May 05, 2018

Love the journey. Live for it: Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

In which we talk about his award-winning Numbercaste, big data, credit scores, Sri Lankan sci-fi, Commonwealth Empire, his alternative history trilogy, ‘crafting one’s own Iron Throne’, and more.

BYGautham Shenoy

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. A few months ago, the rabbit hole that is the internet had me stumbling on to a book that was described as ‘Black Mirror meets the Circle meets 1984’. Intrigued, I looked it up. The book in question, Numbercaste, turned out to be the winner of the Virtual Fantasy Con 2017 Award in the ‘Hard Sci-Fi Novel’ category, and the debut novel by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, an author from the island country known as Serendip by the Persians of yore, Sri Lanka.
This was a first for me because you don’t often hear about science fiction from Sri Lanka. In fact, you don’t hear about it at all (not accounting for Arthur C. Clarke’s later works). Next on the agenda then was to read Numbercaste, and the book didn’t disappoint with its depiction of a near-future world driven by social networks, fuelled by big data to enable and enforce an algorithmically-enforced caste system, but one that is transparent (no more corruption) and equal (the artist is as important as the billionaire & scientists as well known as celebrities). And coincidentally it fit in quite well with a piece I wrote later for New Worlds Weekly, about big data meeting big brother. Since that time, I’ve had the opportunity to find out more about Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, who describes himself as ‘Author. Researcher. Data science guy.’
A former journalist, he’s designed games, known in his country for bringing big data into its political discourse and currently working at LIRNEasia, an information & communication technology policy and regulation think-tank. A life-long sci-fi fan and geek, Yudhanjaya has written – apart from Numbercaste – an Amazon best-seller, The Slow Sad Suicide of Rohan Wijeratne, a short story about a suicidal Sri Lankan alcoholic who signs up to be frozen, and shot into a black hole 16 light-years from Earth whose gravity and rotation have flattened it into a Kerr singularity. His most recent publication is Omega Point: A Short Story about God, built around the Teilhard hypothesis. Amongst other things, he is currently working on the Commonwealth Empire series, an alternative history trilogy set in the year 2033, with the point of divergence being that World War 1 never happened, with Britain also quelling the American rebellion and continuing to hold on to – and exploit – the Commonwealth. The first book in the trilogy, The Inhuman Race is due later this year from HarperCollins India, as part of a 4-book deal that includes Numbercaste.
I reached out to him for a Q&A to talk about all this and more, in greater detail. Here goes:
Gautham Shenoy: Your novel, Numbercaste, is set in the future, but it’s really about the present, taking our current fears of the misuse of big data and of surveillance to one possible logical outcome, the ‘caste system’ of your book. Is it inevitable? Given that one form of it is already taking shape in China with its Social Credit System?
Yudhanjaya Wijeratne: Well, if you look at the back of that book, there’s a disclaimer saying that I didn’t write this as a moral tale, or a particularly prophetic vision of the future; it was simply – to me – the logical end result of a process that the world has been following ever since supermarkets and airlines started logging your spend and offering loyalty schemes. Things gradually got more complex and we ended up with that great plague – the FICO score (and other credit score derivatives). The common feature of all of these systems is that they reward those who spend more; thus, those who make more, are empowered to spend more, reap more benefits than those who can’t. The rich man clocking up Rs.20,000 at the supermarket every month gets discounts on food and beverages, while the poor man just behind him in the queue pays full price. And if you look at China, one of the great eye-openers there is that people often list their credit scores on dating sites: those with higher scores have a much higher chance of scoring. The Numbercaste has happened: it’s just not as visible as it will be in the next five to ten years.
This is a process that is almost as timeless as civilization: I’m sure if you travel all the way back in time the person with the most amount of gold or grain in the cave had more coming their way than someone toiling in the fields for a pittance. It’s so deeply tied to how human societies form and continue that I don’t think there’s any way to escape it.
Shenoy: The fictional NumberCorp in your novel set out to make the world a better place. But as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The way I see it, Numbercaste is utopian and dystopian at the same time, depending on which side of the fence you’re on and/or what is more important to you – equality & transparency or privacy & freedom of choice. Where do you stand on this dichotomy?
Yudhanjaya: So this harks back to an exhibit I did for the Global Shapers using Twitter data. I wanted to describe utopia: so I went and downloaded some seven thousand tweets that contained the word and began sorting them out.
What I realized was that the world is full of conflicting utopias, and each of these utopias is a dystopia for any who do not believe in them. There’s a black utopia. There’s an Islamic utopia. There’s a militant Buddhist utopia. There’s a socialist utopia and a libertarian utopia. Society is the tangent of all these conflicting utopias jostling against each other. We sort of bumble forward on lines that blur and redraw themselves as different utopias come into power and fade away.
To quote from George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” And all progress will be unreasonable in a certain light when not everyone shares the same definition of progress.
I think the Numbercaste dichotomy is one of the most fundamental. The more data about yourself you give to a system, the better it knows you: thus, the better it can serve or manipulate you. At the far corner is going off the grid completely. And this conflict leads to so many shades of grey in between. I think what will end up happening is that we have one public persona, where everything we say and do can be analyzed and used by a State – whether corporate or government – to serve or control us; and that in the evenings, in the darkness of our homes and the comforts of our friend circles, we will slip off those masks and become who we really are, invisible to the State.
Also read: When Big Brother meets Big Data, we get to live in glass houses!
Shenoy: You’ve said on your site that you’re looking for ways to leverage big data and economics for the greater good. What is the progress on this, and what new things have you discovered in your quest so far, if I may ask?
Yudhanjaya: Progress is slow, but the work at LIRNEasia (the think tank where I work) is exciting. I can’t talk about much of it, but among other things, I’m looking at using social media connectivity, migration and trade data between nations to see how countries are organized into socio-political blocks. I’ve used hundreds of thousands of tweets and Facebook posts to show election influencers, botting campaigns, to show the inefficacy of government blocks on hate speech, and more besides. There’s some stuff on that you might find interesting.
Shenoy: I believe you used to e-mail PDFs of your Amazon best-seller, ‘The Slow Sad Suicide of Rohan Wijeratne’, to people in return for just their e-mail id? Do you still do this? If yes, how does one send you their mail id?
Yudhanjaya: I used to do this through Facebook: anyone who messages me with their email ID would be added to a mailing list and I’d blast out the book to the whole lot once I had about three hundred people. I ended up collecting a little over a thousand email addresses this way.
Since then I’ve switched to subtler ways, mostly from lessons by my fellow indie scifi authors. There’s a signup link at the back of Omega Point that automatically sends you The Slow Sad Suicide – my way of saying thanks for spending on, reading, and enjoying my work.

