Ambiguity Machines

Vandana Singh  - published February 2018

trade paper · 320 pages · $16 · 9781618731432 | ebook · 9781618731425
February 2018 · Second printing: February 2019

Philip K. Dick Award finalist
Locus Recommended Reading List

Exploring the uncertainty with which we move through space and time, by ourselves and with others.

Publishers Weekly
Holiday Gift Guide: Fiction
“A delicate touch and passionately humanist sensibilities sweep through this magnificent collection.”
Top 10 SF, Fantasy & Horror Spring:
“Physicist and SF author Singh’s first collection for U.S. readers is a spectacular assembly of work and not to be missed by fans of cutting-edge SF with a deeply human sensibility.”

B&N, Year’s Best Collections
“Combine scientific sharpness with quiet, lyrical power.”

Spectrum Culture, Favorite Books of 2018
“Brilliant. . . . Singh’s stories are acts of relentless ingenuity and reports of human yearning. . . . Her ambiguity machines grant dangerous wishes and that’s always the best kind of writing. It is the type of book that doesn’t just sit on the tomb of your bookcase once you’ve finished your first pass. It will leave a clear mark in the dust due to constant visitation.”

Nonfiction
Tor.com: Beyond Hope and Despair Teaching Climate Change
Powell’s: Leaving Omelas: Science Fiction, Climate Change, and the Future

Listen: Vandana Singh on the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, as featured on Wired.

Read an interview: Los Angeles Review of Books: Transcending Boundaries: an interview with Vandana Singh by Kylie Korsnack

In her first North American collection, Vandana Singh’s deep humanism interplays with her scientific background in stories that explore and celebrate this world and others and characters who are trying to make sense of the people they meet, what they see, and the challenges they face. An eleventh century poet wakes to find he is as an artificially intelligent companion on a starship. A woman of no account has the ability to look into the past. In “Requiem,” a major new novella, a woman goes to Alaska to try and make sense of her aunt’s disappearance.

Singh’s stories have been performed on BBC radio, been finalists for the British SF Association award, selected for the Tiptree award honor list, and often reprinted in Best of the Year anthologies. Her dives deep into the vast strangeness of the universe without and within and with her unblinking clear vision she explores the ways we move through space and time: together, yet always apart.

Praise for Ambiguity Machines:

“Singh defies expectation with every exquisite turn of phrase. She gives you strange, powerful visions that move the heart and challenge the mind.”
— Ken Liu, author of The Grace of Kings and The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

“Ranging in scale from the smallest life to far-ranging interplanetary adventures, and drawing upon both science and mythology, Vandana Singh’s stories are luminous and compassionate.”
— Yoon Ha Lee, author of Ninefox Gambit

Table of Contents

With Fate Conspire
A Handful of Rice
Peripeteia
Life-pod
Oblivion: A Journey
Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra
Are you Sannata3159?
Indra’s Web
Ruminations in an Alien Tongue
Sailing the Antarsa
Cry of the Kharchal [read on Clarkesworld]
Wake-Rider
Ambiguity Machines: An Examination
Requiem

Listen: Vandana Singh on PW Radio with Rose Fox.

Reviews

“Vandana Singh’s science fiction . . . highlights the interplay between scientific and mythic narratives, focusing on the ways that ‘stories make the world’. A physicist in the United States, Singh was raised in India, where she was attracted by traditional legends as well as science. Several of her tales ruminate on the self-critical representations of science and the manifold meanings of myth. In one, an eleventh-century Indian poet famous for his collection of folklore has been resurrected in the future by a scientist who records alien legends, allowing Singh to compare poetic and scientific responses to oral tales. She shows that neither science nor myth are sufficient on their own, as her characters discover when they are misled by reductive empirical descriptions or beguiled by fairy-tale desires. Singh instead champions complex systems, in which discrete parts influence each other in unpredictable ways. She combines seemingly opposed categories, such as tradition and modernity, human and animal (or machine), the urban and the natural, and – most frequently – myth and science. Each yields facets of a more capacious reality that gradually unfolds within ingenious plots, which extend from earth in the near future to alternative histories and gleeful romps across time and space.”
— Michael Saler, Times Literary Supplement

