Sri-Lankan author Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s debut novel Numbercaste is a fascinating work of science fiction. While it deals with the very current 21st century concern of the ethics of big tech companies and their social influence, stylistically it has a strong feel of old-school science fiction. While there is an interesting set of characters, the foreground plot is the development of the technology and the company behind it. At times I was reminded of Asimov or Clarke’s approach to mapping out a future history.
The narrative style of the book is that of the kind of business of technology confessional. A person who was ‘there’ when a big company became a big company and knows that their audience is primarily interested in the inner workings of a famous business. In the near future, the central character, Patrick Udo, starts the narrative as a young man who falls almost by accident into an influential job at the mysterious tech company called NumberCorp.
Behind the scenes the visionary leader of the company, Julius Common, has been creating and selling a kind of social-credit rating service to business and companies based on an earlier development of worldwide personal ID system. The book goes on to chart how the company by fair means and some decidedly foul means leverages it’s control over rating people into an alternative social order for the world.
Does the narrative bear close examination. No, probably not but I think that is always the case with trying to realistically extrapolate technological advances with social change. Attempting to fill in every gap or make every event ironclad makes for a dull story and ignores how often social or political change is itself implausible (waving my hand at picture of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump). What Wijerante does do is keep the sequence of events plausible and interesting, charting set backs and external conflicts in a way that feels realistic.
The central character manages to sit in that sweet spot of being passive enough to go along with plans that initially have disturbing ethical implications while being proactive enough to be a valuable employee. Udo strives to please his superiors and to fit in with the company’s goals, often avoiding thinking too much about some of the worse excesses of the company. By the time he is involved in overtly evil acts, he is far too deeply implicated to refuse.
While it fits with the style of a kind of personal biography of a company by an insider, I feel the de-emphasis of secondary interpersonal character conflict and development makes the actual narrative less compelling. I can see why the author made the choices he did but we really only get some deeper insights in Julius Common’s character (the Steve Job’s like CEO) in the final chapters (as a kind of mini-biography). Udo’s immediate boss/colleague Wurth is shown eventually to have their own fascinating story which feels underdeveloped.
The other massive writing challenge for the novel is how to end it. The story is about the rise of not just a company but a new world system, one where social credit is catalogued and monitored and shapes everybody’s lives. It’s both a dystopian and utopian perspective, a kind of prelude to how a 21st century take on Aldiss Huxley’s Brave New World could come about. However, that kind of open ended result, is very tricky to have as a narrative conclusion.
In total this is a cleverly constructed novel that feels like a historical artefact from a future that could be. It broadens what science fiction is capable with the tools it has to inquiry and speculate. I’ll certainly be looking out for Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s future work.