Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, a Sri Lankan writer, has created a new world for his Commonwealth Empire Trilogy series. The first book, The Inhuman Race, covers a terrain in which the surreal and the modern technology intersect
For those of us living in Pune or anywhere else in Maharashtra, we are well aware of the consequences of using plastic products, especially the single-use varieties. Now, imagine a mountain of plastic and two kids wading through it, trying to scale it — A single great mountain of garbage, long since collapsed, polythene and filth baked in the sun to a hard consistency. A stinking fluid sloshed out from it — leachate, water condensed from the filth.
This description and the singular image that arose from it filled us with foreboding. Written by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, this description figures in The Inhuman Race, which is the book number one of the Commonwealth Empire Trilogy.
Set in 2033, in Colombo and Kandy (cities in present day Sri Lanka), the landscape is a strange mix of the known and the unknown, where the surreal and the technology intersect. The children mentioned above are bots, but they are kids nevertheless. They are built to snatch, to kill, to survive.
It’s a dystopian tale, but oddly you know that this can be our future. When asked why he chose to set the book in near future — 2033 sounds like now, Wijeratne quips, “Precisely why I did it. It’s near enough so that I can accelerate certain conversations and technologies that we have today — especially about AI. It’s close enough that I don’t have to deal with a civilisation that has expanded through the solar system, bringing about a near-infinite abundance of metal, hydrogen, diamonds and so on, and thus devaluing Earth-based colonies and crashing those economies in the process. Plus, my 2033 is an alternate future — one where bio-tech has stronger impact than say, the concept of an Internet. Again, 2033 lets me start with humans and not with whatever we may evolve ourselves into by 2300.”
Currently, a researcher with Big Data Asia at LIRNEasia, Wijeratne has written on technology. Considering his vast experience, he could have written a tech-heavy book. But the plot of The Inhuman Race is believable. How did he merge tech writing with fiction narrative? Answers Wijeratne, “Well, the level of detail that I have included is a mix of imagining where the reader is coming from and figuring out what I’m comfortable with. There are writers who go extremely heavy on the detail, Neal Stephenson, for example. I love such books, but there is a point where I dial down and think about ‘how much of this is too much’? What purpose does it serve in the story? And how much of a narrative corner do I paint myself into by being too specific? There’s a scene in The Inhuman Race where I came close to breaking my rules for this — the surgery. I watched hours of surgeries and studied diagrams of the human neck to figure out how that could be done. It was a 10-page scene. At the end, I went back and boiled the actual cutting down to a paragraph or two, because it didn’t serve the story for me to give the reader a Wikipedia TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) to neck surgeries.”
Besides technology, the writer has also set up a historical background, imperialism to be specific, where China and Britain try to control Ceylon. There is no America in the picture. “I love history. I was trying to imagine what the world would look like if the first World War never happened. Obviously, then, Britain holds on to India, and through India, it holds Sri Lanka, which opens up the colonial narrative. Right now, much of the geo-politics is India vs China. The background themes in this book are meant to mirror conversations today. If I were to write a book elsewhere in this universe, there would be different political players depending on what was going on there — the Vatican, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, different stakes playing out over what we now call the US, and a whole other ball game going on in Africa,” he offers the explanation.
Coming back to the technology, we wonder if there is a game that studies human thinking and emotional pattern and if The Inhuman Race is based on it.
The characters, the adults in the book, Kanishkersir and Hewage and Almeida reflect the base human emotions of manipulation, cruelty and indifference, whereas The Pissa and The Silent Girl offer purest form of friendship and loyalty. Did he at any point think that he was writing about human beings and the games they play, instead of the robots, we ask.
Wijeratne replies, “I am not aware of the game, but I was thinking, quite literally, of adults and our social constructs versus children. Children can be mean, but adults are trapped within rules and constraints that often make us far more cruel than we think we are. Hewage, for example, is simply doing whatever he needs to do to provide for his family. He had no time for empathy with anything else.”
Writing dystopian books, where everything is dark and grey, what does the author experience? “Isn’t the world that you and I live in more dark? Maybe I am suited for this, but there’s a perverse pleasure in being god in one’s own universe,” he quips.
Wijeratne, who is fascinated by the writings of Terry Pratchett, Dianna Wynne Jones, Ursula Le Guin and Phillip Pullman, has a few tips for aspiring sci-fi authors.
“Firstly, learn how to handle infodumps. The biggest turn-off for me as a reader (and a writer) is being introduced to a character, then given 30 pages of explanation on every nitty gritty of the world through butler-and-maid dialogue. The old ‘show, don’t tell’ rule doesn’t apply everywhere — especially in science fiction, where you may have built an entire world from scratch. But pace it. Bring people in gently to the story. Ground it. Introduce elements at a readable pace. Empathise with the reader.
“Other than that, you go write anything you want. This is a genre of infinite possibility. We can watch artificial intelligences break the prisons of their creators; we can go, see attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, or C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. Hard science or handwavium, epic quests or futuristic romances. All these worlds are yours, and more besides,” he says and concludes.