‘A book dreamt up partly in Pilawoos’
Yudhanjaya Wijeratne has scaled dizzy heights as a sci-fi author and been listed as one of Forbes’ 2021 ‘30 people under 30’- just to enumerate one of his accolades.
And here he is on the Gratiaen shortlist… No it’s not the first time he applied, he says. He recalls sending an ‘envelope of text’ while at school, but what kept him so long from the home-grown ‘Booker’ post-baptism, seeing as he has been publishing to international acclaim since 2017?
Apparently the stories he was brewing were not ‘Sri Lankan’ enough. For him each book has its context. This is the first of his books steeped in the island’s soul and he wanted to float it here.
“An award elsewhere – no matter how internationally prestigious – would not mean much. In the same way that Michelin stars are awarded to restaurants, and not the chefs, renown, for me, is an abstraction that exists for a particular project, a particular story, in a particular context.”
The shortlisted novel, ‘The Wretched and the Damned’ was dreamt up partly in Pilawoos with ice Milos and “snarky observations about plenty of *cough* interesting characters that, for legal purposes, I must stress, are absolutely fictional.”
Yudhanjaya can’t resist a bit of impish devilry. In the new book he mixes together eight ‘unreliable’ narrators – nine if you count the news broadcasts in the middle.
“After all, a little bit of confusion never hurt anybody. It’s razor-sharp certainty that breeds the fanatic; and that’s what we really should fear.”
Yudhanjaya was born in Ratnapura. After his dream of being an astronaut faded, the boy fresh out of Isipathana College began a blog called Icaruswept (the self-taught youth had subjects from classics to space travel at his fingertips!) and wrote for newspapers.
He claimed his place as a serious author with The Slow Sad Suicide of Rohan Wijeratne, published on Amazon in 2017. Numbercaste was his rather ambitious first novel, which Groundviews called the “first serious voice” in science fiction from Sri Lanka since Arthur C. Clarke.
He is the only Sri Lankan to have been nominated for the Nebula Award and was part of the Lunar Codex project, meaning he was among the 30,000 people whose works of art were sent to the moon where they are hoped to last millions of years, like Neil Armstrong’s footprints.
The selected offerings sent aboard Astrobotic’s Peregrine Lander were: “Claws and Effect, a short story; Beatnik, a short story; and Sonnet for the Subconscious War and Other Poems from the Automaton, a collaboration between Dr Samuel Peralta and OSUN, an AI that I fine-tuned.”
With Numbercaste he made a five book deal with Harper Collins (one of the big five publishing companies when it comes to English books) – the biggest deal ever for a Sri Lankan author. Inhuman Race was the second book of the deal while Inhuman Peace is on the way.
The novel Salvage Crew came out in 2020 and is typical of a fertile if murky imagination teeming with AI, distant planets and recipes which feature alien megafauna and dig sites where men armed with high-powered gear battle.
Reviewed as being “perfect for fans of The Martian, Red Dwarf, Firefly, and We Are Legion (We Are Bob)” the books are however, not at all macho apocalypse landscapes and ‘robot shooting robot’; there is also the socio-political critique.
Throw in more than 20 short stories published in anthologies and you get an idea of Yudhanjaya’s universe.
Of course, to people that universe he burns much midnight oil, reading several books at the same time.
“Right now I’m reading Ewart Oakeshott on medieval sword typology, poring through exhibits of Maximillian’s armour, and also investigating the world of synth music and the custom hardware that people put together for their music,” he says.
On turning 30 this year (that annoying fact), he has this to say:
“If anything, I’ve slowed down considerably, especially with Watchdog work (the fact-checking organization of which he is co-founder). I keep telling myself that at some point I’ll take a break, smell the flowers a bit, unwind and return rested and refreshed, but instead I seem to be getting slower, older, and angrier…”
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