I picked up Distances at WisCon last year, but it sat on my shelf for months. Earlier this month, the Carl Brandon Society gave it their Parallax Award for 2008, so I thought now was as opportune a time to read it as any.
The back cover blurb made the book out to be one that dealt with higher order math. I was worried that this would be too Greg Egan-esque for me. He’s the fellow who likes to write stories where the math itself is what is important, the characters are just foils for plot around the math. It’s generally been not my thing when I’ve read his short stories, but perhaps some day I’ll pick up one of his novels and see if it works better in long form.
Distances central character experiences math as a sixth sense, like vision or hearing. It turned out to be quite un-Egan like. Anasuya’s visions of mathematics for a key stretch are basically a form of virtual reality, requiring little of my It’s Been 20 Years Since I Took Math. I did not need a paper and pen to take notes while I read, as Egan recommends for his stuff.
Anasuya is a member of a tribe where most receive super-power like abilities sometime between the age of 5 and adolescence. Some learn languages for societies that don’t exist, for instance. Anasuya’s is the math thing, which first manifests as sensing the harmonies of waves as she swims. Her tribe is also very water oriented. Much of the plot takes place in a large city, where many tribes make appearances. Hers does not, though how she came to be in the city and not with her tribe comes much later. In the city, Anasuya works/studies at a temple devoted to mathematics, where offworld visitors come to get help mapping out some complex mathematics. As the best, Anasuya becomes the key person helping them.
Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy most of the book. What I did like was the world-building, which was inventive though not particularly well fleshed-out. The key problem was that it seemed so very disconnected at an individual level.
Anasuya lives in a pentad, a five-person coupling. Her living situation receives the focus for several scenes, and then only cameos afterward. The Master of her temple plays a large part in the beginning and once again toward the end. But in the middle he only pops in to criticize and then he’s gone. Anasuya sees a ghost in the machine as she explores the off-world mathematics. This Vara mouths to her that she must make art. Why? Why does she show up in the mathematical virtual reality? Why does Anasuya care so much about this non-corporeal being who can barely communicate with her? The reclusive member of the pentad goes away and the relationship for everyone else falls apart. How did the one who won’t talk to anyone else become key? I constantly had questions like these, for most of the characters.
It’s not that these things are wrong. It’s that I didn’t get any motivation or backstory for the characters. Got plenty for the cultures and the world, but not for the individuals. Distances might have succeeded better for me had it been novel length, with more space to get me invested.
Author: Vandana Singh
Cover creator: Lynne Jensen Lampe (designer) / Thomas E. Duchamp (artist)
Series: Conversation Pieces; 23
Imprint / publisher: Aqueduct
Length: 154 p.
Publication date: December 2008