The author of Numbercaste and the upcoming alternative history trilogy, The Commonwealth Empire, Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

Shenoy: You recently published ‘Omega Point: A short story about God’ involving the Teilhard hypothesis, fractal mathematics which features stars as information storage systems and black holes as compute nodes. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
Yudhanjaya: I’ve been a huge fan of the way Dan Simmons used the Teilhard hypothesis in Hyperion, and I was waiting for the chance to use it. And so I wrote a creation story, the pitch being: “Picture a lonely Creator, a sort of mathematician-God, so vast it uses stars as information stores and black holes as processing nodes. It builds an entire universe and hands it over to the laws of physics, watching the evolution of an entire universe, from hydrogen atoms to life to civilizations. And all God wants out of this is someone to ease the terrible loneliness of being the only unique thing in the entire universe. Someone to talk to.”
Now the actual science, I took a Cosmic Egg for a start, skipping the Planck Epoch, and launched as soon as possible into Abraham Loeb’s “Earliest Habitable Epoch” theory. This gives me a universe where omega is > 1 and a triangle of sufficient size, sketched on the surface, should have angles adding up to more than 180. And from then on, it is standard physics, and gets interesting again as life forms and civilizations work their way up the Kardashev scale. And that’s where Teilhard comes in again: a type-III civilization being something so close to Godhood as to make no difference. Teilhard, you see, began to merge evolution and Catholism, and described the evolutionary process – which does not start or stop with humanity – as a road leading to Omega Point: Godhood. God, in his view, lay not in the past, but in the future.
Earth’s biosphere, he explains, evolved before humans existed. One-celled organisms develop, and evolution eventually brings about creatures with complex nervous systems and the capacity for intelligence. Humanity, on their rung of the ladder, creates what he terms a noosphere, a sort of information web (which can be viewed as extelligence); as evolution continues, this noosphere becomes gradually more complex, until it dominates and becomes independent of biological matter, forming a purely metaphysical creature.
It’s a fascinating theory, though he ignored the Second Law of Thermodynamics and thus shot it in the foot. Teilhard was exiled to China by the Church. It was only after he died in 1955 that his writings became available. He postulates that this will let humans escape the heat death of the universe, something my main character, God, does right at the start.
Shenoy: I’m fascinated by alternative histories and it was with some joy that I read that the first book in the Commonwealth Empire trilogy is out later this year. Can you shed more light on it, and its origins? And the motivation behind making it an allohistory, unlike the rest of your work which is hard sci-fi?
Yudhanjaya: The origins? I started writing about artificial intelligence, and consciousness, and the setting turned out to be a very Lord-of-the-Flies-ish Colombo. And there were British roboticists in it, and a not-so-subtly-disguised play on the dynasties of power that continue even to this day in Sri Lanka. I think I let that rest for a week and at some point I started thinking about ‘okay, how does this world come to be?’
That took me back all the way to 1914 and the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. I realized that the heads of European states at the time were basically cousins, and the tinderbox of the first World War was a family feud, so to speak; I split that timeline and worked out a series of steps from there, allowing some play for creative freedom. So I have a Britain that holds on to the Commonwealth, puts down the American rebellions, and mines thorium off India and Sri Lanka to power its war machines. I have the Germanic States; I have a Tsarist Russia and a China ruled by the Song dynasty. Some of this you’ll see in the trilogy, but not all. I have many more stories to tell in that universe if HarperCollins decides they like it.
Also read: ‘No poster and no flag’: An interview with Samit Basu
Shenoy: I’ll be honest. When you hear ‘science fiction’ and ‘Sri Lanka’, the only name that would come to mind, until recently, is Arthur C. Clarke. Which is to say, there’s not much you hear about science fiction from Sri Lanka. You’re the first Sri Lankan science fiction author that I’ve read. So, as a sci-fi reader, can you tell me a bit about sci-fi in/from Sri Lanka, and other sci-fi authors or books you’d recommend.
