By all accounts, Yudha-njaya Wijeratne should simply have not been able to find the time to write Numbercaste. As he began work on the draft, he was juggling a full-time job at WSO2, and was simultaneously educating himself. His online course schedule alone included Data Science courses from Johns Hopkins, Greek and Roman myth from [...]


Showing the world we too can write science fiction

A blogger-turned self-taught writer, Yudhanjaya Wijeratne talks about his novel Numbercaste and a genre of fiction that’s still up and coming among Sri Lankan writers

By all accounts, Yudha-njaya Wijeratne should simply have not been able to find the time to write Numbercaste. As he began work on the draft, he was juggling a full-time job at WSO2, and was simultaneously educating himself. His online course schedule alone included Data Science courses from Johns Hopkins, Greek and Roman myth from the University of Pennsylvania, and Literature from Vanderbilt.

Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

“I’m largely self-taught, which means I have to constantly keep learning things I don’t know,” the author tells the Sunday Times. Finally, blogging at Icaruswept ( ensured he was already doing a fair bit of writing.

“All this meant that I was juggling a certain state of near-exhaustion on my weekdays,” says the author, admitting that going to bed at 2 a.m. wasn’t unusual.

Out of this hectic schedule, Wijeratne managed to produce Numbercaste. A book that is as much about our present as it is about our future, this is a staggeringly ambitious novel. Little eludes Wijeratne’s gaze as he grapples with the implications of emerging technologies, socio-cultural phenomena and political movements.

As a writer of science fiction, Wijeratne joins a small group of Sri Lankans working in the genre. Noting that it has long been one dominated by Americans, Wijeratne says he believes writers such as himself bring a different perspective to the work, not least in their willingness to set stories in places outside the US.

“Our stories hop through China, through India – and we don’t have problems critiquing freedom and democracy delivered at the end of a machine gun,” he says. “We don’t stick to ‘In God we trust’ narratives. We have Gods, plural. We have other systems of thought, and what we think is a more balanced perspective, because we consume media and data from all over the world.”

He’s also fascinated by what his friends and peers are attempting with science fiction: “Right now, we – my fellow Sri Lankan authors and I – are approaching it from the perspective of ‘let’s show the whole goddamned world that we can create as well as anyone else out there.’ That’s how you have Mandy Jayatissa being the only Sri Lankan author to wield steampunk, and Navin Weeraratne to write rocket science so well grounded there’s links to research papers at the back of his books.”

Sitting down with the Sunday Times, Wijeratne went on to talk about some of the key ideas in his own work. Below are excerpts from the interview:

What was it like making the transition from blogging to writing a full-length book? In the transition from fact to fiction, were you carrying along many of the same interests and obsessions?

The blogging really helped with the actual act of writing. Over the ten years or so I’d built up this writing muscle that I could just flex and sprint for pages on end, and I didn’t really realize that until I started working on the book. It was second nature by then.

The bad news was that my thinking was that of a blogger. A novel is a different beast – you need to think in terms of three hundred pages, of plot, of progression, of how the characters evolve. There’s no easy reward of writing a blogpost and hitting publish. So I really had to learn that from scratch; Numbercaste was just a bunch of disconnected scenes – like little thousand-word Polaroids of moments in the book – until I figured out the craft of weaving them together.

I was used to the act of writing something in a blaze of thought, hitting publish, and sitting back and watching it go viral. There wasn’t that easy endorphin rush.

What is the number? Would you talk about the real world influences that shaped the concept, and how it evolved in the course of your writing this book?

The Number is, very simply, PageRank for people. What it does is distil a person’s social influence into a single, measurable metric.

Where would we get the data? I kept thinking of Facebook. George Orwell dreamed of a state monitoring all its citizenry. We tell the entire world what we think: where we are: who we’re with: how we feel: on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. It’s the inverse of 1984. The perfect place to go to for the data needed.

Voila. The Number.

I’m not the only person to think of this. China is actually doing it.

In 2010, the local government of Suining (a county north of Shanghai) apparently started awarding points for ‘behaviour’ — things like winning an award — and deducting points for things like getting in jail. People who scored well apparently got all sorts of perks.

The project was a failure. Even state-owned newspapers criticized the system. The Beijing Times, interestingly, compared it to the “good citizen” certificates Japan issued to Chinese citizens during Japan’s wartime occupation of China (1930’s to 1940’s).

Nevertheless, China is, as far as I know, on track to have this up by 2020.

Which is why China, in Numbercaste, has this system in place. It’s a real-world thing. I came across this (China) in 2016, with that Independent article, and I was at once both elated and terrified. Happy, because clearly I’d got the concept right. Terrified, because it’s on its way. And I wrote China into the narrative the moment I had done my reading from Chinese newspapers and had an idea of what they were building.

Unlike a lot of science fiction that is set far into the future, one of your key characters Julius Common, the charismatic CEO of NumberCorp, was born in 2000. What challenges did this offer you when you set about constructing a world dominated by Num-berCorp?

It actually made things a lot easier. The 2000s are an era I can very clearly remember, so I had the background all there: I could focus on writing Common as a person, as a digital native. Everything up to my 2020 predictions are basically based on grounded stuff – Pentagon reports, the String of Pearls Theory, the greater sense of where we’re heading economically.

I guess the real challenge is predicting things that happened after that and still keeping it grounded. The technologies, the economics, the works. I enlisted the aid of two good friends – Nisansa Dilushan de Silva and CD Athuraliya. Nisansa, who lectures at Moratuwa, and now is in Oregon, is extremely well versed in histories (both real and fictional worlds) and economic trends. CD, a fellow Big Data researcher at Lirneasia, runs an AI startup. Once I’d finished the manuscript, they were able to add the gaps in my knowledge, especially when it came to niche political and technological trends.

It’s clear why this fictional world could be a frightening one,
but what would make it great to live in?

Well, it’s a different system of life.

Julius intended the Number to make the world fairer. And it has been. Politicians are held accountable. Corruption is almost dead. It’s a new era of transparency. And, if you look at the world today, money is pretty much the be-all end-all – if you had the fortunes of a Rothschild, or a particularly corrupt Sri Lankan politician, you’d be sorted for a long, long time.

The Number balances things. The artist can now be as important as the billionaire. The scientist who toils in silence is now as well-known as the socialite. The civil servant is as popular as the Instagram celebrity.

The flip side of that is, it is an algorithmically enforced caste system of sorts. But isn’t society today the same thing? We just haven’t replaced the humans with computers yet.

Finally, could you talk about how you marketed this book? You’ve built a base of dedicated readers, something many new writers couldn’t help but envy…

Firstly, I would say, social media. Secondly, other authors. By the time I was finished with this I had published The Slow Sad Suicide of Rohan Wijeratne, which shot right to the top of #1 in Amazon in scifi and lit-fic in the first week of release. That perked interest from the scifi community and got me in touch with many interesting peers in scifi, especially in the indie community. We form tightly knit groups and share and celebrate each other’s works. So I was soon being approached by their fans, and vice versa.

Thirdly, a mailing list. I gave Rohan away free to people, with one caveat: give me thy email and I’ll give you my book. I worked with other authors from around the world who were doing this. A thousand or so of the most hardcore scifi fans joined, and that formed the beginnings of a fanbase. It’s very small, but they’ve been the ones who make that first purchase and write that first review on Amazon. That really matters.

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