As part of a new wave of science fiction emerging in South
Asia over the last few years, the Sri Lankan author Yudhanjaya Wijeratne made a
splash with his debut novel Numbercaste—the story of a near-future where
social influence can be quantified by a number.
In 2018, the short story Messenger, co-written with R. R. Virdi, was nominated for the prestigious Nebula awards, making him the second Sri Lankan after Arthur C. Clarke to be nominated for the award.
Wijeratne has since then signed a five-book deal with Harper Collins, and he has just published The Inhuman Race, the first book in The Commonwealth Empires trilogy that looks at a future when the British Raj continues to rule the Indian subcontinent.
Wijeratne’s frames his brand of fiction as ricepunk —an Asian twist on the cyberpunk genre pioneered by William Gibson. Unlike Cyberpunk, which focuses on the individual’s resistance against the corporation, Wijeratne’s work deals with themes of technological abuse from governments, and the fight against it.
He sat down to talk at the Bengaluru Literature Festival about his writings, as well as his years growing up in Clarke’s shadow, his work as a technology journalist, his work in policy, and his experiments with AI.
You are a science fiction writer from Sri Lanka. The association that people have with SF in Sri Lanka is Arthur C Clarke. What role, if any, did he play in your interest in SF?
You have to understand that growing up in Sri Lanka, Clarke was Science Fiction. You couldn’t avoid the man’s presence. Because he wasn’t just a science fiction writer. He was probably one of the most important people in Sri Lanka at the time. He was chancellor of the University of Moratuwa for a long time. The guy was given some of the highest civilian honours that anyone can receive from the Sri Lankan government. He actually attended, in the 80s, a UN disarmament treaty, as part of the Sri Lankan delegation, wearing the sarong. So he was playing a sort of elder statesman role.
I think my first Clarke book I read growing up was Rendezvous with Rama. Of course, now I can see the trope and how it’s put together. But at the time I was mind-blown.
But I always felt something odd—the people didn’t seem realistic. It felt like a long museum tour around an object that’s from the future. It was very much a dry museum tour.
But it was when I was reading The Ghost from The Grand Banks—this is where they try to raise the Titanic. It was one of Clarke’s lesser known novels. Children of Men and The Ghost from the Grand Banks are my favourite Clarke novels. Because both pose fundamental questions . It’s a bit of an oddball, because most people who read Clarke seem to have very split opinions about this book. For me, it was important because it introduced me to Frank Thomas. There’s this whole arc there—where there is a scientist who gets obsessed with fractals. And she joins a community of people who basically explore fractals, and she loses herself in them. And I saw fractals for the first time. And I started reading about them. When I would come home after school, I would explore some form of fractals. And I would literally fill notebooks full of details of these things. And that had a profound impact.
And then I sort of went away and started reading fantasy. Like most of my reading actually was Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising—it was almost British and Australian fantasy. I avoided the American stuff altogether in the ’90s, because it seemed to me that American fantasy had become extremely derivative, and everyone was trying to write the next Tolkien. And everyone was basically ripping off Dungeons and Dragons and Tolkien, and it was just the same thing one after the other.
Fantasy was a large part of my reading. But I started returning to science fiction with cyberpunk, which was William Gibson’s Neuromancer. I really started getting into it—unlike other friends who get really excited by the science.
You are talking about hard science fiction against soft?
Yes. I have these distinctions in my head. First there was Clarke and then everyone else. And then, after reading later, there was hard science fiction— which was Clarke. I tentatively put Stanislaw Lem in that category. I didn’t really know what to do with the guy, I just put him there. And then there was Asimov. And then there’s soft science fiction.
And then after a while, I went into what I call soft. It isn’t exactly soft, because the stuff that I liked, explores some thesis with extraordinary rigour— sometimes more so than hard science fiction did. Then for me, the hard and soft categories dissolved. I looked for rigour—for intellectual rigour. Which was where Neuromancer was absolutely stunning.
And then Neal Stephenson, and I entered that line with a bang and I loved it. And then I realised, this is what I want to write. And I genuinely enjoyed books where people tried to figure out the ripple effects of technological change and the impact. Because I grew up seeing a lot of that in my life.
