Letter From The Editor - Issue 61 - February 2018

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Writing Fantasy

Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
March 2018

Title: Semiosis
Author: Sue Burke
Publisher: Tor Books

Sue Burke’s remarkable debut novel pulls off a rare double feat: it manages to inject new life into a concept often explored in science fiction, and to create one of the most compelling alien viewpoints I’ve encountered in the genre.

First, the conceit: human explorers, after enduring 158 years of hibernation on “a tiny spaceship,” are delivered to star HIP 30815f and settle one of its orbiting planets, which they name Pax—“since we had come to live in peace.” The world is ecologically developed, only the colonists don’t at first realize how developed. Its plants, it turns out, are sentient. This idea goes back a long way. By no means the first example, but nevertheless an early treatment of interest, is Stanley Weinbaum’s “The Lotus Eaters” (Astounding Stories, April 1935), in which humans make first contact with communally intelligent plants on Venus. Other notable variations on a theme include John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), Clifford D Simak’s All Flesh is Grass (1965), Ursula K Le Guin’s “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” (New Dimensions 1, 1971), China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000)—remember the bizarre Cactacae?—and a personal favorite, Robert Reed’s “To Church With Mr. Multhiford” (F&SF, October-November 1997) in which human evolution turns out to have been directed by corn’s domestication of us. Clearly Burke had a lot to lose by invoking such a well-mined trope, but not only does her novel hold its own, it does so with unusual rigor and technical narrative ingenuity.

I suppose that calling it a novel may be a bit misleading, since we are treated to a chronicle in the form of seven generational episodes. The first four of these proceed chronologically, providing key events from the consecutive generations 1, 2, 3 and 4, but the last three are out of order, giving us generations 6, 7 and 5. For plot reasons I won’t divulge, this turns out to be a successful strategy in terms of suspense and character development. The story kicks off with a first-generation Paxan, the biologist Octavo, coming to believe, after careful observation, that humans have entered an ecology in which two different plant species are waging war. “We left behind the failed paradigms like war,” another character tells him, unconvincingly. Octavo must make a decision to ensure human survival, and with his actions he sows, if you’ll pardon the pun, the seeds of both heart-rending conflict and incredible revelation that will be reaped by ensuing generations. Thirty-four years after planetfall, the teenager Sylvia notes “strange flashes of color in a mat of branches that had washed on shore” and shortly thereafter unearths “something pink in the sand, maybe a chunk of rose quartz.” These clues lead to fascinating developments regarding the second generation’s knowledge of Pax, destabilizing the overall human colony in a major way. And then we jump to the sixty-third year after planetfall, in a chapter titled “Higgins and the Bamboo.” Observant readers of the novel will notice that Octavo and Sylvia, the first-person narrators of the first two sections respectively, have these sections named after them—and yes, if you’ll forgive a mild stylistic spoiler, such astute readers would be right to guess that the Bamboo, along with Higgins, becomes a first-person narrator in the third section. Previously made assumptions are upended, as yet further discoveries made by humans about other intelligent life-forms on Pax complicate a delicate balance.

Throughout this and the other chapters, Burke’s no-nonsense prose doles out exposition in just the right portions to keep us engaged and curious. When the Bamboo speaks, and in a few other select passages, we do get plenty of scientific terminology and concepts, but they are germane to the story, never a hindrance. They also generate a kind of stark poetry ironically absent in the more human-centric descriptions. I found Semiosis’s chemical, biological, and geological underpinnings artfully laid, and it’s refreshing to read a non-physics based science fiction text that doesn’t skim on the science. At times, the story’s ecological inventiveness and environmental emphasis made me think of works like Doris Piserchia’s Earthchild (1977) and the better-known Ecotopia (1975) by Ernest Callenbach, but whatever attitudes are voiced within the story are done so in complex ways, almost always examined and dissected in search of greater truths. Said differently: fear not any plant-itudes! Semiosis resembles Robert Charles Wilson’s Bios (1999) more in its approach, and also brings to mind works by Sheri S. Tepper.

I expect that not every first-person voice and tone will work for every reader. It was hard for me, for instance, to warm to Higgins, though I grew to appreciate him more after the fact. The shift, within the greater story and context, to various genre molds such as murder mystery and courtroom procedural may also prove jarring for readers seeking greater cohesion. If nothing else, we should commend Burke’s ambition with these additional flourishes. For me, Semiosis’s highlight remains the unforgettable first-person narration by Pax’s native sentient organisms.

After years of being absent from science fiction, Isaac Asimov returned to the genre with a book titled The Gods Themselves (1972), which went on to earn Nebula and Hugo Awards. Like Semiosis, The Gods Themselves is made up of sections—three rather than seven—that jump in time non-sequentially, and like Semiosis, perhaps its most memorable feature is its middle section’s alien-viewpoint story, featuring three-gendered, photosynthesis-driven extraterrestrials. In a way, Sue Burke has here exceeded that act of creation, for she had less wiggle-room: her aliens are firmly, ahem, rooted in what we know about plant species, and thus possess greater verisimilitude. What a swell way to start a novelistic career.

