember: research is hard.) One caveat: I have not read a great deal of said fantasies in the past decade and a half as I’d had my fill previously. Based on reviews of the more recent novels, not enough has changed. The market certainly seems to suggest that there is a demand for the product. I don’t derive much satisfaction from these books, however, for varied reasons. Put simply: I am the wrong audience.
So, when I saw the vaguely middle Eastern cover for Nathalie Mallet’s The Princes of the Golden Cage and read that there was a Sultan, I had modest hopes. Modest, as it is a first novel and very rarely are first novels brilliant. I didn’t expect Orhan Pamuk quality. I did expect something different, however, and I was disappointed.
It starts promisingly enough: Amir is one prince out of more than a hundred, all kept in a lavish palace so that they don’t tear the Sultan’s kingdom into tiny pieces like so many squabbling ducks over a piece of bread. Near the end of his life, the Sultan will name one prince as the next Sultan. The circumstances invite, of course, all sorts of schemes for fratricide. Amir isn’t the obscure scullery boy whose dirty face hides the clean jaw of the royal lineage. He isn’t interested in the Sultanate, which in this type of novel almost guarantees he will become the Sultan. He’s dedicated his life to science. Ah!
In short order, we discover that some of the brothers are being killed by what appears to be evil magical means and our hero Amir is just the sort of skeptic to defuse the tension running through the palace. Double ah! A scientist and a skeptic of magic! That’s different.
But alas, no. Presented with the evidence of evil magic which could be faked with smoke and mirrors and perhaps a bit of wax, our skeptical hero is converted to a believer in magic faster than you can say road to Damascus.
Worse, not once but four times, Amir learns key pieces of plot information by accidentally stumbling past conspirators whispering details of plans in conveniently full and sequential sentences while then muttering that perhaps it’s better not to talk of such things as the walls have ears. I wished mightily that Amir made some sort of effort to achieve something, but instead everything happens to him. Very little occurs because of his efforts to effect change—he is too much a passive figure in his own life. (That may be true for many of us, but neither are we heroes in epic stories.)
He finds a picture of a visiting princess and naturally falls head-over-heels. Which is fine, of course, teenage boys being largely enormous sacs (NOT sacks) of raging hormones, except that as soon as she and he meet, they are doe-eyed for each other. But alas, she is to marry whoever is named the next Sultan. Ah! So now Amir will throw down the gauntlet and challenge his brothers for the Sultanate!
No? Oh, he’ll mope and hope whoever is her husband is good to her. As terribly, terribly sexist as it is to compete for a woman, it is logical within a hierarchical, sexist society; but it’s impossible to cheer for a hero who gives up so easily.
There are other frustrations. The list of the order to the throne of the brothers is changed multiple times, and though Amir’s name appears, he assumes it must be his paranoid brother of the same name. Not only is he too weak to vie for the throne in the hopes of winning the hand of his love, he’s too stupid to imagine he’s a better candidate for the Sultanate than his severely agoraphobic brother.
I desperately wish I had liked this book better. Between an over-abundance, a glut, of imitation-pale trilogies and a desperate need for a wider, deeper appreciation of other peoples—U.S. Americans really, really need to overcome our irrational superiority complex—I would really like to see a fantasy novel portray a genuine hero (or dare I dream, a heroine?) in a non-Western culture.
“Salome,” he calls to me,|
the stranger from another world,
who looks so much the same as us,
but is so different skin to skin.
“Salome, come dance for me,
Salome, a legend’s name.
“Salome.” I turn my back,
“Salome.” A whisper now.
“Salome,” he groans and pants.
Marcie Lynn Tentchoff is an Aurora Award winning poet/writer from the west coast of Canada. Her work has appeared in On Spec, Weird Tales, Dreams and Nightmares, and Illumen, as well as in various anthologies and online publications.
“The Dance of the Seven Veils” was inspired by an article I read that described the seven layers of the human skin.
You came unknowing|
when the rising tide
ground slow among the stones.
Moonlight tangled in your hair;
You bleed and need
The sea birthed me.
This flesh, the sand, the stones;
The stones shelve,
You always knew you’d drown.
Liz Bourke was born in Dublin, Ireland, where she still resides. When not suffering from attacks of poetry and prose, she studies ancient history at Trinity College.
“He always knew he’d drown” is the second of a pair poems I wrote after some not-entirely-idle musing on what it means to love and live with the sea, and what it might mean to have one’s feelings reciprocated by it.
for John Benson
Binding up the seam along your shoulder, unbleeding
Sonya Taaffe has a confirmed addiction to myth, folklore, and dead languages. Her poem “Matlacihuatl’s Gift” shared first place for the 2003 Rhysling Award, and poems and short stories of hers have been been nominated for the Gaylactic Spectrum Award, the Pushcart Prize, and the Locus Award, shortlisted for the SLF Fountain Award, and honorably mentioned in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. A respectable amount of her short fiction and poetry can be found in Postcards from the Province of Hyphens and Singing Innocence and Experience from Prime Books. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Classics at Yale University.
“If Fallen Angels Dream of Flight” is dedicated to John Benson, whose dream it was.