What do you mean by that?
So starting off, my family was extremely rich. Like Great Gatsby levels of rich. My dad was an alcoholic and a gambler. So by the time I was in Grade 2, we had lost everything. My parents had split, and I was living with my cousins. And basically we had nothing. Around the 2000s we had nothing, except the estate, but everything went downhill. So my friends of course had computers, long before I did. Smartphones came up not long after.
I was sort of a second-hand observer, to how they interacted. Because I didn’t have the object myself to begin with, I had to just watch people interact with it, and that’s all I could do. And when my friend got a smartphone for the first time, he snuck it into his lunchbox, showing it to the class—I was like hang on, I’ve seen that before.
I was looking it up, and it was a Clarke thing. It was in Songs of Distant Earth, where he describes a device which you can hold in the palm of your hand. And it has buttons like a calculator, and you have a dictionary feature. You can make voice calls. I’ve seen this before. So everything I sort of saw— that my friends were experiencing—I sort of managed to link that back to the books that I was picking up from the library. I was always drawn to those books that did a really good job of depicting how people would react to such technology. And that was the sort of genesis of my interest in science fiction.
How did your stint in journalism start?
Somewhere in 2011, I was roped into start Sri Lanka’s first tech news network. I had dropped out of school, and I needed a job. I had been running a blog for a long time. And people knew me, people knew my writing. I had about 200,000 people in Colombo reading my blog. So I was roped in to do a tech magazine. It was called Readme. And again, it was as an observer.
Sri Lanka’s start-up scene was just a fledgling chicken. People were trying to make it large. So I saw all the efforts, I saw all the hustle going on, and all the bullshit that was happening. We built this really large technology magazine, and I grew used to writing about technology. And then I left to work for a Silicon Valley corporation, headquartered in Colombo. There I started working with the data analytics team. The experience was interesting—it was one of the world’s largest credit scorers. I was looking at the amount of data that was pouring into the system, from not just how much money you’ve had in the bank account, but where you bought your phone from, whether you had paid your taxes in this place or that place, or whether you voted—all that stuff was coming into this. And I thought—why the fuck isn’t anyone writing about this? Why aren’t people screaming about this? Because nobody understands how our credit score works from the outside.
What we all understand is that pay your bills and loans on time, and you have a good score…
That’s not really what happens. In reality, for instance, if you pay your bills on time, but don’t use a credit card, you are going to have a low credit score. You might have so much money, but you are going to have a really low credit score, because what it’s judging is that whether you can borrow something, you can pay that back. That means you have to have taken something, and repaid it. You need to enter this cycle of taking and repaying, which is a stupid way to run.
The irony of that struck you?
So the tech reporter part of me just stood up and said why the fuck isn’t anyone writing about it. This is a problem because there are so many people not understanding what their credit scores are. You can be denied a job. You might pay marginally higher taxes, or rent.. That is when I started writing Numbercaste.
In Numbercaste, I took this and accelerated it into the future. In a sense I failed with Numbercaste. Roughly a few days later, the news of China’s credit score system went viral. I had sort of been following that since it’s early tests — they had tested it out in a small village in 2010. And then another test in 2012. There was a lot of unrest around that. They were doing small village level tests before they rolled the final system. And I actually had that in Numbercaste as well.
What I was looking at was what would it take to implement these kinds of systems. In China, where you have top-down authoritarian governments, you can just say, ‘Fine. All of you use this.’ That’s the system. In the West, it’s a market economy. It’s built by micro services that hook into the market. You first sell it to any business that has to differentiate between customers who are potentially your clients.
Take for example, a night club bouncer. A bouncer has to decide who to let in and let out. If you have a number associated with that person, you can go like ‘Hey, you’re an 8000. Go on in’. And the next person you can say, ‘Dude, you’re a 5000. Sorry”. You start to sell it to restaurants, you start selling it to present a veneer of exclusivity. Eventually find that the system is everywhere. So I had really only pre-empted that future by three or four years.
What is the endgame to such a system?
If there was an optimal path in the system, that judges your reactions, the shape of your life is dictated by it. And that’s exactly what happens in Numbercaste. Where eventually they release an app—they call it god on your smartphone—it tells you what to do. You enter a room—that person there has a certain score. If you talk with them, your score might increase because they happen to be working in an important field.