“Vandana Singh’s poetic collection Ambiguity Machines: And Other Stories is as ambitious and cerebral as the various experiments her scientist characters embark on. The stories are full of the musings of these scientist-philosophers as they navigate relationships, grief and the space-time continuum — fitting, as Singh herself is a physicist. “A Handful of Rice,” told in the cadence of a biblical tale, explores the friendship of two men after one becomes a powerful king. “Are You Sannata 3159?” is like the darkest “Black Mirror” plot, about a young boy who follows his hunch that the new slaughterhouse that has brought jobs and food into town is more than it seems. “Ruminations of an Alien Tongue” is a trippy look at how people are connected across time and universes, how they remain familiar even as they change. There’s a wonderful discordance between the cool, reflective quality of Singh’s prose and the colorful imagery and powerful longing in her narratives. Singh’s final novella — exclusive to this collection — has no finality to it. It’s a new beginning.”
Washington Post

“For all the book’s diversity, though, a few signal traits stand out. Like Ursula K. Le Guin, Ms. Singh is drawn to scientists, and her speculative worlds are often fleshed out through field reports and research abstracts. . . . The capstone to this hopeful, enriching collection is the small masterpiece ‘Requiem,’ set in Alaska in a future scarred by climate change and dominated by massive tech corporations. A university student named Varsha has gone to a polar outpost to collect the effects of her aunt Rima, a brilliant scientist and engineer who died while researching whales. There Varsha witnesses a whale migration herself, and it’s this miraculous encounter amid the increasingly artificial world that reaffirms the ‘tenuous, temporal bridge between being and being.’ The more mechanized our future, Ms. Singh suggests, the more precious our connections with the living will be.”
— Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

“Through the complexities of physics and the wisdom of ancient stories, Singh breathes new life into the themes of loneliness, kinship, love, curiosity, and the thirst for knowledge. Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories is a literary gift for us all.”
— Rachel Cordasco, World Literature Today

“Singh’s detailed explorations of far- and near-future tech are grounded in a feeling and therefore messy human quotidian. In ‘Peripeteia,’ for example, we learn that the physicist-narrator Sujata can see through matter, and perceive the flow of time, but her own understanding of these abilities is shaped by two recent experiences of personal loss. In ‘Indra’s Web,’ new technology brings hope, and is shown to depend entirely on vital, communal working relationships. It’s a wonderful collection, contemporary and clear-eyed.”
— Catherine Rockwood, Strange Horizons

“A major short story collection.”
— Jonathan Strahan, Locus

“An essential short fiction collection in a year that saw many good ones. Singh’s superb work has appeared in a wide range of venues, and it is good to have a representative selection in one place.” — Graham Sleight (Ten books of the year), Locus

“Story, in fact, and how we are defined by it, is really Singh’s grand theme, and while her sophisticated narra­tive choreography may give some readers pause – since her tales often begin with classic SF tropes and then move elsewhere – it’s what makes her one of the most compelling and original voices in recent SF.”
— Gary K. Wolfe, Locus

“Vandana Singh tells sci-fi stories that stray far from the norm. In her debut collection, residents of a future version of Earth build machines to look into the past and rediscover some lost part of their humanity; a self-aware lifepod floats through space carrying both human and alien passengers; and the Ministry of Abstract Engineering studies machines that battle loneliness through time travel and transmutation. Ambiguity Machines is a remarkable and thought-provoking collection.”
Virginia Living Magazine

“The novella original to the collection, ‘Requiem,’ comes at the question of life, connection, and the near-future of our planet by putting Indian and Native Alaskan cultures into conversation among the backdrop of a rising tide of White Nationalism in America. Singh’s story of a woman coming to retrieve her much-beloved aunt’s personal and research materials from a far-north research facility is rich, dense, and balanced in its handling of grief as well as its argument about whales, humans, and the languages that can connect us all.”
Brit Mandelo, Tor.com

“There is immense beauty and aching longing to be found in these stories. Singh’s gorgeous prose and high-concept ideas clasp hands like perfectly compatible lovers, putting her on par with some of our finest living writers of SFF and “literary” cross-genre short fiction, such as Ted Chiang and Carmen Maria Machado.”
— Indrapramit Das, Scroll.in

