Yudhanjaya Wijeratne has worn many hats over the years – from self-taught programmer to political blogger to tech marketer. In his current incarnation, he is an author, a researcher and a Ted speaker, part of the Big Data For Development team of LIRNEasia: he studies new technologies to analyze human behavior at scale, working at the intersection of academia and public policy. He’s also part of a new wave of Sri Lankan and South Asian science fiction writers; his novels have gone on to become international bestsellers, and have been noted for their blend of hard science and the socio-political culture of our times.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I do research. I work with what people call Big Data. I like cats. I vote Cthulhu for president.
A self-taught programmer, a political blogger, a tech marketer and now an author. You’ve been many things in your lifetime so far. Which one of these professions describe you the best and why?
I always thought of myself as a writer.
Language, if you think about it, is a way of denoting concepts and the relationships between them; so it never really made much difference to me whether I wrote in English or Python. One profession I’ll avoid from now on, though, is tech marketing - the grind, the endless multitasking, the rote nature of it simply got to me at a point.
What were some of your early formative readings?
Arthur C. Clarke. As I always remind people, Clarke was synonymous with science and science fiction here in Sri Lanka. But there’s more that I carry close to me from the fantasy genre - J.M Barrie (Peter Pan); Ursula Le Guin (Earthsea); Diana Wynne Jones (Chrestomanci, Howl’s Moving Castle, Hexwood); Terry Pratchett (Discworld); Stephen King (The Dark Tower). These, if anything, taught me what little I know of writing and worldbuilding.
“I think this comes down to one simple fact: science fiction is literature about the future. To understand the future, one has to project from the present. And that means you look at humanity, the way it organizes itself today, and try to figure out what it might look like soon.”
How were you lead to writing your debut Numbercaste and what was your creative process like behind it?
It started with me trying to understand the American FICO scoring system and the Credit Scores that run their societies. As a South Asian who’d never had to deal with Credit, I was flabbergasted, because it seemed to me a powerful mechanism for discrimination in service delivery - not to mention a way of locking people into credit cards and debt and spending. I started tracking changes to these algorithms, and what China was doing with the same. This was somewhere in early 2015, I believe.
By mid 2015, I knew what I wanted to write - a reimaging of this system based on social capital. I used to be a tech journalist; social capital was a part of every interaction I saw - from entrepreneurs and investors to me having access to report certain things; it was a hard currency that was never quite put into numbers.
It took me two years to write. I wrote slowly, with time stolen between my day job and the train home - five hundred words at a train station, a plot outline at my desk after everyone had left the office, and so on. I wrote, rewrote, and redrafted. Eventually, by 2017, Numbercaste was ready.
As I have gathered from my reading, Numbercaste essentially revolves around this idea of the Number which sort of emulates the many hierarchical ideas upon which our society today stands and is divided by. If such is the case, is an imagining of our society without hierarchy possible at all or will we always keep moving from method to another?
I don’t think a society without hierarchies is even remotely possible. Different people have different capacities, and thus there will always be hierarchies that arise in narrow domains. Add markets - capital given out to people with different capacities - and you have ways of enforcing those hierarchies and expanding beyond them.
Sci-fi is rapidly becoming an important genre in the world of writing and there is a new wave of writers of this genre that are taking the world of literature by storm, and you are also one of them. What do you think is really the necessity of this genre which incorporates much socio-political commentary within its narrative and its implications on the way literature is moving forward in our times?
Science fiction has always been a way of interrogating ideas and critiquing systems. In Russia, for example, sci-fi emerged in the 19th century and rose to power as a way of examining the political status quo without being shot and tortured. As far as I know, Chinese science fiction today follows the same tradition. In America, where science fiction started out as escapism, the ideas quickly turned towards examinations of ideals, future societies, and in the process the prediction of technologies that we have today. Even Star Wars, which is more science fantasy, has at its core a critique of democracy versus the strong man - Lucas rooted it in the conversation about the Vietnam war, and used lightsabers to convey a discussion that would otherwise have been impossible to have.
I think this comes down to one simple fact: science fiction is literature about the future. To understand the future, one has to project from the present. And that means you look at humanity, the way it organizes itself today, and try to figure out what it might look like soon.
Mainstream literary critics seem to only now be latching onto this core, at least in our parts of the world, but let me assure you - socio-political commentary has always been part and parcel of sci-fi.
Lastly, what’s next for you?
Tons of stuff.
The Commonwealth Empire trilogy, out from HarperCollins. The first book is out - the Inhuman Race. We’re editing the second book - the Inhuman Peace. The Inhuman War is due sometime in 2020, so I’m taking a short break while I stew the ideas for the that. It takes a while to cook.
I publish a fair amount of work on my own, and do short story work in anthologies. There’s at least three anthologies lined up this year, and a highly experimental set of novels about a colony expedition led by an artificial intelligence. The worldbuilding is done; now it’s time to write.
But the project that’s giving me the most amount of stress right now is nonfiction - a book about Big Data in our parts of the world - the uses, abuses and misuses thereof. I work with the Big Data team at a regional think tank - this is based on a lot of research that we’ve collectively built up over the years, and I’m co-writing it with Professor Rohan Samarajiva and Sriganesh Lokanathan, both of whom I count as mentors. They’re renowned in public policy and research, so I’m having to put my journalist hat back on and venture forth into a space I’ve never gone before with the weight of some pretty high standards on my back.
This is going to be fun.
Text Nidhi Verma