This is a metastory, a story about storytelling and a warning about searching too hard for meaning in stories, which should be about people, not abstract ideas. It is notable that the stories in which Isha finds so much meaning are not very storylike or memorable, unlike the immortal tales of Somadeva. Recommended.
There are moments of beauty, and wonderful little stories that Isha collects in her net, as she travels from world to world between the stars. One of them even coins a term that describes exactly how this sort of story tends to run into trouble. There’s too many elements competing for your comprehension, too many self-referential arrows pointing at each other. I enjoyed reading it, and had fun thinking about how all the parts interact, but they never quite settle down. It’s a collection of stories drawn together only by threads of narrative, caught forever in the moment just before it gels into a solid whole.
The structure of ‘Somadeva’ mirrors that of the Kathāsaritsāgara, in that it consists of a number of interlocking stories, some embedded within others (Singh also writes herself briefly into the story, as the authors of some texts did and Somadeva here wishes he had). One result of this is to make it more-or-less impossible to tell for sure whether Somadeva is in the future with Isha, or in the past telling all this to Sūryavati, or perhaps somewhere else. It’s handled elegantly by Singh, the effect is not so much disorientation as a satisfying recognition of the shape of the whole.
One of the main themes of ‘Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra’ is the extent to which stories can – or should – be pinned down to one definitive interpretation. Isha is excited to discover that a tribe named the Kiha tell stories that can be interpreted as describing fundamental scientific processes; it’s an appealing way to read them, but then Somadeva reminds us that those tales could just as easily be read in other ways – none necessarily invalid.
Perhaps, following on from this, it’s best to leave one’s interpretation of this story open. But there is one thing I think I can say with some certainty: at the start of the tale, Somadeva says,’ I was once…a poet, a teller of tales’; by its end, he’s declaring that he is those things. Whatever else stories do, they bring Somadeva to life.
And Matt Hilliard:
The final section of the story suggests, to me, that we are intended to think of the reconstructed Somadeva as being recreated not in a computer through some technobabble mechanism, but in Isha’s head through her reading of his ancient writings. Isha herself could also be a construct, part of a story thought up by Somadeva to convince Suryavati to stay alive, since he tells us he wants to put himself in a story as other authors of his tradition have done. And of course Isha and Somadeva are finally constructs in the mind of the reader reading Vandana Singh’s story on Strange Horizons. I believe this is also the meaning of Inish section with its talk of combinations of people and of unformed meanings. There’s you and there’s Vendana Singh, and the combination results in “A Sky River Sutra”. The crypto-physics stories within the story demonstrate how the reader (Isha, but also the the reader of “A Sky River Sutra”) contributes meaning, or at least interpretation, to an author’s story.
All of this is interesting, or at least I think so, but the story itself doesn’t really work for me. Part of the problem may be I’ve read a lot stories along these lines lately (Catherynne Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales, Kelly Link’s “Magic For Beginners” and “Lull”, and Inception too I suppose) and all of them were longer, more elaborate, more complicated, and ultimately more sophisticated. More seriously, the worldbuilding is essentially non-existent. Isha, Somadeva, and Suryavati feel more like variables in an equation than actual people. No attempt is made to convince the reader that Isha is a real person living in a plausible future (one reference to “memory raid” doesn’t count as worldbuilding), Somadeva’s own context is allocated a few sentences of description, and the cultures Isha visits are, well, teso. I’m sure someone could write a setting where the naming rules of the Inish actually make sense and result in a functioning society, but this story doesn’t do that. Proportionally, “A Sky River Sutra” is devoted almost entirely to its ideas about stories while its actual story remains little more than a schematic.