The novella Distances by Vandana Singh is Volume 23 in the “Conversation Pieces” series from Aqueduct Press. It won the 2008 Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award and was on the Honor List for the 2009 James Tiptree, Jr. Award, now renamed The Otherwise Award. I’d read and liked other fiction by Singh, and always enjoyed listening to her on panels, so that plus the awards got me to pick up the book.
“Distances, a story of science, art, and deception, is fascinating far-future science fiction, set in a desert city. For Anasuya, mathematics was experiential, a sixth sense that bared before her the harmonies, natural and artificial, that formed the sub-text of the world. So when mathematicians from the planet Tirana, 18 light-years-distant, ask Anasuya’s help in solving a series of equations, she finds the new geometrical space they present her with intriguing. But as she explores…she soon comes to suspect that it represents an actual physical system, and that the equations she is being asked to solve have a significance the Tiranis are concealing.”
It’s pure science fiction, but also boundlessly thematic within its short length. The theme is almost fractal in the way it’s presented. There are examples of physical distance, cultural distance, emotional distance, intellectual distance…and different ways people try and fail, or imperfectly succeed, to cross those distances. To me, this is a melancholy book, and one I’ll be thinking of for a long time.
Anasuya is from the Sagara region, adapted to live in a water/saltmarsh environment; she has gills and green skin caused by adaptive siloforms in her skin and spiroforms in her blood, though her people are not otherwise overly technological. She’s left her home for the City on the other side of the planet, distancing herself from her family and childhood friends for the sake of mathematics, which in this story are space/time equations far beyond what we think of as math. Anasuya is able to experience mathematics in an almost virtual reality way, unlike anyone else. Her mother is dead, a distance no one can cross, even in memory. Living among City strangers who don’t look like her, situated in a hot and dry desert environment, she’s distanced even from the members of her own polyamorous house. Within that pentad, her partner Silaf is distanced from the others by her attachment to a dead former lover.
On a larger scale, the visitors from Tirana are both physically and culturally distant from anyone on the planet Sura where Anasuya lives. At sublight speed, they traveled eighteen years to reach the Temple of Mathematical Arts. The distance is increased because the Tiranans only give Anasuya some of the facts about the work they’re asking her to perform.
As the story progresses, Anasuya becomes distanced, both physically and intellectually, from herself and from her own past; but she discovers a new future for herself. My favorite part of the story is that the Sagarans always end their poems with the phrase, “My poem is incomplete.” There’s so much in Distances to think about, that I am very sure my review is incomplete.