Book Bag: ‘Ambiguity Machines’ by Vandana Singh; ‘Compass Roads’ by the Straw Dog Writers Guild

Published: 4/6/2018 8:54:10 AM

by Steve Pfarrer


By Vandana Singh

Small Beer Press

Vandana Singh, who teaches physics at Framingham State University, is something of a moonlighter: She uses her background in science, and that of having grown up in India, to bring a fresh focus to science-fiction writing.

In “Ambiguity Machines,” Singh, born and raised in New Delhi, offers 14 stories that feature a mix of science fiction, fantasy and folklore. The book, published by Small Beer Press of Easthampton, represents her first published collection of work in North America.

Her stories range across a wide spectrum, from 11th-century India to the near-present to various imaginary futures, with a lot of speculative themes that take time and reality in unexpected directions.

In “A Handful of Rice,” an Indian king, Akbar Kahn, has reigned for decades by practicing forbidden arts to keep himself youthful. But now his childhood friend, Vishnumitra, having once defeated death himself by practicing those same arts, is on his way to challenge the king — who as a boy he knew as Upamanyu — for his throne.

“Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra” finds an 11th-century Indian poet — or some essence of him — mysteriously transported to a spaceship traveling between star systems. The poet has become a companion to a lonely woman who fell in love with his work and “recreated” him.

“Isah told me she had my spirit trapped in a crystal jewel-box. The crystal jewel-box has long feelers like the antennae of insects, so that I can hear and smell, and thereby taste the worlds we visit … She wants to be the Somadeva of this age, collecting stories from planet to planet in the galaxy we call Sky River.”

And in “Requiem,” whose setting might be the most recognizable, a woman who has been working in “VReality” — virtual reality — travels from Boston to the far north of Alaska to gather up the belongings of her beloved and deceased aunt, who had been involved in research on whales.

The story takes place at an undefined period in the the 21st century, when much of the northern ice cap has disappeared, oil and gas companies have taken over the region — mechanical TRexes, in a bit or irony, mine the ocean floor for carbon-based fuel — and the moon is being mined for resources, too.

“Why study climate change when we can fix it from space?” one character says sarcastically. “We can burn fossil fuels again!”

“This collection is full of risky experiments that turn out beautifully: colorful, emotionally resonant, and consistently entertaining,” Publishers Weekly says of Singh’s book. “Refreshingly for this flavor of [science fiction], the protagonists are often bright, passionate women in middle life, driven by some kind of art or science or cause and in no way defined by their relationships with men.”



Edited by Jane Yolen

Levellers Press/Straw Dogs Writers Guild   

It’s no secret that the Valley is a haven for writers, many of whom moved here because they thought it would be a good place to live. And in “Compass Roads,” dozens of writers take to verse to describe what makes the area special to them.

The poetry anthology is the work of the Straw Dog Writers Guild, the nonprofit group that holds a monthly open mic in Northampton and represents both established and new writers. Not all the contributors to the collection, published by Levellers Press of Amherst, are members of the group.

Jane Yolen, the prolific poet and children’s book author from Hatfield, served as editor of the project, something she says she enjoyed both because of her love of her adopted home and for the chance to read the work of so many local writers.

“In the course of choosing poems for this volume, I looked for pieces not just to showcase the Valley’s different towns,” she writes in an introduction, “but to parade different seasons, different attitudes, different strengths — in other words, showing off both the glories and the warts.”

The poems — short, long, and mostly in between — offer a range of voices, from the lyrical to the droll. The pastoral appeal of the region is a consistent theme, as Christine Ann Pratt, for instance, explores in in “Quabbin, February.”

“Across the reservoir coyotes romp / on ice and snow by the shore, / their mating game the only movement / on this vast, white plain — so solid / and unyielding but for those two / black dots spinning.” 

Meanwhile, F.D. Kindness, in “On Location in Shelburne Falls,” charts the exciting chaos and civic pride of a small town suddenly being used to stage a Hollywood film: “When your town becomes a movie set, you meet neighbors / you haven’t seen in years, with cameras and cell phones, / primed to photograph lead star Josh Brolin.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

There will be a book launch for “Compass Roads” Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Florence Civic Center. Some of the participating writers will also read from the collection at the Easthampton Bookfest, on April 14 at 4 p.m. at White Square Books.






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