Numbercaste, Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s debut novel, heralds the birth of a compelling new voice in Sri Lankan fiction. The book is also important for another reason – it is the first sci-fi novel by a Sri Lankan author that can hold its own amongst others published around the world. Google sci-fi and Sri Lanka and the name of a prominent British author, who made Sri Lanka his second home, dominates search results. Wijeratne is the first serious voice to enter this genre in English from the island, and this alone recommends a reading of the novel. Good intentions alone though, a good read do not make. Wijeratne’s short-story titled ‘The Slow Sad Suicide of Rohan Wijeratne’, published earlier this year, climbed the best-selling charts on Amazon. I hadn’t read it when I received my copy of Numbercaste, before, as it turned out, the author himself had received his own copies. I am glad for this fact, because the only writing of the author I was familiar with were musings on his blog, and in particular, work around two key elections in Sri Lanka in 2015 where his use of data analytics highlighted key developments in how leading candidates and political groupings gained or lost traction amongst a younger voting bloc in the country. Wijeratne’s ability to adroitly splice through the complexity of real, contemporary world affairs and politics is reflected in his fiction.
Numbercaste is set around sixty years in the future. This to me is key to its appeal. Things like inter-stellar travel will not be a fact of life in the next century. And yet, around six decades gives the author a fertile playground around how our current fascination with technology will play out. It’s a good, grounded approach. The author plays to his strengths, and the resulting writing is eminently readable. The novel navigates, with an impressive fluidity and authority, key developments around, inter alia, fin-tech, artificial intelligence, machine learning and what is even today a clear bent of polity and society to sacrifice privacy for convenience, democracy for security and accountability for efficient, effective service delivery. As with the best sci-fi, the future is a tart commentary on the present, and presents a mirror to reflect on things we do and countenance in real life today, that seed key fictional developments and leitmotifs in the book. Wijeratne’s novel traverses a short arc of a few decades, and in that sense, is less ambitious than most writing in the genre, which in scale and scope are more expansive, with the narrative spanning a longer linear timescale. But again, the discipline to contain and control the (science) fiction is what defines this book, with just enough infusion of the imagination to elevate into the novel’s finely drawn out domain persons, products, places and processes from the political, tech, cultural and social world today that many readers who pick this book up will already be users of, familiar with and indeed, want to buy more of or participate more fully in. The author’s writing is logical and lucid, indicating a clear train of thought around where he wants each character, plot line, development and page to go. This is a level of intellectual rigour and discipline in writing one doesn’t encounter in older more seasoned authors, published more often.
The chief protagonist of Numbercaste is Patrick Audomir Udo, who by the end of the novel, hasn’t yet hit forty. The character’s progression through the book is also a coming of age tale, set in a world where power and privilege are being reconfigured, in the guise of egalitarianism, into what is a post-Orwellian world, where the Panopticon isn’t visible, physical architecture or artefact, but in effect algorithmic surveillance, from birth to death, that one cannot escape – and worse, many have simply no desire to. Udo is finely drawn, from the start to finish, along with other key companions on his journey, most notably Julius Common, born Joshua Julius Gunesekara. A Canadian, to Sri Lankan parents. How the name changed, and the circumstances of Common’s birth, life and rise to unbridled power, form the substance of Numbercaste, told through the perspective of Udo. It is done well. Udo is an empathetic narrator. Common is anything but what his surname would suggest. He enters into the narrative in an ominous fashion. As we learn more, a sense of foreboding arises – but what Udo does is also to frame Common’s beliefs, values, interests and growing power in a framework where through will, violence and a technocratic zeal underpinned by algorithmic efficiency, citizens around the world, over time, willingly cede control of their lives to an idea controlled by a single individual. How this comes about is strictly in the domain of sci-fi, but the politics in the novel is surprisingly well-fleshed out, embracing key qualities of individuals and institutions already around, be they loved or reviled. On the day I read the novel cover to cover, Twitter threw up a news story around how armies of ‘cyber troops’ are being used ‘manipulate Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets to steer public opinion, spread misinformation and undermine critics, according to a new report from the University of Oxford’. Without giving away plot details, this same thrust in a more evolved, sophisticated form can be found in Numbercaste, including other key, often ethically or morally disturbing technological developments that have made the headlines in the past two years alone. Entwined with characters that are finely drawn, and rooted very much to very human failings even as they strive for a greatness that outlives time and place, the book’s great appeal is in how all of the central characters resemble those we already know – either personally, or through the media.
A note on the production of the book is in order, since many who read it would not be friends with the author on Facebook. In a process that took many months, updates on Facebook meticulously documented the process of writing and editing from various locations, and in various stages of completion or frustration. What beyond the strength of writing makes this a remarkable book is Wijeratne’s dogged pursuit of how best to publish it. I was told that several publishers in Sri Lanka had turned down the manuscript because of its genre, and fears perhaps of poor sales. Scouring various online fora, trying out and adapting numerous publication platforms and technologies, or looking at the details of production around cost and delivery are not tasks that one would normally expect an author to engage with, much less master. But the dogged determination of Wijeratne to bring his writing to print is truly commendable, including a compelling cover design by the author himself that rivals anything a professional designer would have created. The quality of the final product, from colour reproduction to the quality of print, paper and binding, is quite amazing, for those of us used to low-budget, self-published books typeset and printed in the country.
However, going for it alone brings with it issues a professional editor and publisher would have ironed out. Some spelling mistakes, a few narrative loose ends and the repetition of the same phrases are sprinkled throughout the book, each rendered more visible perhaps because it is otherwise a remarkably well produced novel. More seriously perhaps, the author quite liberally and problematically includes in the book names of well-known personalities, technologies and companies based out of Silicon Valley, as well as fictional companies taken out of the pages of Dave Eggers’ best-selling book, ‘The Circle’. While this serves on the one hand to ground the fiction, it is also very jarring, pointlessly blurring the real and contemporary with the fictive and futuristic. Whether it is Elon Musk or Google, the Circle or Mark Zuckerberg, Wijeratne’s name-dropping suggests he was, for whatever reason, unsure of whether his own characters would be strong enough to stand by themselves, without very obvious reference to who they resembled, or combined features of. It is, stylistically, Numbercaste’s greatest and most glaring fault.
In what it captures and how it frames, Numbercaste owes a clear debt to Dave Eggers, Cline Ernest, and also, outside of fiction, to Eli Pariser’s work and more recently, the warnings of Tristan Harris. In TV terms, Numbercaste is more Black Mirror than it is Stranger Things – capturing a story about a dystopian future that is anchored to things we are doing, or are being done to us, today. It is an easy, engaging read and offers a critique of power, influence and control that is deeply resonant, relevant and indeed, very real. Wijeratne’s singular achievement, to my mind, is not just in writing a debut novel that is remarkably well-rounded and written, but in setting the bar for others to follow – showing by example that it is possible to write well, and enter a competitive, thriving global market of science fiction, with little to no support.
I unhesitatingly encourage you to buy Numbercaste and read it.