“A Sky River Sutra” by Vendana SinghSeptember 5, 2010 at 12:56 am | Posted in Short Stories | 1 Comment
A month ago or so, Brian Slatterly wrote in a comment on Abigail Nussbaum’s blog that Inception was a film about filmmaking. Whether or not you agree with him about Inception, this is certainly true of a lot of sophisticated films (practically every movie Tarantino has made, for instance), and I’ve always been a little uncertain about how I feel about it. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with making a movie about making movies, and I really admire Adaptation, a film that is firmly within this tradition, but to me the whole business carries a disagreeable whiff of navel-gazing. After all, the creative act of filmmaking may be a big deal for a director like Quentin Tarantino, but it’s mainly a curiosity to most of his audience.
I bring this up because “A Sky River Sutra” is a story about stories. In fact, it’s probably accurate to call it a short story about short stories. Nominally it is a science fiction story, narrated by a poet of ancient India whose personality has somehow been reconstructed in a computer on board a starship. Ultimately this turns out to be a bit of a red herring. One reason is that an alternative framework is proposed toward the end: a fantasy story set in ancient India where the narrator drinks a magic potion that casts his consciousness forward into the future. But ultimately I would argue both the science fiction and fantasy glosses proposed by the narrator are conceits that the the story tries out and then abandons.
The final section of the story suggests, to me, that we are intended to think of the reconstructed Somadeva as being recreated not in a computer through some technobabble mechanism, but in Isha’s head through her reading of his ancient writings. Isha herself could also be a construct, part of a story thought up by Somadeva to convince Suryavati to stay alive, since he tells us he wants to put himself in a story as other authors of his tradition have done. And of course Isha and Somadeva are finally constructs in the mind of the reader reading Vandana Singh’s story on Strange Horizons. I believe this is also the meaning of Inish section with its talk of combinations of people and of unformed meanings. There’s you and there’s Vendana Singh, and the combination results in “A Sky River Sutra”. The crypto-physics stories within the story demonstrate how the reader (Isha, but also the the reader of “A Sky River Sutra”) contributes meaning, or at least interpretation, to an author’s story.
All of this is interesting, or at least I think so, but the story itself doesn’t really work for me. Part of the problem may be I’ve read a lot stories along these lines lately (Catherynne Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales, Kelly Link’s “Magic For Beginners” and “Lull”, and Inception too I suppose) and all of them were longer, more elaborate, more complicated, and ultimately more sophisticated. More seriously, the worldbuilding is essentially non-existent. Isha, Somadeva, and Suryavati feel more like variables in an equation than actual people. No attempt is made to convince the reader that Isha is a real person living in a plausible future (one reference to “memory raid” doesn’t count as worldbuilding), Somadeva’s own context is allocated a few sentences of description, and the cultures Isha visits are, well, teso. I’m sure someone could write a setting where the naming rules of the Inish actually make sense and result in a functioning society, but this story doesn’t do that. Proportionally, “A Sky River Sutra” is devoted almost entirely to its ideas about stories while its actual story remains little more than a schematic.