08 January 2018

Review: Ambiguity Machines & Other Stories by Vandana Singh

PDF eBook, 320 pages
Published 2018 (contents: 2007-18)
Acquired and read December 2017
Ambiguity Machines & Other Stories by Vandana Singh

I've been a fan of Vandana Singh since I read The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories and met her at the Science Fiction Research Association 2015 conference, so I was excited to acquire an advance review copy of this, her second collection of short fiction, covering works released (mostly) after the publication of her first. A second novel is always a tricky thing; I'm wondering if a second short story collection can be even more so.

I enjoyed the first collection for its thoughtfulness and its sense of play, but I'm used to Singh's voice now, and at times I felt that Ambiguity Machines & Other Stories wasn't giving me much that I hadn't got out of the first. Singh has a recurrent interest in how (what one of her characters in TWWTSWP&OS called) "inner space" and "outer space" need to be accessed at the same time. As a result, there are a lot of ruminative stories about people in outer space here, people's ordinary lives paired with extraordinary journeys through time and space. On top of that, AM&OS adds an interest in the environment-- as is common in contemporary sf, a lot of these tales take place after some kind of ecological disaster or environmental collapse, though sometimes they're about one being forestalled. I'll be honest, occasionally it started to all blend together.

But when Singh hits, she really does sing. I really enjoyed "Peripeteia," about a physics academic who, after her lover leaves her, starts to worry that Occam's Razor might not be true, and maybe all of physics is just an ad hoc alien construction. "Are you Sannata3159?", about a man working for a pittance in a meat factory in a stratified future society, is a really dark story, more like what I would expect of Manjula Padmanabhan (it's sort of Harvestesque), but blackly good. "Sailing the Antarsa," about a lone space explorer who discovers there's always a new unknown to know, was a nice and uplifting counterpart to that one. I liked the knitting together of the stories of ordinary people during a fantastic event in "Cry of the Kharchal."

The second-best story in the volume is the last (and the only one not previously published): "Requiem," about a graduate student who goes to Alaska (in a time of environmental collapse) to collect the belongings of her recently deceased beloved aunt. A strong take on grief, with some intriguing ideas under the surface. The best story in the volume is the title story, "Ambiguity Machines: An Examination," three stories about nameless characters encountering machines that may or may not exists, each one on its own an insightful, melancholy tale, but in combination, greater than the sum of their parts. Which is true for many machines, many stories, and many collections, including this one.

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