July 2015

Sessily Watt

Facing the Raven's Eye

Vandana Singh's Tensions of Impossibility

I barely registered the beginning of Vandana Singh's "Ambiguity Machines: An Examination," published in April on Tor.com. The story is broken into parts: a frame comprising an introduction and a conclusion with three vignettes sandwiched in between. When I first opened the story, I read the introduction without absorbing it, passing quickly into the initial details of the first vignette -- a trapped engineer remembering his childhood in the Gobi and the stillness he had once sought amid the constant movement of his nomadic family. The verbiage of the introduction had nothing to link to within the careful description of camels, creaking doors, and dust storms. I remembered only that the vignettes were part of an exam taken by those seeking "the position of Junior Navigator in the uncharted negative seas of Conceptual Machine-Space," whatever that meant. Unconsciously, I imagined the story like a section of a standardized test, one of those groupings of essays and questions meant to test reading comprehension. I imagined the bristling growth of institutionalized knowledge from which such a test blooms into petals of black and white, right and wrong.

This vague sense of institutionalized knowledge existed in tension with the three stories of loss and longing. In the first, a captive engineer in Mongolia assembles a machine that will show him his lover's far-off face. In the second, an artist and a mathematician in Italy explore a tiled courtyard in which objects and people mysteriously disappear and reappear. And in the third, an archaeologist in the Sahara enters a strange village surrounding a rumored medieval machine. Images of loneliness, solitude, desire, and love recur through the three accounts, melting into new shapes. Dust storms make key appearances in each, tying them loosely together, and a rose quartz stone travels from the second story to the third. Tentatively, there is even a pattern that might be created out of distance: in the first, the engineer uses his machine to cross the distance to his lover, but is then further separated from her; in the second, a machine allows the artist and mathematician to find solace in solitude, together and apart; and in the third, a machine ushers the archaeologist from great distance to great closeness. Affect and emotion are integral here -- images of the artist and mathematician haunted me after my first reading -- but as with many stories in which solitude and loneliness are the prominent themes, the narratives are also delivered with a slight crispness. A coolness: "The storm had passed, leaving clear skies and a profound emptiness."

I read the story again because of the artist and mathematician, and those moments of quiet pathos. In rereading, I became conscious of the tensions between the introduction and the vignettes. There is, first of all, the obvious tension between the standardized answers of an exam and the profligate forms of emotion and experience, typically left out of the simple rights and wrongs of institutionalized knowledge. But "Ambiguity Machines: An Examination" also contains a strong, deliberate tension between "possible" and "impossible," those dual realms which the fantastic stitches together. According to one hoary perspective, the impossible -- and, by extension, fantasy -- is false. Back before there was even a genre called fantasy, Tolkien and Lewis were defending the inherent truth of the unreal against naysayers. Personally, I am less interested in inherent truth than I am in the relationships between truth, untruth, speaker, and listener. I'd hazard a guess that Singh is, too.

The introduction to "Ambiguity Machines" is dense with this tension between possibility and impossibility. Conceptual Machine-Space, explains the first sentence, is "the abstract space of all possible machines." We begin, then, in the realm of possibility, of what could be but is not yet, or what Samuel Delany refers to as science fiction's tales of events that "have not happened." In and of itself, Conceptual Machine-Space, and the role of Junior Navigator, are fictional creations from which tales and stories of possibility could spin out almost endlessly. But there is another step. For both Delany and Singh, possibility makes little sense without impossibility. For Delany, science fiction's "have not happened" is further defined through contrast with fantasy's tales of events that "could not have happened." For Singh, the narrator of "Ambiguity Machines" goes on to explain that there are "gaps, holes, and tears" in the possible, and within those gaps, holes, and tears are impossible machines, which "violate known rules of reality." Imbedded in the space of possible machines, hidden but no less a part of it, is the impossible.

It's worth mentioning here that "examination" can refer to a test, or it can refer to a detailed exploration, perhaps complete with maps and notes. An examination of ambiguity machines contains ample room for nuance and contradictions, whereas an examination on ambiguity machines might shut down contradiction and toss out nuance. "Ambiguity Machines: An Examination" is as much exploration as exam, explicitly pointing out the nuanced relationship between possible and impossible machines: "impossible machines are crucial to the topographical maps of Conceptual Machine-Space, and indeed to its topology." Impossible and possible rely on each other to create the form -- or a form -- of reality.

Against this background, we are given three vignettes of impossible machines. They are, directly stated, stories of events that could not have happened. Yet, as readers, we believe in these characters. We are taken into individual, detailed moments, rich in personal histories, in loves, and in hurts. They feel real. We are led into believing more fervently in the impossible than in the dense, abstract verbiage of the possible.

For readers who love the friction of contradictions, "Ambiguity Machines: An Examination" offers so much more than what is described here. Each reading offers new strings, tightened and tuned, far more than I have had time to strum. I will point briefly to one other. As quoted above, the introduction states that "such impossible machines are crucial to the topographical maps of Conceptual Machine-Space, and indeed to its topology." That is, impossible machines, which by definition cannot exist, are essential to creating both the map of the possible and creating the possible itself. In this phrasing, the map and the object mapped are brought close, nearly erasing the space between them. This idea recurs throughout the vignettes: in the way the engineer's representation of his lover begins to transform her; in the mathematician's equations, which look more and more like the tiles they are meant to represent; and in the great tapestry the archaeologist discovers, "irreducible, describable only by itself." The map becomes the land.

Of course, stories -- great stories -- are also describable only by themselves. These notes are less a reflection of "Ambiguity Machines," or a map to it, than a response. They are an exploration of one possible (or impossible) reading, an examination of the examination. After reading, as instructed by the story's conclusion, you should "observe the requisite moment of contemplation." And then begin your own transformations, from possible to impossible and back again.