I have long been a reader of science fiction. Not just for entertainment, but also for insights useful for my research and teaching. After all, the very word cyberspace was coined by William Gibson, a luminary of the cyberpunk sub-genre. I like all forms of sci fi, but find near-future science fiction the most illuminating. So I not only read, but recommend works that I particularly like.
A friend teaching about social aspects of ICTs once explained she had trouble following my reading recommendations: the plots of this form of fiction were mostly formulaic quests, she said. The characters were two-dimensional and not fully developed. She was really implying it was a male genre that I so liked—Zane Gray and Rider Haggard reworked!
I recall trying to defend Gibson and Bruce Sterling, whose protagonists were nowhere near two dimensional, and were female to boot. But most of the plots were of quest narratives, she had said. Not all of them, I had contended.
My friend should have had no difficulty with Numbercaste, where nothing is the subject of a quest, except perhaps a moral compass or two. She should find it of value in helping her LSE students understand some of the critical current issues being posed by social media, “fake news” and algorithm-based decision making. And all in the context of a well-crafted, near-future sci-fi novel.
The characters? They were males, most of them. The author of Numbercaste breaks away from the trend, at least among the sci-fi writers I read, of creating edgy female protagonists, and does so wisely. The advice that one should write what one knows about appears to have been taken. The principal characters, including the diffident narrator, are conflicted human beings settling accounts with father figures. They are worth getting to know. They help us work through some of the moral choices we ourselves face.
Near-future science fiction is about extrapolation. Good near-future writing gives us fresh insights into what's happening in our world or what's on the horizon. One could think of Numbercaste as an extended cogitation on the social-credit system being implemented in China. But it is much more.
It is contemplation of the age-old problem of how people are classified into various groups and treated differently, as in the case of caste. Caste is a subject a South Asian author has an obvious advantage in, not just the original form based on birth, but also the modern mutations based on “colleges” attended, doctor versus nurse, engineer versus technical officer, and so on.
South Asia has in recent decades produced an enormous amount of creative writing. But not much sci-fi. And very few of the works in this genres have South Asian characteristics. Amitav Ghosh's award-winning Calcutta Chromosome is, of course, a notable exception. Cross-cutting as it does between the past and the future to weave a narrative of an alternative science, it's a difficult book to categorize. Is it about our future or about a road not taken in the past?
In Yudhanjaya Wijeratne's book we may have the beginnings of truly South Asian science fiction, not limited to the quaint and the exotic. His writing engages self-confidently with the reality of people whose roots are here, but whose imaginations, ambitions and domains are not limited either by geography or the globe-straddling corporations they create or shape.
The true test of a writer (other than J.D. Salinger!), however, is the second novel. We eagerly await Wijeratne's!
Rohan Samarajiva writes and speaks mostly about technology and economics, having founded a regional think tank, LIRNEasia, which works primarily with governments, organizations and companies around the Bay of Bengal. The book was read over a week of circumnavigating the Bay: Colombo, Bengaluru, Dhaka, Yangonand back to Colombo.