Sunday, 1 November 2015

Short Story Sunday 06: Vandana Singh and Malka Older

“Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra” by Vandana Singh
Read in Year’s Best SF 16 (2011), edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer
Originally published at Strange Horizons (2010)

“Somadeva” begins with the revival of a centuries-long dead writer whose magnum opus, an 18 volume compendium of stories arranged in a complex web of interlocking stories. He’s not sure if he’s come back to life or he’s the echo of his former self revived in the present or even if he’s an entirely new being created by the books of his life work so cherished by Isha, a woman travelling in space. Together, they continue to travel the stars in search of new stories. Isha gathers them together in the hopes of better understanding the origins of the alien cultures they encounter. Along the way, Somadeva, the revived writer, contemplates the essence of stories and their mysterious relationship to all things living.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve never read of this author before. I’m glad I’ve just discovered Singh because this story was masterfully told. “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra” is nothing short of excellent. Mirroring the fictional 18 volume work of Somadeva, this short story includes stories within stories along with interlocking stories. Together, they all form an intricate web of narratives that all support and embellish each other. The story deals with primal and universal themes of being and it asks big questions. Do stories create the world or are they ways for us to understand the world around us by passing down the knowledge acquired through the ages?  Some answers might be found within the text. In fact, one of the main ideas of this story is that all stories have multiple interpretations resulting from the life and experience of the person analysing it.

One of the keys to understanding this story can be found in the title. When looking up the definition of a sutra, I learned that it’s a particular form of text meant to impart truths and observations in a concise manners. Sometimes they are so concise that companion texts are written to share the most common explanations and the interpretations of the sutras. In “Somadeva”, the shorter stories, mere paragraphs long, can be considered sutras as they hold the secret to specific aspects of life. On one planet, three very short stories provide the key to their planets arrival in their solar system and the knowledge that their society used to travel the stars, but have since lost that technological ability.

This story is greatly impressive. As a whole it seems compressed because it contains so many deep and important ideas such as identity, creation, languages, and naming. I’m surprised so much depth could be included in so few pages. It’s presented in a circular and labyrinthine way but it never loses any clarity in the telling. The ambition of this story is a joy to behold but it’s the skilled execution of that ambition that makes this such a masterful narrative.

Rating: 5 stars
It's a complex idea, executed with a lot of skill and precision. The result is a profoundly moving and meaningful story. The main subject is stories and the power they have on entire societies and for hundreds of generations. Any enthusiast of fiction should give this story a read. This is a masterpiece waiting to be studied and unravelled.

Art by Richie Pope.

“Tear Tracks” by Malka Older
Read at (2015), edited by Carl Engle-Laird

This story has a straightforward and familiar plot. Two highly trained astronauts are sent to make first contract with the Cyclopes, the first sentient alien species that Earth has discovered. Their mission, along with collecting various samples, take pictures, and make observations, is to have an agreement, formalizing mutual peace, signed.

This is a familiar kind of story. Humans meet alien culture and things aren’t what they seem. Older gives her story a melancholic tone that is linked to the story’s main theme. The problem with this is that that tone serves to slow down the plot and give everything an overly sentimental feel. The theme is an interesting one, however. The Cyclopes have an interesting idea that suffering and wisdom share a connection and their society is organized in a way that highlights this belief. I don’t want to say anything more about it because it might spoil the story’s ending, but I can say that our main character, Flur, is affected by her time among the Cyclopes. The effects of this initial meeting with another species are clear. Whether we expect it or not, our mutual encounter will affect the way humanity thinks and behaves in the future and it might, it just might, impart additional wisdom to Earth’s population.  

Ranking: 2 stars

It’s a nice story, if perhaps too melancholic. There isn’t anything overly original here but it’s told in a way where the tone of the writing fits well with the story’s subject which is nice to see. Your mileage will vary based on how well you enjoy the tone. You should check it out though since it’s available for free at Tor’s website. 

Next week, the fantasy genre takes over Short Story Sunday for a few weeks. I will continue my exploration of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories which started this past Wednesday.

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