So you end up with a system where society is really “optimised”—not by a central machine but by a very complex emerging behaviour from simple rules. So I wrote that book, but before I put it up on Amazon, I had given it to a publisher. Ironically, they read the whole book and they liked it before they realised it was science fiction.
I was planning to go Amazon all the way after that—fairly straightforward. But my agent got me a five-book deal with Harper Collins. So that way things have been good.
Part of that five-book deal is the Commonwealth Empires, a trilogy, which is fantastical. It’s set in Ceylon in the 2060s, where the British Raj still exists and it runs everything.
There’s an informational asymmetry plot in the book. There is no internet because the Vatican doesn’t believe that mankind should talk to each other.
This is a bit of alternate history?
It does get into alternate history but I would say that William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine is actual alternate history. My book is more of an alternate future derived from an alternate history. The thing about a playground like this is you can exaggerate certain components of the world. The beauty of having a certain fantastical element is that I can have a lot of fun. I can also introduce certain things that allow people to expend or look at certain things in much more detail.
You are one of a host of writers from South Asia that’s taken to science fiction. What do writers from this region bring to the table?
So I have a particular framing called Ricepunk which is in part derived from cyberpunk. In cyberpunk the framing is very libertarian—the lone hacker versus the big corporation. Ours is very different. You know the scene that I come from. Our governments are fucking stupid. Actually, I would trust Facebook a lot more than I trust our governments when it comes with data. It is that bad—people vs government that wield technology like large bludgeons.
And that’s what I sort of bring to the table. It’s about government misuse, it’s about technological abuse from governments, which is something that I engage with in my policy work, which is my day-job. The Inhuman Race is very much about governments. It’s about people being screwed over. Or people using technology to be stop being screwed over by larger systems of governance, some of which are not necessarily formalised governance bodies. But just institutions built up through practice and policy; formal ways of doing things that nobody ever questions. Which we have a lot of. There is a way of doing things—there’s tradition, there’s peer pressure; if you go against it even slightly you’re punished for it. So that’s a lot of what I end up bringing.
At the same time, I’m cautious not to limit myself and say I’m writing Sri Lankan science fiction. Because if that’s my only selling point, but if I can’t tell a good story, if I can’t have fun doing it, if I can’t do something that I find interesting, then there’s no point.
So, there is this other series that I’m working on. Everyone remembers when (Gary) Kasparov got his ass handed to him by Deep Blue. When the UNDP asked us how do you deal with AI taking over, I decided to deal with it by looking at history. And look at fields where this has already happened. If you look at the news reports around Kasparov’s defeat, it looks almost exactly like what we are seeing today. ‘Machines beat humanity!’ or ‘All that humankind smart is no match for machines etc., etc.’ And what Kasparov did was interesting. He didn’t moan about it. He went off and he came back and he founded Advanced Chess. Which was a human and a chess engine. A chess engine suggests and a human selects. And some of the brightest chess masters have come out of Advanced Chess. In fact, people with remarkably little training have been able to play a competent grandmaster.
So instead of just writing about this stuff, can I use it as an author, as an artist. Out of that was born a book, where a significant part of the book is being built and written by machine tech. We are using AI—Markov chains— to write parts of a book.. It’s powered by OpenAI’s recent technology, that’s trained on translations of Tang Dynasty poetry.
For something like that I don’t want to go into what Sri Lankan thing I am expressing here.
In South Asia and the rest of the world, there is a certain disdain for SF. It’s not seen as literature. How do you deal with that?.
Yeah, it’s always been ghettoised. The traditional critique levelled against it is that it is escapism. For example, Ian McEwan wrote a science fiction novel. A shit science fiction novel that nobody after the 60s would have made the mistake of writing. Because standards in the field have evolved. He insists that it’s not science fiction, but science allegory. Excuse me, you have an android and people are trying to fuck it.
The ghettoisation was brought on by, partially, the pulp origins of science fiction. And honestly, people need to get over that. I always give people Ted Chiang to read. If they say they don’t read science fiction, I tell them to read at least one story. And they come back and say, oh shit.
