By Gary K. Wolfe
July 11th, 2022
Vandana Singh’s Utopias of the Third Kind is the 28th volume in PM Press’s useful ‘‘Outspoken Authors’’ series of chapbooks edited by Terry Bisson, and, following the customary format, includes a mix of fiction and nonfiction rounded out by Bisson’s interview with the author and a brief bibliography. As with the earlier volumes, it provides a vivid and multifaceted portrait of the author as both activist and artist, and Singh, a particle physicist working on interdisciplinary approaches to the climate crisis as well as a professor who divides her time between Massachusetts and New Delhi, is a brilliant choice, and the first Asian-born author included in the series. As always, the selection of material provides a fascinating context for Singh’s fiction, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it as the best entry point for the impressive variety of that fiction; for that, the preferred choice is still her Small Beer collection of a few years ago, Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories.
Not that the four pieces of fiction included here are not excellent in their own way, but the two most beautiful stories, which date from comparatively early in Singh’s career, are essentially mainstream tales with significant coming-of-age aspects. (Neither were included in Ambiguity Machines.) ‘‘Hunger’’ shares thematic material with Katherine Mansfield’s classic ‘‘The Garden Party’’: a young girl’s socially ambitious birthday party is disrupted by the discovery that a near-destitute old man living nearby has died. The mother, Divya, is an inveterate reader of ‘‘trashy science fiction novels,’’ which more and more ‘‘seemed to reflect her own realization of the utter strangeness of the world,’’ as though SF were written in ‘‘some kind of code, designed to deceive the literary snob and waylay the careless reader.’’ While the story itself isn’t SF, it’s a powerful evocation of the appeal of SF, especially in a socially and economically stratified community in which the mother herself increasingly feels alien. Something similar might be said of ‘‘The Room on the Roof’’, which, dating from 2002, is the first published story listed in Singh’s bibliography. During monsoon season in Delhi, thirteen-year-old Urmila and her disabled, chess-obsessed younger brother are fascinated by the woman sculptor who rents her family’s rooftop room. As the woman’s own drama plays out offstage, through the viewpoint of Urmila, her effect on the children’s imagination becomes apparent: he seems to ‘‘lean more easily on his crutches’’ and becomes more communicative, while Urmila begins to recognize that ‘‘there was a wildness in her,’’ and that ‘‘what the monsoons brought was nothing less than the possibility of dissolving barriers between worlds.’’ This sense of newly discovered possibilities and dissolved barriers extends to Singh’s thoughtful personal essay about Ursula K. Le Guin, whose six-day workshop Singh attended in 1999. After reading The Dispossessed, she writes, ‘‘a new universe lay open before me,’’ and ‘‘science fiction was my country too.’’
The most significant other nonfiction piece, ‘‘Utopias of the Third Kind’’, is previously unpublished, and that by itself makes the book required reading for anyone interested in current debates about utopian and colonialist fiction. Supporting her argument with academic citations, Singh claims that much utopian thinking is a function of colonialism, with efforts to either reconstruct a mythical golden age or to appropriate the systems of the colonizers for new ends. The ‘‘third kind’’ she proposes rejects the whole colonialist paradigm in favor of ‘‘visions that are grounded in the local… but locate themselves in a planetary context.’’ She doesn’t cite specific examples – though Le Guin is invoked again – but the ideas are certainly worth thinking about. The book is rounded out by an intriguing excerpt from an unfinished story (‘‘Lamentations in the Lost Tongue’’), a rather grim account of a teenager imprisoned in Russia for her environmental activism (‘‘Arctic Sky’’), and the usual unpretentious but revealing interview with series editor Terry Bisson.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.