Hugo Nominee: “Truth”

Last of the novellas. The usual round-up:

Abigail Nussbaum:

Like “The Political Prisoner,” Robert Reed’s “Truth” uses an SFnal premise to tell a mundane story about present day ills, but with a great deal more success. Carmen, a high ranking CIA interrogator, arrives at a top secret facility deep under the Kansas prairie to take over the interrogation of Ramiro, the US government’s most dangerous and valuable prisoner. Captured while crossing the Canadian border with a trunk full of uranium, Ramiro has revealed himself, through knowledge and quirky biology, to be a time traveler, a member of an army of ‘temporal jihadists’ bent on world domination. The story’s action is mainly a series of mind games Carmen plays, not only with Ramiro but with her superiors and underlings, through which Reed paints a portrait of a world in the grips of a terrifying, dangerous paranoia, and which has been driven–in part, but not solely, due to the threat represented by Ramiro–to even greater excesses and atrocities than our own. “Truth” is obviously Reed’s reply to the 24 scenario of a terrorist who knows the location of a ticking time bomb, but his answer isn’t as simple as decrying torture so much as it is to suggest that absolute truth is inherently unknowable, that neither the most brutal torture nor the most delicate psychological probing can lead to a full comprehension of another person’s character and motives (an observation which is nicely, and for the most part subtly, reinforced by recurring references to quantum phenomenon).

Given this obvious bias, the true nature of Ramiro’s mission is pretty easy to guess (though the story’s final twist took me completely by surprise), but his interactions with Carmen, and her bitter observations about the state of her world, are so intense and well crafted that the inevitable ending is a pleasure to get to. Unlike Finlay, Reed isn’t afraid to let his main character be stupid or wrong, and unlike Maxim Nikomedes, or, indeed, her own bosses, Carmen doesn’t assume that her experience and jadedness give her a complete understanding of her world–an understanding which, Reed concludes, is impossible. It is probably no coincidence that Carmen is a woman in a male-dominated environment, surrounded by men who believe that they can achieve, or already possess, such an understanding, and who keep hammering away at Ramiro and making short-sighted decisions based on the information he gives them and the belief that they can act intelligently on it, instead of stepping back and looking at the big picture. “Truth” is a clever, and surprisingly vicious, skewering of this illusion of control.

Lois Tilton:

Carmen is the interrogator of a very secret prisoner who has admitted to being part of a jihadi group from the future, sent to destroy the twenty-first century world. For twelve years, ever since he was discovered with the makings of a nuclear device, the resources of the US have been devoted to the search for the other terrorists, to find them before it is too late. This, we learn, was the secret reason for the US invasion of Iraq, for the bombing of Iran. The prisoner claims he has no information about the plans of the other terrorists, no knowledge of where they will strike next. Now the original interrogator has committed suicide, and the narrator is brought in as his replacement, to discover the truth that drove him to his death.

No one had ever predicted ‘temporal jihadists,’ as Abraham’s agents were dubbed. Uranium-toting terrorists suddenly seemed like a minor threat by comparison. Collins’ first interview resulted in a secret and very chaotic panic roaring through Washington. Black ops funds were thrown in every direction. Ground was broken for half a dozen high-security prisons scattered across the world. But then some wise head inside Langley decided that if time travelers were genuine, then there was no telling what they knew, and if they were inspired, there were probably no limits to what they could achieve.

This is a chilling story made even more horrific by its connection to recent events in our own world. The fact that it has been told before, in different ways, does not blunt its impact; rather, it confirms its truth.

Rich Horton:

Robert Reed’s “Truth” is explicitly a post-9/11 story. In a way that makes it as fresh a story as any on this list, if we accept “True Names” as a riff on an older story, and if we acknowledge that for all its extravagance and color “The Tear” is working out SFnal models that have bee around for quite some time. (Though in “Truth” we still see a dialogue with older SF — something always present, seems to me, with Robert Reed, one of the field’s great assimilators (compare Robert Silverberg) — here I did think at times of James Blish’s VOR, for example.) The story is told by an investigator come to a secret US installation to take over the interrogation of a man help prisoner since just after 9/11, when he was found trying to smuggle nuclear material into the United States. He has certain remarkable characteristics and knowledge that have convinced some that his story is true : he is part of an invasion team from the future, trying to remake — or punish — history. Most of the novella is spent considering the question of the “truth” of what this prisoner is saying, and wondering how he or his cohorts might be affecting the decaying situation outside the installatio holding the prisoner.

