Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, who hit number 1# on Amazon's short story rankings, will be doing a panel at the Asus Lanka Comic Con 2017, about his new book 'Numbercaste', modern digital publishing, and writing fiction.
'Numbercaste' is about a world where Big Data; gamification; and our loss of privacy gives a social media company power over all our lives. Like any good science fiction, it is a world you can see happening. What's unusual is that it leaves you wondering if that would be a good or a bad thing.
I got hold of Yudhanjaya, and asked him what he thought.
When Facebook Wins
Why did you write Numbercaste? It has no spaceships.
It's right in the fields that I specialize in. Politics, tech crazes, media - and honestly, I felt I had this story to get out into the world. Hopefully people like it.
What do you make of the Numbercaste world? Do you agree with what Number Corp achieves, or does it scare you?
I think the Numbercaste world is real. I think it's not just going to happen, but this is how humans seem to work - power, connections, social importance. We live in a world where Instagram fame translates to a million dollars; where, the Kardashians are famous for being famous. And China really is trying to pull this off.
It both scares and excites me. It's exciting because there is real potential here. It's a shadow system that, if done right, can hold people accountable ... It's terrifying because the social order that it imposes may not be something we all agree with, but is inevitable anyway.
How close are we to that world today? Do you see it as a possible future, or an inevitability? Is there a company you think is contending for that kind of power?
Very. Very close. I think there are two companies that can really pull this off - Facebook and Amazon. Facebook controls opinion and information access for almost 2 billion people. We live in a world where opinion often counts more than facts (which scares me). Amazon, well, it's the monopoly to end all monopolies. When everything from your reading preferences to your groceries are dictated by a single worldwide company . . . I think Zuckerberg and Bezos are the proto-Julius Commons. The infrastructure is already in place.
The other avenue would be the credit-rating agencies like Experian, Moody's and so on. The amount of data they have is incredible: and the amount of direct impact a bad credit rating has on someone's life is incredible. On a large scale level, a bad credit rating can already undermine a country's economy or send an airline into bankruptcy. All of this has been happening, and can only increase.
On Writing Science Fiction
Your very first story went to 1# on Amazon's short story rankings. Was it all prawn toast, or did you try some new marketing?
I honestly think it was a bit of both. I just emailed it out to people - I asked whoever was interested to drop me their mail and I'd send them the PDF. I figured this would let me really identify who actually read my writing.
I was surprised when over a hundred people started messaging me, sending me their emails, asking me to put it up on Amazon - close friends, a hard core of people who read Icaruswept, and so on. And so, now that I had the beginnings of a mailing list, I took their advice. I went through Pronoun, and set it up to go out to every single store they offered. I figured it'd sort of float around and die.
I had absolutely no idea that it would go so far. For the next few days I was honestly just jumping up and down in excitement, because this thing was zooming through the ranks. When it hit #10 I realized it was time to get serious about this. And so I started playing a bit smarter. I mailed those hundred and fifty-odd people, asking them to leave honest reviews if they had the time. They did. The response was phenomenal, especially on Goodreads.
Then I teamed up with about twenty other sci-fi writers and put it into several bundle offers. That got me up the rest of it and kept me in the #10 orbit for a good week, which is cool because that list updates every hour.
I never paid for any promo, just relied on people's goodwill, and the fact that I had something that people seemed to enjoy. So 90% prawn toast, and that last top 10 was a bit of reaching out, playing the indie game a bit.
You're not keen on print publishing, are on an E-book writers forum, and started a group to help local writers publish on Amazon. What's so special about digital publishing?
Trad pub has its advantages, but each book has a high unit cost. The entire publishing industry, since the Gutenberg Press, has been build on the fact that some people can afford this and some can't. Those who can become gatekeepers.
With digital, the cost of replicating a book drops to almost nothing: just a few hundred kilobytes of storage space. The cost and delay of transmitting a work drops to almost nothing. Whereas print, by default, imposes geographical limits, digital just nukes all that.
The gatekeepers start vanishing.
I think for us, as Sri Lankans, this is really important. We write English fiction in a country where barely anyone reads Sri Lankan authors, let alone sci-fi. Our markets and readerships are scattered throughout the world. And now you and I can go live across the world with the click of a button and be read from Colombo to Colombia.
I had realized this on a theoretical level before, but I think this really hit when a student from the University of California mailed me. Their professor had apparently come across TSSRW and they were discussing it informally in class- and this was three days after I hit that publish button. I don't think it could ever have propagated that far and that fast without digital.
Why hard science fiction? So few people do that anymore. You could just write garbage and get away with it.
I like it. I admire it. Hard sci-fi is a brilliant learning experience, especially when writing it. Numbercaste made me learn about the blockchain, cryptocurrencies, cryptography, network effects, the works - expertise that now gets me invited to speak in startup and research circles, because I had to spend serious time doing serious research. TSSRW made me spend an entire day trying to understand the mathematics of singularities.
Don't get me wrong, I love my WH40K (Ave Deus Mechanicus!) and I love soft sci-fi as well - LeGuin and Atwood, I think, are two of the best examples of that. I just try and write what I like to write.
You're known for doing a lot of writing in this town, but not fiction. Why the big change?
I realized that all the political writing had done was turn me into a giant ass, so I guess I was really looking for ways to keep writing. I'd done fiction before. When I was 14, I read Stephen King's Dark Tower series - amazing story, that - and I got to the point where he explained that he'd started writing it when he was 19. I thought, right, I can do this too, and over the next two years I sat down and cranked out The Waste, a 130,000 word monster set in a half-magic half-tech world. I'm really glad that never got published, because it was horrible: I have the manuscript on my desk and the cat sleeps on it sometimes.
A couple of years later I ended up working on an indie RPG called E.C.H.O. with four of my best friends. It was very story-based, very dystopian, about a supersoldier who comes home after a great war.
I had a blast doing this stuff. Some time ago I basically figured out that this was what I really wanted to be doing, creating something with words rather than just critiquing. I think making stuff is a lot more difficult, but also a lot more fun.
Will you be talking at your LCC panel about modern ways to launch a creative writing career?
Hopefully, yes. But I'm no expert, so the best I can do is pass on what other authors have taught me.
Surviving Big Data
As China's influence grows, do you think their authoritarian version - which they're already making - would affect our lives here?
I think China will stick to China. We're heavily in debt to them, but in terms of culture and technology, we seem to be close to India - Huntington's classification of civilizations comes to mind. I'm more concerned of what the US might come up with. After all, Western media holds so much sway over the rest of the world.
How could a person protect themselves from the "Number?" Is it already too late for people to 'opt out' of social media?
I think it's too late for that. Ever since the first credit card company launched, we've been tracked: and indeed, you have cases like Target's shopping recommendations algorithm figuring out a teenage girl was pregnant even before their family knew.
Going forward, I think there will be two ways to deal with this. The first is to use social media wisely, and understand what it can do for us. The second would be to do what Europe is doing - upholding strong 'right to be forgotten law', keeping legislature in check that tries to prevent digital discrimination. This could swing either way, so the next ten years are going to be really, really something to see.
It's like that old Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times.