During the half-dozen years I’ve lived in Sri Lanka, I’ve read a fair number of novels and short story collections by local writers, including works by Martin Wickramasinghe, Romesh Gunesekera, Shyam Selvadurai, Carl Muller, Ashok Ferrey, Ameena Hussein and Michael Ondaatje. The latter is probably the best known internationally, though ironically for a novel that doesn’t have much to do with Sri Lanka. Their output is what snobby literary critics would describe as ‘mainstream’ literature. I’ve seen none of them associated with ‘genre’ fiction, although Muller’s work contains a lot of humour and labelling it ‘comedy’ certainly wouldn’t be amiss.
On the other hand, I didn’t expect to encounter anything in the past six years that could be classified as ‘Sri Lankan science fiction.’ But, to my surprise, I have. Romesh Gunesekera’s 2002 novel Heaven’s Edge is set in a surreal future Sri Lanka where the Civil War hasn’t ended but gone on and on, with the country becoming increasingly authoritarian and its environment increasingly despoiled. An uneasy mixture of dystopian fiction, allegory and magical realism, with flashes of J.G. Ballard and William Gibson, I have to say I find Heaven’s Edge the least impressive of Gunesekera’s books that I’ve read.
Better is the 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke. Although Clark was in many ways a very English Englishman, Fountains is for me a very Sri Lankan book. Clarke had lived in Sri Lanka for decades by the time it was published and the fictional island the story takes place on, Taprobane, is simply Sri Lanka with a few tweaks, for example, with Sigiriya Rock and Adam’s Peak being near neighbours when in the real Sri Lanka they’re 175 kilometres apart. Set mostly in the 22nd century, though with some bold flashbacks to 2000 years earlier in Taprobane / Sri Lanka’s history, Fountains is about the construction of a giant ‘space elevator’ linking the earth’s surface with a space station in geosynchronous orbit. Geographical factors necessitate the elevator being built from a mountaintop in Taprobane / Sri Lanka, which coincidentally happens to be the island’s most sacred location. The book meditates on the conflict between preserving heritage and culture and pushing on with scientific and technological progress, with Clarke treating both causes sympathetically even if it’s obvious which one will ultimately prevail.
Now, I’ve discovered the 28-year-old Sri Lankan author Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and recently read two of his novels, Numbercaste (2017) and The Inhuman Race (2019). While neither book is entirely to my pernickety tastes, I’d say they make a good case for Wijeratne being hailed as the potential future of Sri Lankan science fiction.
On his website Wijeratne identifies himself as a member of a ‘Data, Algorithms and Policy’ team working for a thinktank called LIRNEasia. This background obviously helped shape Numbercaste. Its narrator, Patrick Udo, is recruited by a tech company called NumberCorp in the 2030s and gets involved in a project with revolutionary consequences for humanity. Its purpose is to collate every human being’s data – salary, bank balance, credit card rating, police record, social media profile and a thousand things more – and distil it into a single score, an all-important ‘number’ that determines the social and professional options open to him or her. As Udo says near the book’s end, “Every morning I’d check Number News on my phone. Tap, tap. There, just above the news and the social gossip and the who-checked-in-wheres, was my score. My score was critical. It got me the best tables at restaurants I went to, all simple but pricy affairs. It got me into the VIP section of any club where I wanted to party. It got me first class tickets on the airplanes.”
A person’s number isn’t immutable. It can rise or fall. As Julius Common, NumberCorp’s visionary founder and leader, argues, this makes it a positive force because it rewards good behaviour and punishes bad. For example, police officers who blot their records with corruption or brutality will see their numbers drop below the threshold required for them to remain employed. Thus, they’ll be replaced by less crooked cops with better numbers. That, of course, is Common’s spin on the system and the question throughout the book is if it’ll actually become a tool of oppression, locking everyone into their own social and professional cells on different tiers of society and keeping everyone in line with the threat of demotion to lower tiers if they don’t obey orders. Will Common and NumberCorp lead the world to utopia or dystopia? In the book’s afterword, Wijeratne notes that China has tried doing something like this in real life with its social credit project.
Much of Numbercaste details Udo’s Boswell / Dr Johnson-like relationship with Common. This relationship sees Udo play the role of humble employee, then trusted lieutenant and finally fallen-from-favour outcast. Although it’s largely set in California, a culture where the names Zuckerberg, Musk, Gates and Bezos are intoned as if they’re ancient but all-powerful deities, Sri Lanka makes an appearance along the way as an early test lab for Common and his scoring system: “We need a sort of guinea pig to test this stuff. A small population that we can monitor and test and retest the bulk of our SEA algorithms on… This place is perfect… Highly connected, almost everyone’s online, and the government will let us do whatever the hell we want as long as their ministers are happy.”