What’s good — very intelligently written — and well written, too. And philosophically and politically thought-provoking. What didn’t quite work — somehow I was never quite convinced. Which is an unfair point, doesn’t tell you much, but it’s what I felt. Perhaps its a reaction to the current economic crisis, but the situations displayed in “Truth” somehow seemed almost irrelevant to me. And, as Abigail Nussbaum said, while I was reading it I was quite impressed, somehow the story didn’t quite stick with me.

Bottom line: in very different ways, two other Reed stories impressed me more than “Truth” last year, though neither got a Hugo nomination. (These are “Five Thrillers” and “Character Flu”.) Good as “Truth” is, I feel it falls short of greatness.

John DeNardo:

Robert Reed’s “Truth” is a claustrophobic take on time travel and terrorism. Most of the scenes are interrogations between Carmen, a top-level CIA agent, and Ramiro, the prisoner who claims be to one of a large group of terrorists from the future. Ramiro’s claim bears out; his biological makeup uses unexplained tech and he is able to predict astronomical events and horrendous catastrophes. Carmen’s job is to learn about Ramiro’s fellow temporal jihadists and their mysterious unseen leader, Abraham. It’s a tough job since Ramiro has already withstood years of torture. The story’s claustrophobia stems from the setting: a secret underground government facility with multiple layers of tightened security. It’s here that the story unravels, as experienced interrogator and crafty prisoner play what they see as a game – one person hiding the truth, the other looking for it. In a sense, the observing reader gets to play along as well, making this story an engaging mystery, though a bleak one to be sure.

Russ Allbery:

The second novella of the issue, this is apparently a companion piece to the earlier “Veritas” (which I haven’t read). It’s about a time traveller who has been captured by the government and the investigation into what his plans are, in a near-future world torn by war after US military action in Iraq progressed to attacks on Iran and a nuclear war between Pakistan and India. But more directly, it’s a story about interrogation.

The heroine of the story is one of the top government interrogators, newly sent to the top-secret underground facility holding the apparent time traveller to take over from the previous interrogator. The meat of the story is a beautiful tracing of her methodical approach to the problem, her dogged unwinding of the mysteries of this man and of her predecessor, and the slow working out of what is actually going on. It’s one-on-one psychological combat and is thoroughly engrossing. As always for a Reed story, there are some excellent twists, including a profoundly rewarding one at the end. The best story of the issue, and one of the better ones by Reed in a while. (8)

Val Grimm:

Just as the reality of Robert Reed’s “Old Man Waiting” (Asimov’s, August 2008) evolved as the reader moved through the story toward the last-minute twist, so too “Truth” takes most of its motion from disclosure, although at times the intricate twists and turns of fake outs and minor revelations feels more like a drawn-out striptease than a plot. Like Sanderson’s piece, this is a glamorous spy story, one where the characters have remarkable abilities, although in this case those skills are intellectual, emotional, and strategic rather than physical or psionic. There isn’t much combat happening onscreen (plenty of it off screen) except for the symbolic, chess-like duel between our protagonist and her opponent, Ramiro. Although it’s thick with references to the “War on Terror” and the apparatus thereof, and some of its point is the danger of embarking on that sort of war, literal or figurative, this piece feels nostalgic, with references to Moscow and the appearance of an underground military facility. Perhaps this is merely an artifact of the parallels Reed draws between the “Cold War” and his series of hot flashes…for most of the time his world is very American, very unbalanced politically speaking (China is crippled by a civil war). Then again, the sophistication of the “bad guys,” as I will call them, reads more like a Gorkyesque top-down conspiracy than a grassroots insurgency. Interesting, nostalgic, occasionally slow and briefly didactic, but nonetheless engrossing.

And for the last time, over to you. How does it compare to the other nominees?