Yudhanjaya: Looking for science fiction in Sri Lanka is a lot like looking for El Dorado. We know that there may have been a fledgling sci-fi scene, inspired by Russian works and communism, somewhere back in the 70s. Then it went under. War happened. Right now there seems to be just me, Navin Weeraratne, Amanda Jayatissa, Sandun Seneviratne, and we’re sort of picking our way towards the center along our own paths. We’re trying to kindle – or re-kindle – the scene. Let’s see.
I’d recommend Navin’s Zeelam and his Planet 9, both of which are new, and Amanda’s The Other One. Among international authors well, I’m in love with Hugh Howey’s Wool, Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, Ursula K LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, Asimov’s Foundation, a selection of Robert Silverberg, and Damon Knight, and – as a work that crosses genres and blows minds left, right and center – Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.
Shenoy: It’s always heartening to see new science fiction being written by people from South Asia, who’re living in South Asia and setting their stories amidst cultures and places familiar to us. As a long-time sci-fi reader, and now an author yourself, what do you see as the fundamental differences between western SF and South Asian SF, in terms of perspectives and systems of thought, apart from the non-US settings or the non-eurocentric focus?
Yudhanjaya: I think we bring different worldviews to the matter. Our aliens don’t invade New York. Our societies are different, you see the differences between libertarian societies and honor-and-face-bound societies like ours. I haven’t seen fundamental differences in the science, but I see differences in motives of the protagonists – to establish themselves in the eyes of societies, or to keep their families alive. Fewer superheroes. Less lone geniuses. However, this is not a final judgment. The field from Asia is still too young to make such sweeping judgments, give it a decade and we can revisit this conversation and discuss what you and I have seen.
Shenoy: You’re self-taught and you’ve self-published, even design your own covers. Any advice and what to do, and pitfalls to avoid for young authors who may or may not be sci-fi writers, in terms of writing itself, and publishing?
Yudhanjaya: The important thing is to remember that writing is one thing and publishing is another. People look upon getting a publication deal as proof that they’ve ‘made it’ as a writer. There are two things to keep in mind: one is that publishing is a business and a way of monetizing and spreading art, and you can write the best book on the planet but still rack up pages of rejections if your novel doesn’t fit into the publisher’s schedule that year. The other is that your work only starts with your first book. This is a long game, and if you’re in this for the social kudos or money, rethink hard; there are easier ways to become famous and lauded and far easier ways to make money.
The third thing is that you never stop at your first draft, but keep at it with a vengeance. I was taught this by Nayomi Munaweera, and I’m sure Neil Gaiman will confirm: do not believe the artist’s hype that your first attempt at a novel is sacred. Rip through it, write anew. Write better. What we, as readers, see is the result of hundreds of hours of patient revising, a process of chasing perfection that ends only after two, or three, or even six drafts. There is a point of diminishing returns, of course, but remember that writing is more like a craft than an art or science. Like a carpenter, you start by making a chair – and it will, at the start, be a crude chair, barely upright. The more you do, the more you embed yourself into your craft, the finer chairs your produce, and those little issues like balance and size and proportion, become second nature to you, and you get to work on the little details and motifs until you eventually produce your own Iron Throne.
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race…
….I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
That’s from Ulysses by Lord Tennyson. Love the journey. Live for it.
Thank you Yudhanjaya, for taking the time out to do this. And now for another enjoyable thing, the New Worlds Weekly giveaway.
This week, we’re giving away one copy of Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s Numbercaste. All you have to do, to get a chance to win it is to give a practical answer to a question influenced by the near-future world of Numbercaste. Which of these two sets would you personally be ok with compromising upon – equality & transparency OR privacy & freedom of choice – and why? You can submit your entries in the comments section below or tweet to us with the hashtag #NWWonFD by Sunday, 13 May 2018. All entries will go into a lucky draw and winner announced the next week. All the best!
Live long and prosper.

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Gautham Shenoy is a writer of FactorDaily.