"One of the most exciting things about science," said Indian author and physics lecturer Vandana Singh in an interview last year, "is that it reveals the sub-text of the physical world. In other words surface reality isn’t all there is, the world is full of hidden stories, connections, patterns, and the scientific as well as the literary and psychological aspects of this multi-textured reality are, to me, fascinating. [...] Science is full of the most gorgeous literary metaphors!"
For Anasuya, the "explorer of mathematical countries" at the heart of Singh's most recent Aqueduct Press novella, Distances (2008), interaction with this multi-textured reality is a part of everyday life. Equations are poetry to her, each one with "its secret, inner space, its universe, nestled within", and mathematics is a sea in which she swims, literally and figuratively. She is a 'rider': she immerses herself in an amnion filled with a chemical fluid, in order to visualise calculations. She seeks to connect with, and map out, the "mountainous terrain of bizarre mathematical functions [...] branch points and branch cuts and hidden territories bearing algebraic surprises". She is, in fact, peculiarly suited to the task:
Her function was to lie in an amnion that had been specially constructed for her, with her neck-slits open. The sap that was exuded by the feathery organs inside her neck-slits and by the undersides of her fingernails and the tips of her breasts — the sap her people called vapasjal, that which is given back or returned — contained microscopic organelles the chemists at the temple called spiroforms. The spiroforms tasted the molecules in the mixture; as they interacted with the chemical stew of the amnion, a space blossomed in her mind, the most abstract made-world there could be: the sthanas itself - the solution-space of the mathematics.
It is the far future, and humanity has fanned out across the universe, adapting and diversifying to live in a myriad of new homes. Anasuya herself comes from a society of saltwater dwellers, a land of underwater caves and "seaweed forests", and has the physiology to match. But when we meet her she is a long way from home. She has travelled across a continent, to the desert City and its Temple of Mathematics; it is a place where the fleeting rainfall brings "the moist aroma of memory: the desert remembering water", and slipping into the amnion is the closest she can come to the sensations of home. When not exploring the mathematical space, she lives in a 'pentad' - a house and a relationship she shares with four other people - but nevertheless feels a quiet, deep isolation in her. The contrast between "soaring in multiple dimensions" in the sthanas and the stone-carved physicality of the "bone-dry City" is oppressive, and disorientating; outside the amnion, there are only distances.
Anasuya's cheerful pentad is reminiscent of some of Ursula Le Guin's fictional explorations of different forms of human intimacy (I'm thinking particularly of the collections Four Ways to Forgiveness and The Birthday of the World). But Singh also shares with Le Guin a broader fascination with the possibilities of what humanity can become, in different environments. Singh delights in variety and invention, in playing with language and enfolding even the most minor characters in generous warmth - as when Anasuya meets an off-world delegation for the first time, and immediately falls in love with their unexpected geometries:
Kzoric: largeness, roundness, loud voice, spherical geometries on the outside, including the enormous round bun of hair, but her gaze was prickly, sawtooth. Vishk: small, thin, skulking in the shadows, parabolic stoop of back. Tall Hiroq: long face, almost an ellipse, almost bilateral symmetry, long hands fumbling shyly with a neck-clasp, voice deep and rich, quick, shy blinks, glance a sine wave.
Singh has an ear for the unusual in her viewpoint characters' preferred metaphors; one of Anasuya's lovers, we're told, is "a spiral shell full of hidden surprises [...] she moved with a cloud's grace". Short though it is, the novella is full of the colour and texture that makes a world, and the joys and tragedies of its people as they seek to make connections with each other - as in the brief recounting of the past of Silaf, one of Anasuya's pentad, who fell in love with a gwi, a "winged reptilian creature" who fell from sky one day. Silaf nursed the gwi back to health, but when he attempted to return to the people he had lost, they no longer recognised him after his time away from them, and instead of accepting him they tore him apart. Silaf was found "wandering the streets, crying in the harsh tongue of the gwi, holding a bag of her lover's bones, all polished-white", and Anasuya's group took her in.
The off-world visitors bring with them a new mathematical problem, one that holds out the alluring possibility of new art to be made with numbers, and a new reality to explore - something that might allow humanity to unite once more across the distances between the stars. The emotional and thematic parallels with Anasuya's separation from her home and thus her identity are clear, but not overplayed. Like Anasuya's experiences within the sthanas, Distances is both immersive and alienating: an elegant story of an outsider making a place for herself, and both gaining and losing something in the process.