Reminder: “Truth” discussion and short story schedule

And so we reach the last of the Hugo-nominated novellas, Robert Reed’s “Truth”, which you can read online here. I’ll be travelling on Sunday afternoon, so the post will go up on Sunday evening.

And as a reminder, the schedule to get through the remaining short stories before the voting deadline (“Exhalation” having been already covered):

17 June: “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” by Kij Johnson
21 June: “Article of Faith” by Mike Resnick
24 June: “Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal
28 June: “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” by Michael Swanwick

On Reviewing, Round 63

It may appear to verge on the perverse for me not to have mentioned this conversation until now; in fact it’s down to a combination of lack of time and, for once, not having much to add. But for those who haven’t seen it yet, here are as many of the iterations of the latest discussion about reviewing as I’ve been able to track down:

  • A new group blog has launched, Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics, which, as this Mind Meld at SF Signal explores, initially had a slightly confused remit. Quoth Andy Remic: “I chose the name “Ethics” not because I wanted to explore the ethical contexts of novels or films, but because I wanted to make an ethical stand against the motherfuckers who, to my mind, are systematically ruining the SFFH genres”.
  • Martin Lewis asks who are the motherfuckers?
  • Jeff VanderMeer and Evil Monkey comment
  • So do David Moles and Cheryl Morgan; other participants in the SFFE blog show up in the comments to the latter post.
  • Meanwhile! Kathryn Cramer responds to the discussion of “mostly positive” reviews policies that took place here a couple of weeks ago by explaining why she feels that what people like about books is more interesting than what they don’t; and posts one of David Hartwell’s NYRSF editorials from a few years ago on the same sort of topic.
  • Elsewhere (well, at Strange Horizons), Martin Lewis reviews Mark Charan Newton’s new book, Nights of Villjamur, and an impassioned discussion about the merits (or otherwise) of his negative review ensues
  • Abigail Nussbaum’s summary of and commentary on the discussion to this point
  • James Nicoll makes several livejournal posts springing off some of the above links
  • Karen Burnham reviews Jay Lake’s Green at SF Signal and adds a disclaimer about her connections with the author and his work; further discussion follows
  • Larry at OF Blog of the Fallen dissects Martin’s review, and adds commentary on the whole discussion
  • Hal Duncan offers two typically thorough posts: Ethics and Enthusiasm — featuring a taxonomy of criticism! — and More on Critique, in which he responds to comments on the first post by Abigail and by Matt Cheney. To the extent that I’ve digested them (we’re talking well over 10,000 words, here), I agree with the first more than with the second, but both are worth investing time in.

And that — I think — brings us current, except perhaps to note that I have my own negative review at Strange Horizons today, of Nancy Kress’s Steal Across the Sky; and that it has become apparent to me that by selecting Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold as the next book I’ll review for SH, I’ve made something of a rod for my own back. On the one hand, Strange Horizons‘ well-known bias against epic fantasy means I’m bound to hate it; on the other hand, Strange Horizons‘ equally well-known pro-UK bias means that I’m obliged to love it. Bet you can’t wait to see how I thread that needle.

UPDATE: The ethicists are now the enthusiasts.

Hugo Nominee: “True Names”

This week’s story. This week’s commentary:

Abigail Nussbaum:

A literary collaboration between Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum seems, at first glance, like a dubious proposition, but I congratulate whoever it was–the authors themselves, or Fast Forward editor Lou Anders–who came up with the idea, because the result of this marriage, “True Names,” is a complete triumph. As I said in my Hugo ballot post, it combines both authors’ strengths and favorite topics–Rosenbaum’s penchant for surrealism and literary pastiche, not to mention the basic building blocks of his Hugo-nominated short story “The House Beyond Your Sky,” and Doctorow’s fascination with the way that social structures and conventions both shape and are shaped by politics and economics, and with post-singularity concepts of self (of course, now that I’ve spelled out which parts of the story I think were contributed by each author, it’ll probably turn out that I’ve got them completely backwards). This, no doubt, is to make “True Names” sound extremely strange, which it is, dizzyingly so at points. But it is also, fundamentally, a swashbuckling adventure, complete with sneering villains, threats of world domination and destruction, doomed love, a prince on the run from his guardian with his wise tutor, and battles to the death. In what I assume is a sly meta-reference, near the middle of the story one of the characters performs in a play which recasts her life into its canonical form, and has her swinging a cutlass on the deck of a pirate ship.

