So much modern realist fiction is divorced from the physical universe, as though humans exist in a vacuum devoid of animals, rocks and trees. Speculative fiction is our chance to rise above this pathologically solipsist view and find ourselves part of a larger whole; to step out of the claustrophobia of the exclusively human and discover joy, terror, wonder and meaning in the universe...If you take science fiction seriously, the last few sentences will probably seem like a statement of the obvious. But it's surprising how many people (including some who are sensitive, intelligent readers of other genres) think of sci-fi and fantasy as nothing more than escapism – good for a light break but not really relevant to larger questions about our world. I suspect that to fully appreciate Singh's observation, you need to have a somewhat slanted perspective on the world, and perhaps be a bit uncomfortable in your own skin as well. (And all the better if you think of life as one big absurd mess: in that case, what could be more "realistic" and "relevant" than The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?)
...I said earlier that speculative fiction is about what cannot ever be, or what cannot be as yet. But it is also true that when it uses symbol and metaphor in certain ways, speculative fiction is about us as we are, right now. This may be the case even if the story is set on another planet, in another age, and the protagonist is an alien. Because haven't we all felt alien at some time or another, set apart from the norm due to caste and class, religion and creed, gender and sexual orientation?
All the stories in The Woman who Thought She Was a Planet involve characters who have access to this tilted perspective and who are aliens in one way or the other, even when they are flesh-and-blood people leading mundane lives: a small-town Mathematics teacher obsessed with the idea of infinity; a lady on the verge of separation from her husband of many years; a Bihari man who takes along a stock of his cherished roasted black gram and sweet suttoo on a Mars mission. Some of these stories aren't sci-fi in any obvious sense. "Hunger", for example, which I liked a great deal: on the surface this is a straightforward tale about a woman hosting a party for her husband's colleagues and their wives, and how the occasion is ruined by the death of a poor old man on the stairway landing. But the interior life of the protagonist, Divya, is what makes this such a gripping story. She sees strangeness in almost everything in the real world around her (though in her dreams she sometimes feels like she's discovered "her home planet", the place where she really belongs). Her 12-year-old daughter is turning into someone – or something – she can't recognise; her husband's promotion has meant moving to a large, sterile house; she is haunted by a childhood memory of discovering that a dozen baby mice had slowly died in her room "while she had been reading her mystery books and sipping her lemonade" (this is one among a few indications of her intense empathy for species other than her own). Looking at a faded black-and-white photo the old man was holding when he died, she can't tell whether its subject is a woman or an animal "or something entirely different".
I thought the one weakness in the story was its ending – the defensive, over-explicatory final paragraph seemed out of place in a fiction narrative, though I liked it on its own terms:
She continued to read her science-fiction novels because, more than ever, they seemed to reflect her own realisation of the utter strangeness of the world. Slowly the understanding came to her that these stories were trying to tell her a great truth in a very convoluted way, that they were all in some kind of code, designed to deceive the literary snob and waylay the careless reader. And that this great truth, which she would spend her life unraveling, was centred around the notion that you did not have to go to the stars to find aliens or to measure distances between people in light-years.This recurring theme – that all of us can be aliens in certain contexts – is a little overstated through this collection in general, but one has to remember that these stories first appeared in different publications at various times before they were collected here; a certain amount of repetition is understandable.
Another of the collection's highlights is "Delhi", a fine imaginative work about a man whose brain is wired in such as way as to enable him to experience "temporal coincidences – produced when one part of the time-stream rubs up against another and the two cross for a moment". This means that as he walks the streets of Delhi he might encounter apparitions from the past or the future, and briefly speak with them; or envision a futuristic Lower Delhi ("Neechi Dilli") where the poor, the criminal and the dispossessed live underground, in the now-abandoned tunnels of the Metro. I also recommend "Infinities", "The Tetrahedron" (which, like Arthur Clarke's "The Wall of Darkness", draws on the possibilities of the Mobius curve and dimensions that are inaccessible to us) and the title story. All these are worth reading for Singh's examination of her characters' inner lives and their encounters with parallel universes/multiverses – whether in the form of a giant portal in Delhi with invisible gateways that open out over the Thar desert, or a shadowy farishtaa glimpsed from the corner of one's eye.
(Earlier post with links to some of Vandana Singh's essays here)