The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories by Vandana Singh. ★★★★
This gorgeous collection of speculative short stories swept me away. Vandana Singh is a truly skilled writer.
This collection includes ten short stories and one brief essay, where Singh writes about the importance of speculative fiction (in this case she was preaching to the choir). The stories themselves are a mix of science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism. Most of the stories are set in India, although one takes place on the Moon and one takes place in New England.
My favorite of the collection is probably the opening story, “Hunger.” An Indian house wife who loves science fiction novels and dreams of other worlds feels trapped within her own, occupied with planning her daughter’s birthday party. This party is more for her husband than her daughter, as it is a chance for him to impress the higher ups at his firm. Most of the story stays within the bounds of reality, only veering outside it within the last few pages.
Like with “Hunger,” the protagonists would often be people with a sense of hollowness in their lives, unfulfilled by the demands of respectable society. In “Tetrahedron,” the protagonist is a college aged women who’s engaged to man her family approves of, but she dreads a future with him. When a mysterious tetrahedron appears out of nowhere in her city, she becomes obsessed with understanding its mysteries.
These restless protagonists are often women, such as in “Thirst,” where a wife dreams of water and serpents. She begins to understand her own family’s legacy, and why the women of her maternal line have always been drawn to water.
In “Delhi,” the protagonist at drift is a man, who on the brink of suicide was pulled back from a bridge and given a card, which led him to the office of a fortune teller. He received a computer print out of a woman’s face and the advice that she was the reason he had to keep living. Who is this woman? The protagonist doesn’t live entirely in the present — he glimpses visions of the future and the past, so the mysterious woman could be from anywhere in history. I loved this story’s chilly hints about what the future holds.
Some of the stories contain traces of sly humor; this is most obvious in the titular “The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet.” A respectable middle-class man retires and finds out that he doesn’t really know his wife. And then she starts saying that she’s a planet! What will the neighbors think?
“Three Tales from the Sky River” may be the only one of these stories that’s also available free online (check Strange Horizons). It’s possibly the shortest story in the collection, but it’s still incredibly lovely. “Three Tales from the Sky River” is three original fables from star-faring people. Even if you don’t have time to read this full collection, I would suggest at least giving this story a look.
In “The Room on the Roof,” a sculptress moves into the house of a thirteen year old girl. This story falls somewhere in the category of fantasy or magical realism, and there’s enough layers that I’m still sorting it out.
Some of the stories are more science geared than others. “The Tetrahedron” would be one of these, but “Conservation Laws” and “Infinities” are the two others. “Conservation Laws” takes place on the Moon, and through a story within a story structure heads to Mars as well for a strange, epic tale of aliens who preserve our reality. In “Infinities,” a mathematician becomes obsessed with the idea of infinity even as violence between Hindus and Muslims breaks out around him.
I enjoyed pretty much all of the stories. The only one that never really landed was “The Wife,” the one set in New England. On the whole, 9/10 is pretty good for a short fiction collection. I’m so glad I got the chance to read this book, and I look forward to exploring more of Singh’s work.