“True Names”‘s actual setting, however, can best be described as, but is probably much more complicated than, a computer. In the vastness of space, two entities, Beebe and Demiurge, fight for dominance and for the raw material they can convert into processing power. Demiurge is monolithic, all its subroutines guided by a single agenda. Beebe is chaotic, with different sub-entities taking on lives of their own and vying for control, spawning new and subtly altered copies of themselves on a whim. And, it soon becomes apparent, both Beebe and Demiurge have the power to model each other, and sometimes the whole universe, in order to predict their enemies’ actions. We end up, therefore, with several different iterations of each character, only some of whom exist in the ‘real’ world. Like “The Tear,” then, “True Names” is a story about individuality in a world in which personality is easily edited and copied, but Rosenbaum and Doctorow pull off the trick McDonald wasn’t quite up to, and easily distinguish between different versions of their characters while maintaining a coherent core for each one. This is, however, far from their greatest accomplishment with this story, which on top of being a genuinely exciting adventure is both clever and cleverly put together–the sheer mass of information required to fully grasp the rules under which the characters operate is nearly overwhelming, but Rosenbaum and Doctorow not only make it easy for us to learn their world, they make it fun. Perhaps most importantly, it is the only story on the ballot which feels truly, meaningfully SFnal, telling a familiar story in a setting that is so strange that it forces us to see that story through new eyes.

Mentatjack:

I’ve not done my quota of lists on this blog, so here are my reasons why True Names is AWESOME.

  1. It’s short. It can be read in a sitting or listened to over the course of a couple commutes.
  2. It’s not TOO short. It’s a novella, if you’re frustrated with me being vague.
  3. It’s written like Bach’s inventions. Simple components combined and recombined into beautiful complexity—simple is relative, of course.
  4. Quantum Computers Rock!
  5. Modeling Universes is FUN
  6. Sock puppets are almost as cool as muppets. Actually the sock puppet might be cooler if it was a goddess
  7. Galactic battles SO enormous they can only be described via metaphor.
  8. Go is the best game ever, and the game played in this story is one of the most seamlessly integrated I’ve ever encountered in a science fiction story.
  9. It introduced me to Ben Rosenbaum … actually the name sounded familiar. I’ve heard 3 of his stories on Escapepod. If you like True Names you’ll dig “The House Beyond Your Sky,” (or vice versus) and the other two stories, while VERY different, are quite spectacular. I’m totally grabbing a copy of The Ant King and Other Stories when it’s released.
  10. It got me excited enough to write this list, and I haven’t even finished listening it. I’ll update this after I finish listening to it on my drive to work.
  11. update: I finished this on the way to work. So, imagine reality is the reality of The Matrix and then imagine there are other realities competing for computation. That’s the simple idea I mentioned in point 3, and Cory and Ben layer it upon itself beautifully. It’s wild having events happen at the scale of galaxies, yet still be a very personal tale. I could see that the abstract convolutions could turn a few people away, but if you can follow a Tarantino flick, then you’ll be able to follow as the secrets of the universe reveal their secrets and their secrets’ secrets.

Rich Horton:

The longest and arguably most ambitious of these entries is “True Names” by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum, nearly a novel according to Hugo rules. Perhaps this is a new entry in Doctorow’s ongoing series of riffs on famous SF stories. It concerns a far-future set of civilizations, mostly living in virtual environments. (That being the main nod to Vernor Vinge’s famous model — otherwise there is less thematic connection to the predecessor stories than in Doctorow’s “I, Rowboat”, “I, Robot”, and “Anda’s Game”, and for all I know, it’s not really intended to be a Vinge riff.) One civilization is democratic, consisting of numerous entities vying for control, while the other is more or less totalitarian, ruled by a single strict program. The two polities battle across the Galaxy, not always noticing the threat of a third virtual environment, which seems lifeless but unstoppable. The plot involves computer program sex (sort of) and heroism, and questions about reality versus simulation — at multiple levels — and it’s fast-moving and interesting but for me it fell into the trap of excessive abstraction. I never quite believed in — nor always understood — what was going on. Nonetheless, it’s quite a thought provoking effort.

