Vandana Singh knows the universe is strange—she’s a physics professor. She’s also a science fiction author who uses the knowledge gleaned from her day job to write stories as bizarre as the universe itself.
“I have a one-line ad for a modern physics course I teach which is that ‘The universe is much more like a hippie’s pipe dream than it is like an accountant’s ledger,’” Singh says in Episode 299 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And that’s really true, I think. It’s just so incredibly strange.”
Fourteen of her stories are collected in the new book Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, including “Peripeteia,” in which a young woman becomes convinced that the universe is a constantly-shifting ad hoc illusion created by aliens.
“She’s thinking about this idea that perhaps the world is not finished, the universe is not finished,” Singh says. “So the more you observe, and the more consistent your theory is, the more reality will mold or mutate to be that way. Which is, of course, a crazy idea, but I wanted to explore this crazy idea in the story.”
Another mind-warping story is “Lifepod,” in which aliens worship a sentient being they call “The Hidden One,” which may be the galaxy itself. “We tend to imagine alien beings that are about our scale, and yet alien beings can be very small or much larger,” Singh says. “And I wanted to go to the other end, I wanted to imagine an alien being who was galaxy-sized.”
Singh was inspired to write science fiction by her mentor Ursula K. Le Guin, who passed away last month. Like Le Guin, Singh believes that stretching the imagination is vital for building a better future.
“The imagination can be—if we cultivate it—it can be the size of the universe, or maybe larger,” Singh says. “Imagination is probably one of the most—if not the most—precious of human faculties.”
Listen to the complete interview with Vandana Singh in Episode 299 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Vandana Singh on the SPACE Act of 2015:
“None of this—humanity venturing out into space—is happening with any kind of discussion, and debate, and inclusiveness from the other countries of the world—and also people of different classes—it’s not happening in a democratic fashion. We are letting billionaire technocrats who are out of touch with the realities of the world decide humanity’s future. … Perhaps if we can develop other models where we don’t need to mine—or mine as much—maybe we will not need to go to the asteroids or the moon to mine, maybe we can figure out a way to live with the resources we have, and then in that case going out into space becomes much more interesting, because then you’re going for reasons that have to do with wonder, and curiosity, and for scientific reasons, and so on.”
Vandana Singh on her story “A Handful of Rice”:
“There are stories in ancient India of sages who managed to live 5,000 years, or 2,000 years or whatever. So I wanted to imagine, how would that be possible? Well if somebody could control the prana flow, and of course the sages are supposed to do that—the process of doing yoga and meditation and all that controls the prana flow—but what if somebody could control not only the prana flow within their bodies—or the bodies of others, if you’re a healer trying to help them heal—but control and perhaps exploit the mahaprana itself, the cosmic energy flows. So the emperor in the story, who is a friend and a wanderer and a maverick—a somewhat crazy character—is one who reaches that level of being able to control mahaprana, and that was my extension, my magical extension, of the existing ayurvedic theory.”
Vandana Singh on her story “Sailing the Antarsa”:
“As we speak there are uncountable neutrinos passing through our bodies, and through the Earth. So in a similar sense I imagine this conceptual ‘antarsa’ current that flows throughout the universe, and so you have these conveyer belts throughout the universe, and that some forms of matter, like the kind of matter we’re made of—which we know is actually not like most of the matter in the universe, it’s actually a very small fraction of the matter in the universe—that our kind of matter is transparent to the antarsa, so we don’t sense it, it just flows right through us and through ordinary matter on this planet. But what if there was a kind of matter—and I call that ‘altmatter’ in the story—that was opaque to the antarsa current? And that’s the technology of the spacecraft that is used by my protagonist, Mayha, as she embarks on this lonely journey.”
Vandana Singh on Ursula K. Le Guin:
“Ursula Le Guin is the reason why I started writing science fiction for the world instead of just scribbling things for myself, and I also was one of the many writers that she took an interest in, and I think of her as a mentor. I actually spent six days in the Oregon wilderness at a workshop with her, so she’s really been an inspiration both personally and otherwise. She was definitely an inspiration for me to realize that cultures matter, that science fiction isn’t only about thinking about alternate technologies or science concepts and so on, but it’s also about re-fashioning or re-imagining our futures, and the way we live. Imagining, for instance, what if things weren’t this way? And that can be a really revolutionary question.”
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