June 26, 2020: “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination” by Vandana Singh

Friday’s here, Story366!

Tonight is movie night at the Czyzniago household. We were supposed to watch Aquaman, but something’s up with the on-demand thing on our Firestick and it didn’t work. So, we’ve decided on Back to the Future instead, a movie neither one of our boys has ever seen. I have an anecdote about Back to the Future I could share now, but I don’t think I will. Firstly, I’m pretty sure I’ve shared that anecdote before on Story366 (I’ll track that down); secondly, I think I’d like to get to movie night, so I’ll end this part of the post with haste. Summary: Back to the Future.

Today I read from Vandana Singh‘s 2018 collection, Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, published by Small Beer Press. This has been my first experience with Singh’s work, which I alway enjoy, never knowing what to expect.

Singh’s stories are long, not to mention filled with sciencey references and laden with sci-fi concepts, so I only go through two selections today. Both of them, however, are top-notch speculative stories, stories I really got into, for their complexity and Singh’s brilliant imagination.

“Lifepod” is about a woman—or an entity, really, as it’s not sure if it’s a woman or ever was one—that finds itself on a Lifepod, heading to another planet from what we assume is Earth. Two humans are in stasis on the ship, sleeping away the long journey, and as far as the protagonist can tell, its function is to monitor these beings during the trip. As it scans their minds—it can do that, it realizes—we learn about an invasion that has ravaged the planet, anhilation-style. We’re left to wonder if these two beings—perhaps not coincidentally a young man and woman—aren’t the only two humans left. The protagonist also struggles with her/its own identity as a mother, longing for a son that might also be real or might be a dream. All in all, it’s a fascinating cross of old-fashioned alien invasion lore and existential self-examination.

The title story, “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination,” is set up as a lecture, which leads into an actual exam, given by the Ministry of Abstract Engineering, to candidates who want to achieve the rank of Junior Navigator. They are given three accounts—these accounts make up the bulk of this story—testimonies of the topographers of Conceptual Machine-Space who had been sent out exploring, tracing reports of conceptual, i.e., non-traditional, machines.

See? I told you this was stuff you had to work a bit to absorb.

Anyway, the three acounts are all pretty great stories within themselves. The first machine is one constructed by a Mongolian engineer while he is held prisoner, for years, by a foreign government in a cave. He is supposed to be making a machine of war for his captors, or else he’ll be put to death—and yes, this sounds a lot like Iron Man so far. But instead of escape or revenge, or whatever else Tony Stark wanted, all this engineer wants to do is build a machine that will show him an image of his beautiful wife, extracting memories and images from his head. There’s a twist at the end of this account I won’t reveal here, but like the story of the monkey’s paw, this machine offers more than its inventor had bargained for.

The second machine seems more like a phenomenon, as lightning strikes the courtyard of a church and causes some weird stuff to happen. A mathematician and her artist wife go to explore, and suddenly, the mathematician disappears. Years later, when the artist is an old woman, the mathematician reappears, still young: This ambiguous machine is a time machine, but not only that: The mathematician has lived several lifetimes, in different eras, searching out the same anomaly that caused her trip through time, hoping to randomly replicate the process and find her way home. The hitch? Well, I’ve already said too much.

The third account is about an archaeologist who takes her team into a distant, strange land, a land in which they must wear veils and helmets because there’s something not quite right about the air. After a while in the village as guests, the archaeologist decides to take her protective facegear off—she’d fair well in 2020, it seems—only to find that she has a mental rapport with the villagers, that this loom theyve been using to weave an elaborate tapestry seems to be some kind of psionic device that links everyone together. Again, as you may be guessing at this point, this discovery offers an unfortunate side effect to those involved.

Oh, by the way, each account mentions contact with a small gray stone, one with a vein of pink running through its surface. So, that.

At the end of the story, the Junior Navigator candidates are given their exam, where they’re supposed to use what they learned from these accounts to show how they would … navigate something? It doesn’t really matter,  though, as this frame isn’t really all that critical. The meat of the story, the discovery of these three “ambiguous machines,” is what makes this piece so special.

I enjoyed reading these stories from Vandana Singh’s collection, Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, stories that felt like ingenius mini-novels, so full of concept and idea. Singh has a massive imagination, along with the writing chops to see it all come to fruition. Glad I came across this book and writer, who echoes her hero and mentor, Ursula K. Leguin, quite a bit here. And that’s the best compliment I can offer her, I’d bet.

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