What’s good here — tons of imaginative ideas, lots of rigorous thought behind the setup. And an ironic and well thought out conclusion. What didn’t work for me — as I said, much of it simply seemed too abstract. Too much the authors telling us what we should think about what was going on rather than making us believe it. And, I’m not sure I understood everything. Which, I hasten to emphasize, is as much or more my fault than the authors’. Pace much discussion of Greg Egan’s Incandescence, there are some stories that demand a lot of their readers (in different ways for different stories). And it’s not a fair argument to say that the burden is entirely on the writers to make a story accessible to all readers, or even most. If a story is properly told in such a way that only a subset get it, that’s fine, particularly if telling it differently would ruin it. Heck, that’s the case for much of the SF genre when so-called “mundane” readers encounter us! That said, in all honesty, if the story didn’t work for me, I can’t vote it ahead of stories that did. But I respect those who did get it.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro:

Fast Forward 2‘s showy centerpiece is the novella “True Names” by Cory Doctorow & Benjamin Rosenbaum, presented in hyper-widescreen. This is a story so densely populated with “—al” ideas (ontological, epistemological, SFnal, computational, mythological, legal, cryptographical, take your pick) that it’s probably as close to actually being made of computronium as a contemporary SF story can be. Many of these ideas (those which I understood, or think I understood) tickled my brain and commanded my respect, and as an exercise in extreme imagination I found it impressive—but as a work of fiction it is the one piece in Fast Forward 2 that failed to keep me entertained or engrossed. “True Names” presents a Universe in which three highly advanced forms of AI, Beebe, the Demiurge and Brobdignag compete for computation and ideology. […] the power struggle between them, as experienced by the characters of Alonzo, Algernon, Paquette, Nadia and others, sometimes as emulations inside each other’s entity matrices, serves as the springboard for the novella’s central, and abstract, preoccupations. I found myself unable to develop any attachment for the characters or their simulations: the dialogue was too stultified with adolescent-sounding techno-avatar-isms like, “But Alonzo, she’s so hot!” and their behavior comprised more of wide-eyed naivete and sardonic posturing than any real emotion. This left me skating on the sheer and audacious profligacy of concepts. What I found was a beautiful museum collection, a magnificent display of pre-existing ideas arranged in fabulous geometries and twisted into pleasing, recombinant strategies of exuberance, only lacking the one arresting moment of originality that can take our breath away. This might seem like a strange claim on my part. Perhaps “True Names” is so Far Out, in setting, that I found myself not caring sufficiently about how Far Out it was. Not even the Solipsist’s Lemma could save me.

Paul Raven:

By dint of sheer size alone, the centrepiece of Fast Forward 2 is Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum’s “True Names”, an implicit homage to Vernor Vinge’s seminal novella of the same title (often credited as being one of the first fictional appearances of a recognisable technological singularity as well as one of the earliest works to have a fully realised ‘cyberspace’ as its setting, three years prior to Gibson’s Neuromancer). No surprise, then, that it’s a crazy bells-and-whistles epic of big ideas that pits three different post-singular societies against each other on a galactic scale. Because of that, it’s sure to be the sort of story you love or hate; fans of Karl Schroeder’s Lady of Mazes, Stross’s Accelerando and some of Doctorow’s own material are going to lap up the multiple iterations of the same characters, the nested and interlocking simulated realities, and the sheer ebullient geekery of the whole thing. I enjoyed “True Names” a great deal, but there’s a case to be made that the flux of characters and situations (and the firehose of ideas) could be hard reading for a reader more accustomed to conventional narratives; it might also have been a little shorter. But considered as an imaginative sensawunda geek-out, “True Names” raises the bar for the subgenre.

