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Conversation Pieces


Vol. 23 — Distances: A Novella

by Vandana Singh

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winner of the 2008 Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award
Honor List for 2009 James Tiptree, Jr. Award

She was a rider like no other.... Floating in the amnion, she entered unmapped territory; she was a speck, a ship lost in vastness, a rider on waves of maxima and minima, an explorer of a space that, but for her, would remain only guessed at. She entered this mathematical country as an explorer would enter a new land: she looked for singularities, skated over manifolds, sketched out the abstract, mountainous terrain of bizarre mathematical functions; she sought branch points and branch cuts and hidden territories bearing algebraic surprises. She took the esoteric world of the sthanas and made it her reality

Distances, a story of science, art, and deception, is fascinating far-future science fiction, set in a far-future 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 the new space, 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

Reviews

"Intensely and lyrically written, this is the story of a woman named Anasuya who lives near the ocean on a world not unlike Earth. Her culture is fascinating and allows for special attributes called athmis. Anasuya's athmis is the understanding of mathematical harmonies. She sees and experiences all the mathematical underpinnings of the world .... Individual sections illuminate and provide a rounded backdrop to the whole, until by the end of this finely layered novella I felt as though I had met a fully formed human being—not to mention a number of fascinating characters—and all with a mathematical conundrum of epic proportions with dire import for the cultures of two planets." (read the whole review)
    — Bob Blough, Tangent Online July 8, 2009

"It's an absorbing tale, if perhaps one that doesn't quite earn all its length, but what I want to highlight here is how beautifully apt its title is, not just because of the many distances that are worked into the narrative — geographic, intellectual, emotional, societal — but because of the way the abstract notion of distance is seen as an integral part of human existence. Distances, in other words, lend Anasuya's society its sense of completeness; and indeed, perhaps the most satisfying thing about Distances is how irreducible it feels, how Singh mixes mathematical, artistic and sociocultural speculation in a way that feels holistic precisely because it is aware of where those different domains intersect and interact. The distances in The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet are more familiar; and the speculations are smaller, if not more tame; but for Singh's characters, the negotiation of the two is usually no less challenging." (read the whole review)
    — Niall Harrison, Torque Control

"...a long novella mixing mathematics, gender issues, and an exotic look at human colonization of the galaxy. Echoing Le Guin to some extent, Singh follows Anasuya, who has a visceral ability to understand mathematics, as she helps visitors from a distant planet... It's a complex setup, hinting at quite a fascinating galactic backstory
    — Rich Horton, Locus, March, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-933500-26-3 (13 digit)
Publication Date: 2008
paperback 154 pages