Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. Last installment, we talked about a couple of recent short stories by Ursula Vernon and Benjanun Sriduangkaew. This time around, I’d like to talk about two pieces from the February ’14 issue 250 of Clarkesworld: one a reprint, “Infinities” by Vandana Singh, and one original to the issue, “Tortoiseshell Cats Are Not Refundable” by Cat Rambo.
The Singh story was first published in her collection The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories and also reprinted in several places including Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection. This is the second time I’ve read it, and the first time—to my knowledge—it’s been available online. As for the Cat Rambo, it’s also science fictional, but in a very different sense; it’s interesting to see these two stories paired in the same issue (alongside other solid pieces as well by Natalia Theodoridou, An Owomoyela, and John Barnes).
I had that tickle of recognition as I read the first few lines of “Infinities,” so I stopped to do a quick search and realized I had likely read it back when it appeared in the Year’s Best. As I came back to continue, it was like a flower unfurling in my mind: the memory of reading the story the first time and the experience of reading it the second time balanced quite well. The sense of unfolding is particularly apt because “Infinities” is a slow-building, evocative, quiet novelette—handsome and powerfully intimate in its exploration of the aging protagonist’s life in its political and personal contexts.
Though mathematics has never been—and never will be—a strong suit or a pleasure of mine, this story makes the subject feel as passionate and full of beauty as a poem or a friendship. Abdul Karim’s lifelong, deep-running friendship with the literature-preferring Gangadhar is one of the highlights of this piece, in fact; it’s understated but central to the affective arc of the narrative. Their reunion at the end, after Abdul has become sure that his friend has died in the cross-religious violence that has broken out in the city, was an intense moment.
This is a story made of small, personal details: the way the loss of his sister haunts down the years, the responsibility of caring for his elderly mother in his own old age, the loss of a wife and the realization that his children have more or less gone away for good. It is also built on the arc of a life: how mathematics was his youthful passion, given up for responsibilities; how he has the time in retirement to think again, but not the caliber of his younger mind. The way that Singh renders her protagonist to us is stunning—he feels as concrete, as real, as a person in the same room with the reader.
Which, of course, makes his cross-dimensional journey feel equally significant and real. Though the small and personal details of the story are what create the affective arc, there is a narrative arc as well: Abdul Karim’s visions of what he takes to be farishte through his childhood and adulthood, his ultimate chance to step through one of their doors and see other worlds, his taking the dying woman who comes to his door through to another world to be buried in peace, etc. The magical—the mathematical—coexists in its grandeur with the simplicity and complexity of everyday life, of violence, and of love.
Really, it’s a wonderful story. I was glad to read it again.
In contrast, it’s hard for another science fictional story to have as much of an impact read directly after—I probably should have saved “Infinities” for last. However, though I didn’t love it, I do think the Rambo story is worth talking about for what it, too, does with relationships between parent and adult child and between people more generally.
“Tortoiseshell Cats Are Not Refundable” is a short almost-sketch of a piece with two primary occurrences in it. The first is that the protagonist has his mother’s old cat cloned to give her a companion again, and the second is that he agrees to have his wife (dead by a sudden accident) cloned so they can be together again. This isn’t a fresh concept: the idea of bringing a dead partner or lover back to life (and having things go not quite as planned, of course) comes around quite a lot. It’s what the writer does with it that matters.
In this case, I thought that the relationship Rambo explores between the adult son and his mother—a mother he never understood when he was younger, particularly in response to his father’s death—was a significant part of the relationship he has to his wife. He has a way, when considering his mother’s choices, to think about his own grief and his own discomfort with the fact that he’s brought home someone irrevocably different than his wife used to be.
This could be a “woe to those who mess with cloning” story, but instead—after his mother chooses to keep the kitten, despite the fact that since it’s tortoiseshell it actually doesn’t look like the first cat at all—he makes an ethical call and decides to tell his cloned wife what’s happened. There’s no concrete ending, either, which I appreciate: he’s decided to ask her if she’d like to try and start a relationship together, rather than continuing to mourn the one that he’s lost. Because she is partially the same woman he loved, and he’s still partially the same man she would have wanted to be with.
It’s not doom and gloom, nor is it all peachy—it’s just people, and people are complicated animals with complicated feelings. I appreciate that Rambo’s story, though it is rather slight and familiar, is still giving us a different take on the concept. As per usual with Clarkesworld, these are good stories with interesting bits to think about after you’re done reading them. Overall I’d recommend this month’s issue, especially “Infinities.”
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.