The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet

The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet coverI have seen it said that it’s a bad sign when a review begins with discussion of a work other than the one under immediate consideration: that it betokens a lack of confidence in the book on the table. It’s not a stricture I particularly agree with, but neither is it a tactic I find myself deploying very often, simply because I usually find the text at hand suggests the most immediate and direct route to whatever it is I want to say. When it comes to The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet and Other Stories, however, and considering what the collection is and is not, I find my thoughts returning to a story of Vandana Singh’s that isn’t included. Distances, published as a standalone volume by Aqueduct Press at the end of last year, is by some way Singh’s longest work to date — it is on its own about half the length of The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet — and her most science-fictionally complex and ambitious tale. Set, unlike any of her other stories that I’ve read, far in the future and far away, Distances tells the story of Anasuya, a “rider” who explores mathematical problems via a technology that renders abstract mental landscapes into navigable simulations. (I was reminded somewhat of Rez.) It’s an absorbing tale, if perhaps one that doesn’t quite earn all its length, but what I want to highlight here is how beautifully apt its title is, not just because of the many distances that are worked into the narrative — geographic, intellectual, emotional, societal — but because of the way the abstract notion of distance is seen as an integral part of human existence. Distances, in other words, lend Anasuya’s society its sense of completeness; and indeed, perhaps the most satisfying thing about Distances is how irreducible it feels, how Singh mixes mathematical, artistic and sociocultural speculation in a way that feels holistic precisely because it is aware of where those different domains intersect and interact. The distances in The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet are more familiar; and the speculations are smaller, if not more tame; but for Singh’s characters, the negotiation of the two is usually no less challenging.

Or, to put it another way:

Meanwhile, she continued to read her science fiction novels because, more than ever, they seemed to reflect her own realization of the utter strangeness of the world. Slowly the understanding came to her that these stories were trying to tell her a great truth in a very convoluted way, that they were all in some kind of code, designed to deceive the literary snob and waylay the careless reader. And that this great truth, which she would spend her life unraveling, was centered around the notion that you did not have to go to the stars to find aliens or to measure distances between people in light-years. (18)

That’s from the very end of “Hunger” (2007), which opens Singh’s collection, and which I have written about before. Or, to put it yet a third way:

So much modern realist fiction is divorced from the physical universe, as though humans exist in a vacuum devoid of animals, rocks, and trees. Speculative fiction is our chance to rise above this pathologically solipsist view and find ourselves part of a larger whole; to step out of the claustrophobia of the exclusively human and discover joy, terror, wonder, and meaning in the greater universe.

But also, speculative fiction has a revolutionary potential that is perhaps unique.

Why do I say this? Because imagination — that faculty that expands the human mind to the size of the universe, that makes empathy possible (you have to have some imagination to put yourself in another’s shoes — also allows us to dream. […] While speculative fiction has not yet fully realized its transgressive potential, dominated as it has been by white, male, techno-fantasies — Westerns and the White Man’s Burden in Outer Space — there is still a strong undercurrent of writing that questions and subverts dominant paradigms and persists in asking uncomfortable questions.
[…]
But it is also true that when it uses symbol and metaphor in certain ways, speculative fiction is about us as we are, right now. This may be the case even if the story is set on another planet, in another age, and the protagonist is an alien. Because haven’t we all felt alien at some time or another, set apart from the norm due to caste and class, religion and creed, gender and sexual orientation? (201-3)

That is from “A Speculative Manifesto”, which closes the collection, and can be read as positioning sf as a literature centrally concerned with the negotiation of distances: between the self and the world, or the other; between what is and what is possible; between what is here and what is elsewhere. All of these are tensions visible in Singh’s work. (Most of them are refracted such that they become iterations of the distance between the speculative and the real.) Never, aside from the end of “Hunger”, are they explicated so directly; but the sincerity of her stories, the belief they evince in their chosen mode — the irreducibility of Distances — and, ultimately, if sometimes obliquely, their belief in humanity, are qualities that I value. They can perhaps be described as old-fashioned, but after the self-consciousness of much contemporary sf, which is a kind of anxiety, Singh’s stories feel like a relief. The uncertainties they explore do not spring from an uncertainty about their right to exist. They feel like coming home.