Less successful, I think, is Singh's earlier novella for Aqueduct, Of Love and Other Monsters (2007). Set in India and the US, it is an enjoyable and well-written story, which deals with Singh's touchstone themes of isolation and belonging (and opens with a lovely passage about waves on a beach that melds descriptive prose, pathetic fallacy and physics very neatly). But next to Distances it feels a little slight.
Structurally, Of Love and Other Monsters is a picaresque. It takes its narrator, a young man named Arun, from reborn, curious innocence - he wakens to awareness as he is rescued from a mysterious fire, without identity or memory of what came before - to lonely, bittersweet experience.
Arun is another outsider, although how much of one doesn't become clear until part way through the novella. Like Anasuya, Arun feels the pain of distance: an isolation from the world around him that he cannot quite put a name to, despite the loving home created for him by his rescuer Janani. He is constantly seeking to make connections with those around him, and here he has an advantage over Anasuya, because he can dip into the subjectivities of the people around him, learning to know them through their thoughts and impulses:
Both my mind and my body responded to the needs of such men and women around me; sometimes I would get aroused simply walking down the street, feeling the brush of their minds like feathers on my skin.
He finds that he can draw them into a sort of merged consciousness that he terms 'meta-minds', a process he likens to weaving ("a kind of net [...] not a tapestry, I was never that skilled - but a jumble of kitting wool, such as a kitten might do"). He practices "what I considered to be my art" in the local market:
here the vendors squatted on the ground before their baskets of gourds, peppers, eggplants, and onions, shouting, "Rob me! Loot me! Only three rupees a kilo!" I grew to appreciate the sweaty housewives with their glinting eyes, their bright sarees hitched up in readiness for battle as they began insulting the produce. Pride, honour and desire amidst the tottering, shining piles of luscious fruits and vegetables - how could I resist?
So accustomed is Arun to sharing others' secrets and desires - their self-images and their relationship to their bodies - that he slides with transgressive ease between categories, challenging binaries of sexuality and gender as he gives free expression to all the aspects of his nature. "I looked and dressed like a man," he notes, "but I did not understand social conventions about what it meant to be a man or a woman", and later he describes himself as "not a man or a woman, not a human or an alien". Through reading - a mixture, he tells us, of "lurid Hindi science fiction" and "paperback English romances" - Arun is able to push the boundaries of his empathy much further, at the same time as helping him to recognise additional dimensions of isolation:
Writing - whether English or Hindi or computer code - was the key that opened doors to other minds, other lands. Like a monk on leave from the monastery, I was agape with wonder. For the first time I realised that there were many ways to be a foreigner; losing one's memory, being poor, being illiterate, were just some of them.
Of course, he is not the only one with such abilities, and while Janani does her best to protect him from the dangerous glamour of the more experienced mind-weaver Rahul Moghe, Arun cannot help but feel drawn to the one person who truly understands what he feels. His sense of alienation only intensifies when he leaves India for the US, to work in the booming software industry. He is discomforted by its "abnormally clean streets so strangely empty of people or animals" (the expectation of animals, here, recalls Singh's own descriptions of her childhood), and finds the Indians he meets there "liv[ing] in a time-warp", wedded to traditions that no longer exist in India. But in Boston there is a measure of peace; in a nice touch, Arun observes that he is only one immigrant among many, albeit more unusual than most.
The desire to belong, to achieve a more perfect union, never leaves him, however. He loves, and loses, and cannot quite shake Rahul Moghe, nemesis and mirror image. Even when the destructive, vindictive aspect of Moghe's nature becomes unavoidable, Arun finds it difficult to reject him completely, because Moghe is an anchor for Arun's lost identity, however harmful:
[H]e was my own kind. Between our minds there were no barriers. With him I could begin to learn the lexicon of my lost language.
Distances is the more satisfying work, then, but both are recommended.
Two of Singh's short stories are also available online, at Strange Horizons: 'Three Tales from Sky River' and 'Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra'. For more on the Conversation Pieces series, see my review of the Eleanor Arnason short story collection Ordinary People, and my comments on Lesley Hall's biography of Naomi Mitchison, part of a longer piece on the author.