“The stories include a fair share of spaceships, slaughterhouses, nanoplagues and alien races, but with each one the author is trying to create an ambiguity machine that defies and blurs the usual narrative and genre structures. The messiness of the term experimentation doesn’t properly define what Singh has done with these stories. There’s a specificity to her genre bending that garners the readers trust. She is also a master of the captivating first sentence, a talent that caused those feelings of love reported above, who trusts her audience to follow her fierce imagination with minimal expository guideposts. As a teacher of physics she is undoubtedly adept at communicating big ideas with ease and clarity, but how she does so in prose is a wonder. Aspiring writers should consider this collection a conceptual space they need to map and dissect to improve their craft.”
— Don Kelly, Spectrum Culture

“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.”
Aerogram

“Singh often makes even weird science concepts sound like beautiful poetry. The most engaging aspect of this book is her own widely-ranging and visionary imagination, where she merges eastern and western tropes and traditions and even blurs the lines between genres and narrative styles.”
PopMatters

“Singh’s compassionate imagination and storytelling talents are here clearly on display.”
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, Intergalactic Medicine Show

“Exhibiting Ursula K. Le Guin’s prescription for hard times, the voice of this visionary writer explores alternative ways to live and offers hope, joining other ‘realists of a larger reality.’ The takeaway from Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories is: We are all story. Vandana Singh underscores the ultimate point that stories make the world and the universe has a place for all of them.”
— Lanie Tankard, Woven Tale Press

“A delicate touch and passionately humanist sensibilities sweep through this magnificent collection, which ranges from the near future of our world to eras far away in space and time. Highlights include “With Fate Conspire,” in which Gargi, taken from slum life because of her ability to use a device which lets her look through time, has more power to influence history than the scientists around her suspect; “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra,” about an 11th-century Indian poet who has become the companion of a spacefaring folklorist; and “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination,” a story in the form of a test that pushes the limits of narrative by trying to define what is not possible rather than what is. The short piece “Indra’s Web” is more interested in depicting its solar-powered utopia than in plot or characterization, but in general this collection is full of risky experiments that turn out beautifully: colorful, emotionally resonant, and consistently entertaining. Refreshingly for this flavor of SF, the protagonists are often bright, passionate women in middle life, driven by some kind of art or science or cause and in no way defined by their relationships with men. Those not familiar with physicist and SF author Singh (Younguncle Comes to Town) will find this a perfect introduction to her work.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“In ‘Wake Rider,’ a young woman faces death in different forms as she also contemplates the possibilities of her life. In ‘Oblivion: A Journey,’ a long-held need for revenge keeps the protagonist striving for life beyond death until the realization sets in that mortality may be the only relief. The heroine of ‘Requiem’ travels to Alaska a year after her aunt’s disappearance, seeking answers. All of the stories here feature characters who are trying to discover the nature of their existence and how their lives connect others. VERDICT Rising star Singh draws on her Indian roots and physics background to bring her first North American collection to readers. Admirers of literary sf will want to read this.”
Library Journal

“The best science fiction requires a protagonist who normalizes the fantastic to tell their story. Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories achieves this and more, with a bold collection of stories about fate, worth, and inner magic. . . . From plot to setting to payoff, Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories is a marked achievement in science fiction.”
Foreword Reviews

“Reading a Vandana Singh story is a bit like finding a new window in a familiar room, opening the blinds, and being astonished at the richness and beauty of the light streaming in: often, they show us the familiar, but illuminated strangely. Singh is both a physicist and a writer, and her stories combine scientific sharpness with quiet, lyrical power. She makes constant connections between history, the present, and the future; humans and nature; space and Earth. An old woman travels back in time in search of ancient poetry. A man tries to achieve immortality. A human looks for revenge against a machine by trying to find its true name. An engineering exam that considers the classification of three new types of machine life. In every story, she brings big, fantastically speculative ideas so close, it feels as if you can reach out and touch the worlds they inhabit.”
— Joel Cunningham, B&N, Favorite Science Fiction & Fantasy Books of 2018