Home, indeed, is central to The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet: fully half of the collection’s ten stories are rooted in domestic experience, and with one exception the rest are still domestic in the sense that they don’t venture beyond Earth. The domestic alienation of “Hunger”, as I’ve noted, opens the book, serving double-duty as a gateway to the distances in the everyday, and a gateway from the real to the speculative. In this company (as opposed to the anthology in which I first read it) I thought the story slightly less impressive, but I still admire its scrupulous detail, and it does both the jobs it is required to do here with aplomb. The collection’s title story (2003) tells a similar tale — of a woman whose science-fictional perspective is ultimately matched by reality — from the point of view of her uncomprehending husband. After Kamala tells Ramnath she has had a revelation, and that she is a planet, he calls a doctor, whose considered verdict is that “women are odd” (44; there’s no doubting where our sympathies lie); and bafflement turns to horror when, at night, he sees “dark stuff … gathered about her mouth, on her chin, like a jelly … not blood but composed of small, moving things” (47). But the alienation here is Ramnath’s, not Kamala’s: she is comfortable with her condition, even telling her husband she wishes he would agree to be colonised and ultimately, in a well-placed moment of comedy, floating away into the sky, the better (it is implied) to care for her new inhabitants. It’s a deft story, if not a terribly penetrating one. Rather better is “Thirst” (2004), whose title and opening — a wife, Susheela, waking up after a vivid dream and finding her surroundings “imbued with remoteness” (88) — seem to indicate another forerunner of “Hunger”. But this iteration of the story is more overtly fantastical, perhaps because it involves more transgression than capitulation. After a buildup that evokes various kinds of longing — for the monsoon; for a local gardener; for self-knowledge — with great intensity, Susheela’s hallucinatory reconciliation with the otherness she discovers within herself is a consummation, perhaps the most visceral release in the book. But as in “Hunger” and the title story, the purpose of the fantastic is to illuminate and accentuate the stresses that result from unequal relationships between men and women.

Other stories examine other inequalities. The BSFA Award-nominated “Delhi” (2004) is a hymn to that city as channeled through the experiences of an itinerant called Aseem, who is prone to seeing “tricks of time” (20) that unpeel his home’s layers. The city — “its ancient stones, the flat-roofed brick houses, threads of clotheslines, wet, bright colours waving like penants, neem tree-lined roads choked with traffic” (19) — is the undoubted star of the show, and Singh is not at all ashamed about using her chosen device as an excuse to provide history lessons. (More and less successfully. “His grandmother,” we are told, “was one of the Hindus who never went back to Old Delhi, not after the madness of Partition in 1947, the Hindu-Muslim riots that killed thousands” [24]. “Hunger” can perhaps be read as directed as Indian readers not familiar with sf, but works as well [at least for me] as a celebration of sf; this similarly feels directed, at Western readers perhaps not familiar with India, but the complete lack of knowledge assumed is surprising: surely everything after “Partition” is unnecessary.) But the story is also an acute rendering of urban alienation. Aseem’s search for a mysterious woman, who he is told is important to his future, is poignant; but what endures from the story is the sense of Aseem’s place within the greater urban organism of which he is only a part. “The Wife” (2003), in which Padma, having made being a wife the cornerstone of her identity and adjusted herself, and even moved to America, for her husband, is now forced to adjust to being abandoned by him, makes a similar point about the importance of human perspective, when her husband insists that “We make realities out of words, Padma, words in our minds and on the page” (172); though it is one of the thinnest stories in the book, and its point is rather more sharply made by “Three Tales From Sky River” (2004). The titular tales are the myths of human cultures many millennia after a galactic diaspora: they are witty pricks to human hubris, and a reminder that how we tell it is not always how it is. (“The Room on the Roof” [2002], which closes the collection, reminds us that sometimes it can be.)

