Vandana Singh’s love of science and science fiction bloomed hand-in-hand. As a child in India, she visited her grandparents and sometimes slept on the flat roof of their house and wondered just what was out there in the stars. Ahead of a reading at Porter Square Books on Feb. 15 to support her new short story collection Ambiguity Machines: and Other Stories, we chatted with the author and Framingham State University professor about particle physics and the late Ursula Le Guin.
What is your background in academia?
My background is in theoretical particle physics. That’s what I got my Ph.D. in and did some post-doctoral research on. I had this long 10-year gap off during which I became a writer and then I was lucky enough to return to academia, and now I’m a professor of physics at Framingham State University. And I now do work on climate change, particularly the intersection of climate change science and pedagogy, and thinking of interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary ways to communicate climate change. Not just staying with the science but going beyond it to see how it intersects with culture, economics, sociology, psychology—all of that. So it’s been a really interesting adventure being in the science but also reaching out to other fields. It’s kind of like writing a science fiction story. [Laughs.]
Science fiction at the moment is so influenced by climate change and other environmental issues. Are you finding that your academic work is informing your writing?
Yeah, they talk to each other in my brain all the time. And in fact I had this amazing experience at Arizona State where they invited me to be part of a project where they connect you with a scientist of your choice and you write a story. So thanks to them I got into writing about climate change. I ended up then doing an academic project for the American Association of Colleges and Universities that involved traveling to Alaska and coming up with an undergraduate education project on the science of climate change in the artic and how it intersects with peoples’ lives and so on. And how the Eskimos of the northern shore of Alaska are negotiating this very difficult territory of climate change and the oil industry. So the two aspects of my life are always in conversation in my head.
Who are your biggest writing influences?
I read the early science fiction writers and I read a lot of rubbish as well. Some really bad science fiction. And also some very non-literary little works of Hindi fantasy. But growing up later my major influences in the English language were I’d say Ray Bradbury—I think I read him around 12 or 13—and I woke up to the fact that science fiction could be literature. Because he was a stylist unlike Asimov for instance. But it was later when I started to take science fiction more seriously. I had this long period where I just kind of dropped it from my radar. Late teens I think right up until the time that I was a graduate student in the US. I picked it up again to read because it seemed like the only thing that could speak to my experience as an alien in alien shores. [Laughs]
When I started to actually write science fiction, it must’ve been about 1996 or so. I was a young mother; we were living in Portland, Oregon. And I wasn’t really comfortable with the genre but I had started rereading it. And my brother had been saying, “For heaven’s sake read Ursula Le Guin!” I picked up a copy of The Dispossessed and it was like a new universe had just exploded in front of me. Because then I realized the reason why I lost touch with the genre was because I didn’t see myself or people like me in any of those imagined futures or imagined worlds. But Ursula Le Guin—it was like she gave me permission to be part of the future and also to be a writer. … And so I met her at a workshop and since then she’s been a mentor of mine. We’ve been in touch over email. Not very much, but during crucial periods in my life she gave me the courage to keep going. So I would say of all the living writers—well, I’m still trying to deal with the fact that she’s gone. But she’s probably the greatest influence in English as a writer on me.
Sometimes people think that sci-fi is just white men writing characters who are white men, though the field has become more inclusive lately. Can you talk about your experience writing from diverse viewpoints?
Even though I loved it when I was a kid, the dissatisfaction I had with science fiction that led me to leave reading it for so long really centered on that. It was such a limited narrow vision. And yet if you think about it, science fiction is such a revolutionary genre… It asks these broad, huge ethical questions. These deep philosophical questions. And part of it is understanding the other. Understanding somebody who’s not like you. … Trying to walk in the shoes of somebody you’re not. And you know you can never do it with 100% accuracy because you’re not that person. But the attempt itself is something that for the writer or the reader when it’s done right, I think it really expands who we are. It expands our ability to empathize and have compassion, but it also expands our imagination.