Title: Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories
Author: Vandana Singh
Publisher: Small Beer Press

Do you enjoy stories inspired by equal parts myth and theoretical physics? How about introspective characters whose thoughtfulness doesn’t prevent them from taking action when the circumstances demand? Perhaps you also relish rich descriptive passages abounding in sensory detail, like the following:

The city rose over the banks of the Yamuna like a poet’s dream. Here was the delicate arch of a doorway, the doors carved with scenes from a fairy tale; there was a temple spire, beside the dark crown of a mango tree. The dome of a mosque, silver in the twilight, and above it the fort itself, red sandstone, turrets, and tessellations. Closer at hand: a man selling roasted shakarkand under a tree by the roadside: the smell of coal and sweetness and spices, the flare of the fire. Voices from within a walled garden where somebody was watering rosebushes. He could smell wet earth and the inescapable fragrance of roses. The horseless carriages still startled him as they went by, leaving behind a wet smell, coal and steam, and the image of a face or faces at a window. Here and there were patrols of the king, guards in red and brown, with green turbans, riding horses. And the ornate carriages filled with nobility, pulled by the great, white, humped oxen that stood six feet high at the shoulder.

If so, I have something for you. Vandana Singh’s new collection, Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, gathers one previously-unpublished novella, four novelettes and nine short stories originally published from 2007 to 2015, that amply reflect the above while providing enough narrative variation to keep things interesting. Singh’s first collection, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories (2008), was widely praised at the time of its release, and as evidenced by these selections in the intervening years she has deepened her craft.

Of the fourteen pieces collected here, my favorite five occur at the tail ends. “With Fate Conspire,” which opens the book, tells of a woman named Gargi-di compelled by scientists to use a mysterious history-gazing Machine to capture never-before-recorded poetry by Wajid Ali Shah. While using the device, Gardi-di begins to deceive her captors, passing off her own creations as factual while undertaking the study of a woman apparently unimportant to history. Gardi’s experiences, and the eventual revelation of her captors’ true motives, are beautifully enmeshed with a vision of time as a delta from which spring various rivulets. Following this story, “A Handful of Rice” (from which I quoted the above passage) chronicles the conflict of two spiritual brothers with very different ideas about how to practice “prana vidya.” Besides the story’s wonderful depictions of specific places and times, I was fascinated by how the philosophical rift between Vishnumitra and Upamanyu, who it is soon revealed has become the king, not only propels their divergent paths but is also the perfect arbiter of their respective fates.

The book’s final three pieces are “Wake-Rider,” the titular “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination,” and “Requiem.” The first of these, in which starship-piloting Lelia attempts to evade a seemingly all-powerful Euphoria Corpocracy, is perhaps the collection’s most action-laden tale, and I enjoyed every heart-pounding moment. This is not to say that the story’s backdrop, with its docility-engendering nanoplagues, is shortchanged; in fact, I can see it acting as an intriguing milieu for future stories. The “An Examination” subtitle of the next story is a clever double entendre, for the narrative functions both as a philosophical interrogation of fate and an actual test for candidates “taking the exam for the position of Junior Navigator in the uncharted negative seas of Conceptual Machine-Space.” As readers we become these exam-takers, and are treated to three accounts designed to stimulate thought on ambiguity machines, that is, devices that “blur or dissolve boundaries,” as does the narrative itself by inviting us directly into it. The three accounts function as lovely and enigmatic stand-alone stories, as grounded in concrete settings—the Gobi desert and Altai Mountains, a small Italian town, and the desert town of Tessalit—as are abstract their framing prologue and epilogue. Finally, “Requiem”, which the acknowledgments make clear was inspired by an actual trip to Alaska by the author in 2014, is a touching meditation on loss, hope, and the possibilities of communication across realms. In reviewing Singh’s first collection in 2009, Paul Witcover observed that in the best of her stories “the ending opens outward,” and that’s certainly an apt description for the endings of these three stories, and one of the reasons I found them so satisfying.

The collection’s remaining entries contain plenty of mind-expanding concepts from the cutting edge of physics and more than one direct allusion to various myths, including the Indian epic Ramayana. Certain themes emerge: the importance of familial relationships, as for example that between Mahua and her grandmother in the near-future eco-speculative “Indra’s Web” and that of Jhingur and his grandmother in the grim “Are you Sannata3159?” Community and kinship with one’s environment, whether by its absence—Ghardi in “With Fate Conspire” and Avinash in the fantastic “Cry of the Kharchal” both suffer a deep sense of displacement from their former lives—or by its presence (the various Peoples in “Sailing the Antarsa,” for instance) is likewise a recurring preoccupation. Finally, we encounter time and again the idea that our connectivity may be empowered not by proximity or like-mindedness but by distortions in the very fabric of thought and reality. Time-loops, webs of consciousness and history bend back upon themselves in startling and illuminating ways. “Would we sit together, Suryavati, Isha, and I, with you, and feel teso within us—and weave meaning from the strands of the tale?” asks Somadeva in the meta-textual “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra”? Probing the world through the pattern-seeking of science and the pattern-making of myth, these stories suggest, thus becomes vitally important to the human experience.

A possible downside to this headiness is that at times Singh’s plots become supporting actors to her evocative aesthetic and interrogation of life’s imponderables, so that significant events are stripped of immediacy, consequences of actions connected like chains rather than springs. Chronicling experiences in the form of memories and sweeping narrations, rather than presenting them through staged scenes, sometimes creates a distancing effect in Singh’s prose. This is a particular pitfall, I think, when she opts for first-person narration. But even when this distancing effect arises, it’s still easy to delight at her ideas. In “Peripeteia,” for instance, we are introduced to “Sujata’s Cosmic Censorship Principle,” which states that “All material objects are surrounded by clouds of ambiguity—which may be virtual particles or prejudices or paradigms. Nothing in the universe is naked.” That may be so, but Singh’s compassionate imagination and storytelling talents are here clearly on display.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

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