“Conservation Laws” (original to this collection), a story written, we are told, in tribute to the Bengali sf writer Premendra Mitra (1904-1988), is the moment when the collection feels closest to classic Western Golden Age sf. It is a story that is cheerfully blatant about its exposition, with a tenuous framing device that exists to set up a closing gotcha, and is at its heart about how limited human perspective may be. An elderly astronaut recounts a mission to Mars during which he claims that a figure, who may have been the ghost of a first wave of explorers, or may have been an alien, lead him into an underground city, and to a revelation as to the nature of the cosmos: “I saw vast fields of stars and all manner of strange beings. I saw strange and wonderful worlds, and pathways in utter darkness, that led to distant universes” (121). It is perhaps gimmicky, but heartfelt. A more serious exploration of the same ideas comes in “The Tetrahedron” (2005), Singh’s take on the mysterious alien artefact story, in which a student is caught up in the events following the appearance of an enormous tetrahedron — black, obviously — in the middle of a Delhi street (at, we are told, precisely 10:23 IST). Facing the prospect of an arranged marriage, Maya, a student, finds that the arrival of the tetrahedron makes her realise “how useless and insignificant” her life is “against the unending mystery of the universe” (144). She strikes up a conversation with Samir, an astrophysics student helping with the work on the artefact which, far from quenching her thirst, merely reminds her of the other implacable boundaries shaping her life (most particularly, class); and so she takes matters into her own hands. Her escape — at least as imagined by the story’s narrator — is most fulfilling because it appears to involve true partnership, denied elsewhere in her life. Tellingly, those left behind receive a few paragraphs of thought: even as one distance is closed, another opens up.

Probably the most accomplished tale in the collection, and perhaps Singh’s best to date, is “Infinities” (new here). Like “Conservation Laws” and Distances it takes its rigorous shaping metaphors from mathematics: here the Continuum Hypothesis, the statement that there is no infinite set of numbers with order between a lower order of infinity (such as the integers 1, 2, 3, 4…) and the next highest order (such as the real numbers, 1.4, 1.56, 1.659…): you can see, I think, how this fits into Singh’s concern with separations. The protagonist of “Infinities”, Abdul Karim, is a fastidious mathematics master; as with Maya, the domestic detail of his life is contrasted with his desire to see infinity, to escape from “the prosaic ugliness of the world” (57). A long-ish story, split into sections headed by epigraphs from (mostly) Indian (mostly) mathematicians, “Infinities” gradually unwinds the infinite moments that define Karim’s life and obsession — how he threw himself into mathematics after the death of his sister in a riot; how that career was cut off when his father died; how he sees shapes, sometimes, at the edges of his vision; the death of his wife; his friendship with a Hindu writer, Gangadhar — and, in doing so, creates a more nuanced portrait of India, and the tensions that shape it, than is to be found anywhere else in the collection. (For all the specificity of many of her stories, the India-ness that lingers when you close this collection is, as Singh notes in her afterword, “less the man-made political entity than a set of philosophical attitudes toward the world” [205]. And a few brief glimpses in “Delhi” is as close as she ever takes us to the future of her country.) The diverse threads of the tale are beautifully entwined and, as in “Delhi”, as in “Hunger”, the speculative is revealed to be lurking beneath the skin of the present: Karim is granted an epiphany that, heartbreakingly, reveals how far the messy real world is from the seductive abstracts of his chosen field.

In uncovering the speculative within the world we know, “Infinities” is characteristic of The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet; the most satisfying aspect of this collection is that its stories, even the less successful ones, feel of a piece, like an exploration of a coherent and urgent set of concerns. This is a hallmark of a book worth reading. There is a sense, however, in which the collection is incomplete, and I think it explains why I felt the need to talk about Distances at the start of this review. It is to be expected that there are Other Stories not included: The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet does not pretend to be comprehensive, and the stories I’m about to name may not even have been written when it was being compiled. But as noted above, between “Hunger” and “A Speculative Manifesto”, the collection presents itself as an argument for the value of sf; and in the collection as constituted, that argument is incomplete. Divya may assert that her treasured pulp novels approach a great truth; Singh may assert the value of stories set on other planets, in other ages, seen through other eyes; but with momentary exceptions, this collection takes place within the frame of the familiar and contemporary. In the best stories, this setting is itself recontextualised by a shift in perspective of one kind or another; but sometimes Singh doesn’t do more than simply articulate that there is a distance that needs to be considered. What’s missing, in fact, is precisely a story like Distances, that steps away from the immediate familiarity of most of the stories in this collection and yet clearly addresses the same concerns; or perhaps a story like Singh’s other novella, Of Love and Other Monsters (2007), with its alien protagonist and arguably more radical perspective shift. Those are the stories of Singh’s that most fully use the codes of sf, that — in concert with the work collected here — make her case; and, for all the other pleasures in The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet, I missed them.

The Forest of Links and Teeth