"Swimmer Among the Stars," the title story of Kanishk Tharoor's debut collection, tackles one of the trickiest subjects for fiction writers: using language to discuss language itself. In it, a team of ethnographers track down an elderly woman in a remote village who's believed to be the last living speaker of a soon-to-be-extinct language. As they record her speech, hoping to capture enough of it to reconstitute and preserve it for archeological posterity, things go sideways. She begins to sing a narrative song in her fading tongue that features a woman who wishes to become a "swimmer among the stars," an astronaut, who dances among the "invisible lightning moths," or satellites.
But unlike, say, Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" — currently the most talked-about short story concerning linguistics, thanks to its being the basis of the film Arrival — "Swimmer" isn't science fiction. At least not overtly. What unfolds instead is a sparkling, magical, heartbreaking meditation on the way tradition clashes with technology, and the way our reality is both defined and restricted by the language we use to represent it.
It's no surprise that Tharoor's fiction is obsessed with history, archeology, and the dynamic between cultures. Born in Singapore, he's lived around the world; he's now settled in New York, where his writing has appeared in The New York Times and elsewhere, although he's best known as the presenter of the BBC's popular radio show Museum of Lost Objects, which traces the destruction and looting of antiquities in the Middle East.
In a way, Museum of Lost Objects could have also served as the title of Swimmer Among the Stars. The book is a storehouse of relics that Tharoor infuses with resonance. In "Portraits with Coal Fire," a copy of a National Geographic-like magazine is mailed to the Asian village where a photo essay was taken; the result is a Skype conversation, dripping with ironic miscommunication and undertones of exploitation, between one of the magazine's editors and a villager whose photo appeared in the essay. Again, Tharoor probes the flaws of language when paired with technology, but he also playfully dwells on the way modern media allows us to sift through the world and see it however we wish.
For all its preoccupation with modern technology, a good number of the stories in Swimmer take place in the past. "Tale of the Teahouse," a nominee for the National Magazine Award, is structured like a countdown: As each day passes, an invading army of the ancient world approaches a city whose inhabitants continue their blissful pastimes. It's strongly reminiscent of Italo Calvino's dreamlike Invisible Cities — Tharoor, after all, chose a Calvino quote as the book's epigraph — but also eerily reflects the recent rise of the extreme right in the UK and the US. More contemporary and far less grim, the whimsical and wise "Elephant at Sea" takes place in 1979, as the Indian embassy in Morocco prepares for the inexplicable arrival of an elephant from the homeland.
Another story in Swimmer features ambassadors, but it couldn't be more different. "A United Nations in Space" is the most outright example of science fiction in the collection, depicting a not-so-distant future where the UN has retreated to an orbiting hotel in the wake of massive natural disasters on the planet. From that Olympian perch, these representatives of Earth's nations — who are referred to only by the names of their countries, as if they're the living symbols of them — decadently wait out the end of the world, playing table tennis and waltzing in zero gravity. "Even my desires feel weightless," says one ambassador after a halfhearted attempt at seducing another. As apocalyptic fiction goes, it's as graceful, haunting, and soaked in melancholy fatalism as it comes.
The same way that "Swimmer Among the Stars" offers a short story nested within a short story, Borges-like, so does another part of the book offer a short story collection nested within a short story collection. "The Mirrors of Iskandar" is a sequence of fourteen brief tales imagined to exist within the framework of the real-life Romance of Alexander, a form of viral fiction written between the 4th and 16th centuries. In explaining this framework, Tharoor's preface states that "the purpose of the romance was never to tell a straightforward story. Its stories offered variously a vision of ideal kingship and courtly behavior; a cautionary tale about arrogance and ambition; prophetic revelations; a description of fantastical adventures; and a sense of the deep, conflicted past of the world as well as its fundamental impermanence." Cleverly and with no small amount of chutzpah, Tharoor is telegraphing his own checklist for the stories in Swimmer.
It's a testament to the author's empathy, rich voice, and immaculate craftsmanship that the book succeeds in being all these things — even as it comforts, illuminates, and unnerves.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.