Reviews of Vandana Singh’s stories:

“A most promising and original young writer.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin

“Lovely! What a pleasure this book is . . . full of warmth, compassion, affection, high comedy and low.”
― Molly Gloss, author of The Hearts of Horses

“Vandana Singh’s radiant protagonist is a planet unto herself.”
Village Voice

“Sweeping starscapes and daring cosmology that make Singh a worthy heir to Cordwainer Smith and Arthur C. Clarke.”
― Chris Moriarty, Fantasy & Science Fiction

“I’m looking forward to the collection . . . everything I’ve read has impressed me.”
—Niall Harrison, Vector

“Opulent space opera . . . literate and compelling.”
— Locus

“The first writer of Indian origin to make a serious mark in the SF world … she writes with such a beguiling touch of the strange.” —Nilanjana Roy, Business Standard

“I read the story again because of the artist and mathematician, and those moments of quiet pathos. In rereading, I became conscious of the tensions between the introduction and the vignettes. There is, first of all, the obvious tension between the standardized answers of an exam and the profligate forms of emotion and experience, typically left out of the simple rights and wrongs of institutionalized knowledge. But “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination” also contains a strong, deliberate tension between “possible” and “impossible,” those dual realms which the fantastic stitches together. According to one hoary perspective, the impossible — and, by extension, fantasy — is false. Back before there was even a genre called fantasy, Tolkien and Lewis were defending the inherent truth of the unreal against naysayers. Personally, I am less interested in inherent truth than I am in the relationships between truth, untruth, speaker, and listener. I’d hazard a guess that Singh is, too. . . . For readers who love the friction of contradictions, ‘Ambiguity Machines: An Examination’ offers so much more than what is described here. Each reading offers new strings, tightened and tuned, far more than I have had time to strum.”
— Sessily Watt, Bookslut

“Echoing Le Guin to some extent, Singh follows Anasuya, who has a visceral ability to understand mathematics, as she helps visitors from a distant planet… It’s a complex setup, hinting at quite a fascinating galactic backstory.”
— Rich Horton, Locus

“Singh writes with a beautiful clarity. Each character is sharply drawn, and the inevitability of the story pulls the reader headlong with it—helped by a compelling sparseness of prose. . . . It is the best short fiction, and possibly the best fiction, I have read this year.”
— Michael Fay, The Fix

“[A] subtle tale of possession, humanity, and history that is compelling to read and written with a great sensitivity to language and detail. Singh combines a few different SF concepts in a rich and vital story, one that succeeds at provoking thought by creating multifaceted characters and situations.”
— Matthew Cheney, SF Site

“Singh plays with expectation versus reality, and the notion that reality simply can’t contain some people – or some machines – they will always want more. Singh builds an intriguing pattern of repeated images woven through the story – stones and tiles and individuals out of synch with the world around them. These repetitions make the story itself a machine, a delicate network of circuitry made up of interweaving lives. There’s a hint of the mythic as well. What is literal and what is metaphor can’t be trusted. The machines here are the memory and face of loved one left behind, a courtyard that separates lovers through a walked pattern, a device that slips an entire group of people out of phase with the world. Themes of impermanence and loss run through the tales, but there’s beauty as well. A message that could be taken from the story is that our desires may never be fulfilled, but that it isn’t a tragedy, unless we make it one. It’s part of what makes life worth living, not resting easy, but following the drive to turn one more corner and find out what happens next.”
— A. C. Wise, SF Signal

“Some day, Vandana Singh’s going to write that novel, put out that story collection. There may not be dollar signs winking around the book to signify its importance, but read it . . . simply because she writes with such a beguiling touch of strange.”
— Nilanjana S. Roy

Vandana Singh was born and raised mostly in New Delhi, India and currently lives in the United States near Boston, where she professes physics and writes. Her short stories have appeared in numerous venues and several Best of Year anthologies including the Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy and she is a recipient of the Carl Brandon Parallax award. She is the author of the ALA Notable book Younguncle Comes to Town and a previous short story collection, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories (Zubaan, Penguin India).