© Harper Collins
As I’m a relative luddite with information technology, and an avoider of most social media, Numbercaste isn’t a book that automatically appeals to me. Also, I suspect more could have been done to humanise Common whilst chronicling his inexorable rise. Perhaps he could have been given some Citizen Kane-style foibles that taint his success with bitter unhappiness. Nonetheless, a lot of Numbercaste impressed me and Wijeratne’s prose style is spot on. It provides just enough detail to give a firm sense of time and place, but never overdoes it and doesn’t get in the way of the fast-moving narrative.
Obviously, the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the world have made a lot of science fiction published before 2020 but set a short time after it seem dated. In the real future, people in 2025, 2030 or 2035 will presumably talk about the 2020 pandemic in the way that we still talk about 9/11 or the 2008 financial crisis now. In the near-futures of pre-2020 science fiction, the characters aren’t talking about it because the writers had no idea it was going to happen. The 2017-published Numbercaste gets around this credibility problem by accident rather than design. It alludes to something called ‘the TRS-8I superbug’, which ‘hit Asia hardest’ and ‘had done in millions of people’. Among its victims were ten million Sri Lankans, who presumably perished from it sometime in the 2020s. So that’s why nobody mentions Covid-19 in Numbercaste. The TRS-8I pandemic was so traumatic that it erased the earlier virus from the collective memory.
The Inhuman Race, meanwhile, takes place in an alternative universe, in a version of Sri Lanka in 2033 where, to quote the book’s back-cover blurb, “The British Empire never fell. Communism never happened. The flag of the Commonwealth still flies over its colonies, which lie stripped bare in the name of British interests, powerless to resist.” The story begins with gangs of feral children scrabbling for survival amid the ruins of the Colombo seafront. This is a legacy of the Chinese Emperor deciding to give the British a bloody nose: “having won the might of a united China,” he “brooded over his navy from his darkened throne-room. The white devils that flew the Union Jack ruled too much of the ocean for his liking. Dimly, he remembered Fa-Xian’s accounts of Ceylon, the Buddha’s blessed island… And thus the British Empire’s first direct contact with China in two hundred years was when the Chinese warships pulled into Colombo port and began their assault.” In the ensuing carnage, Colombo’s ‘Galle Face Green became Galle Face Brown.’
While the novel’s first part offers some good post-apocalyptic fun, with the different gangs using as their headquarters the shells of the different luxury hotels that used to do business along Galle Face, such as the Shangri La, the Taj and the Cinnamon Grand, and with a gigantic mountain range of garbage separating the city’s devasted seaboard from its more habitable parts inland, I enjoyed the later chapters more. Here, the action switches to the island’s still-intact administrative centre, the mountain city of Kandy. At the same time, the book’s main theme emerges, which is about how much robots built to emulate living beings should be regarded as living beings themselves. This is hardly a ground-breaking theme in science fiction – though you might think it is if your name is Ian McEwan. But Wijeratne explores it well, through the eyes of a sympathetic character called Dr Kushlani de Alemeida. She’s an employee of a company manufacturing and using robots for dubious entertainment purposes. Though these products look ‘a lot like what God would have made the humans to look like had he been limited to metal and cheap plastic’, Alemeida uncovers evidence that they’re more sentient than anyone had imagined.
What I really like about the book’s Kandy sequences are the glimpses it gives of Sri Lankan society in this weird, alternative-universe scenario where the British Empire is still a thing. Order is maintained by ‘British’ soldiers, actually Indians and Gurkas, and by a fearsome outfit called the Inquisition that consist of ‘hooded monk-like figures’, from whom ‘a pale face with ruby lenses for eyes’ occasionally appears. The economy has been portioned off to the control of several rich houses, the Ratwatte, Madugalle, Rambukpotha and Bandaras. The judiciary is staffed by Buddhist monks, which leads to some interesting debate when Alemeida tries to convince a court that the robots should be treated like living creatures. The British themselves, apart from a mention of a Governor, are invisible – though evidently creaming off the country’s wealth at the top.
In this way, The Inhuman Race reminds me of certain works of Sri Lankan literature set when the country was under British rule, like Martin Wickramasinghe’s Ape Game (1940) and Madol Doova (1947) or Leonard Woolf’s The Village in the Jungle (1913). (Okay, Village wasn’t penned by a Sri Lankan but by an Englishman, Virginia Woolf’s husband no less, while he worked for the Ceylon Civil Service. But it was written from a native’s point of view, not from a colonialist’s.) In those books too, the British are barely around. The administrative machinery they’ve set up is run by the locals, which gives a semblance of Sri Lankan autonomy. But again, up above, the Brits are discretely pocketing the profits.
One small but nice touch in The Inhuman Race’s is when a character refers to the words of ‘the great Pratchett’: “There is no justice… there is just us.” So not only has Terry Pratchett churned out Discworld novels in this alternative universe too, but he’s even more revered than he is in our one.
I was slightly frustrated that The Inhuman Race didn’t show more of its future-imperialist / Buddhist society or, indeed, of the secretive Chinese Empire that pulverised Colombo at the novel’s start. But The Inhuman Race is supposedly the first part of a trilogy, so hopefully Yudhanjaya Wijeratne will supply more details in the instalments to come.
© Harper Collins