If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. Or is it? The first book in Sri Lankan author Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s alternate history Commonwealth Empire trilogy – The Inhuman Race – applies the famous duck test to explore what constitutes humanity and what it means to be human in a suspenseful hard sci-fi novel that explores AI, sentience and AI rights against the background of a world where the sun never set on the British Empire.
It’s the year is 2033. The British Empire never fell, Elizabeth the Third reigns over a Commonwealth that flies the Union Jack, with the Empire’s colonies stripped bare in the name of British interests. The spectre of communism haunts no one because communism never happened and in China, the Second Song Emperor rules supreme.
In this world, Ceylon, a once-proud civilisation that’s now reduced to next-to-nothing and Colombo – one of the primary settings for the book – lies reduced to ruins, the result of ‘a diplomatic incident’ involving Chinese warships and British Tin Soldiers. Amidst the ruins of this port city, now divided into zones, we meet the chief protagonist, the Silent Girl, a child whose actions speak louder than words because as her name suggests, she’s a mute. She’s also an explorer, a survivor and holds a secret within her, which makes her a threat. The world she inhabits is laid bare soon enough.
A tough world where survival is all, where fuel biscuits are hard to come by, Bluetooth devices annoyingly announce they’re ready to pair, where children like her have banded into violent tribes that are fiercely protective of their territory in this hollow shell of a city and Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 is ‘the Music that does not Kill’. But her world is soon thrown into disarray with the arrival of a boy from another zone, and so begins her unexpected adventure from her comfort zone (Colombo 3) that will see the Silent Girl explore more of her world and stumble upon its dark, bloody and inhuman secrets (obviously the part where adults make an appearance). Revelations that see her and the boy, Pissa, make a perilous journey to Kandy, the seat of power and whose Great Houses control Ceylon’s trade, military and – in the case of House Bandara – Reconciliation, which also involves keeping the Ceylonese distracted with entertainment that includes bloodsport, involving ‘children’.
In Kandy, we meet the second chief protagonist, Dr Kushlani de Almeida, an Overseer at the Ministry of Reconciliation who stumbles upon a revelation of her own, a discovery that will make her and the powers that be take a hard look at what – and who – can and should be considered human. So begins a quest of her own, for justice and equal rights – a quest that ends in sacrifice, but ends up opening up a new chapter in machines learning.
A thought-provoking read – not least for the sequence where he subverts the philosopher John Searle’s famous Chinese Room argument to argue against its original premise – The Inhuman Race cements Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s status as one of the subcontinent’s science fiction stars, especially when it comes to hard sci-fi. An intelligent tale that deftly weaves together the tropes of alternate history with themes of artificial intelligence and its implications when – and if – it achieves sentience. And while it is set in Ceylon and draws upon Sri Lankan history and folklore, The Inhuman Race doesn’t exoticise its setting or culture which in itself is a commendable thing. For readers familiar with Sri Lanka – if not from the country itself – the book offers many an inside joke and easter eggs.
For all of this, The Inhuman Race clocks in at under 200 pages. Well-plotted, fast-paced and delivering a satisfactory and climatic ending to the first arc of the Commonwealth Empire trilogy, it leaves one impatient for the next instalment of the trilogy. But until that arrives – and it couldn’t come sooner – let’s just be glad that there’s a lot of other good science fiction stories to be enjoyed. On that note, I bid you goodbye until next weekend when I hope to see you here again for the next edition of New Worlds Weekly.
Live Long and Prosper!
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