To me science fiction and fantasy has been a massive backdrop, a canvas of which you can tell any genre. You can have a Mills & Boon romance in a Lord of The Rings setting, or you can have a thriller set in the Universe.
You’ve also been involved in putting together an anthology. How was that experience?
I did my first anthology of fiction called Megastructures. Basically it is a tribute to Clarke , a tribute to that Rama object that came across. The theme was hard science fiction based on megastructures. And we got a really a large mass of writers who wanted in. But winnowing hard science fiction out of that was very difficult. But we did a decent job of it.
I was particularly proud of having a writer called Soham Guha. He’s a guy who recently wrote his first English book about five years ago. Magnificent story. It’s a human interest story and very ricepunk, which is what I love. It’s about a Calcutta that climate change has played havoc with and it’s a floating city. On that are a gay couple—one of whom is a politician’s son. And the other guy is a physicist selected to go to space. When he gets there, he finds that the politician has rigged it so that the transport leaves without him. Which is a very South Asian thing. And I loved seeing that. That is very representative of us. I was very proud of that story.
Why was it hard to get hard science fiction stories these days?
Traditionally hard science fiction has been about the technology. Like Clarke’s Rama—it’s a description of the technology with very little human impact. People are demanding more of that—and that’s how we have evolved since then. And what’s happened now is sort of an overwhelming attention to human impact at the expense of science.
But every so often you get something that perfectly fuses great intellectual rigour as well as the human impact angle of it. I don’t think hard science fiction is dying. I question whether hard science fiction is a category at all. Take Ted Chiang. I tell anyone who is remotely interested in machine learning to go read them. He explores an idea with great intellectual rigour and, also with great human impact. But a lot of the hard science fiction definition seems to have solidified around big rockets and things like that. And I think the field has really moved on since then. I think the intellectual rigour stories are still alive. And they’re doing better than ever before.
And the humanisation and characterisation has to be a lot better. Like if Clarke wrote right now, or Asimov wrote right now, they would be laughed off now. You will know if you try re-reading some of their books right now.
Some of your policy work looks at social media, and you’ve spoken harshly against companies for not catering to Sri Lankan audiences.
That is something that I study. I’m co-founder of a fact-checker in Sri Lanka. We launched about 36 hours after the bombs went off. We are right now possibly the largest data centre for misinformation in Sri Lanka.
And I also study hate speech at scale. So I’m looking at 9 million words of content, around three major terror incidents to identify patterns of hate speech, how they propagate and transmit. So there’s a strong case to be made that when companies like Facebook talk about preventing hate speech, there are two narratives. One is a candy-ass narrative from Facebook that says that they want to help, but they do fuck-all. And the other is from certain white prestige journalists who write that Facebook should get rid of all hate speech in Sri Lanka, and that it’s because of Facebook that those riots are taking place.
You’ve got to be kidding me, man. We’ve been stabbing each other for a long time. We have a 2000-year-old history of doing this. And so what, you think a Menlo park entity comes along and somehow we have violence against each other.
The problem with Facebook and these large corporates trying to control hate speech is that a lot of their algorithms are trained on a West Germanic tree, and obviously they’re catering to their most valuable customers. West Germanic tree is German, Dutch, Afrikaans. Then you have the Romance languages—French, Spanish, and so on. And those are the ones that they’ve tested much against. Actually, Spanish, not so much. I’ve been pointing out that to control hate speech here, they need to understand our language. And that is a challenge. You can’t just train on some dataset and retrain it here, which is what Facebook has been doing.
When we met them, they said this model should work. So then I asked them about the word ‘Thambi’—the Tamil word for a young brother. How the meanings change based on the ethnicities of those who use it. How do they not know this stuff already. So we are providing them with this database. We’re taking these 9 million words and analysing it. My belief is that we need to step up and provide this language data, and want this situation to be clear.
And then there’s India. I tell them that If you think Sri Lanka is bad, India is really going to fuck you over.
The onus is sort of on us to provide the expertise. But it’s upon them to provide the damn data. And possibly the funds as well. Because they are the largest repository of user-generated text data in the world. This is sort of what I’m pushing them towards.