How do you get someone to see something that they’re currently unable to see? To take on ideas and concepts that are not only new but challenging?
This is how Yudhanjaya Wijeratne does it. He starts with something familiar and relatively simple that the reader (at least the Science Fiction reader) can slide into comfortably. In this case, a simple commercial mission to retrieve salvage from the wreck of a colony ship that crashed on an only partially terraformed planet. OK, maybe it’s a little unusual that the story is being told from the AI’s point of view and that he’s assessing the crew as if they were components that he’s not entirely convinced are from the original manufacturer but that’s not a big stretch.
Then he adds things that aren’t normally there and which start to move us out of our comfort zone. The idea that AI was once a person. That it still mostly thinks of itself as an ex-person. The slowly dawning knowledge that each of the three crew members is broken in ways that make them poor candidates for handling high-stress situations as a team or even individually. Then the slow revelation that the company that the salvage crew works for is concerned only with turning a profit and would rather write off people than lose money. We’re further out now but we’re still in fairly familiar territory. The kind of thing you might have seen in Outland or Dark Matter.
He lets the crew struggle with the salvage task, made harder by local fauna that shouldn’t be there and by the growing tensions between the crew members. Then he turns up the heat. We get a threat from a rival team. One so heavily modified they seem not to be human. We get to see that our AI, who seemed so benign, isn’t nearly as human in his thoughts and reactions as he sees himself as being. Now, some of my expectations are on shakier ground. Do I like the AI anymore? If it came to a choice between the AI and the crew, who would I want to win?
As the external threat levels rise, I get more insight into the AI. Who he was when he was still human. Why he became what he is. What he wants now. I even get to hear the poetry he writes to help himself think. I become re-engaged with seeing the AI and the crew survive whatever is attacking them.
Even while I’m wrapped up in the gritty and often bloody struggle to keep the crew alive, I’m starting to be shown that something more and different is happening. It occurs to me that I may not have a good understanding of who the enemy is or why the attacks are happening. I’m also starting to understand that the AI is being pushed towards a decision: to hold on to his human mindset and protect his crew no matter what or do what is expected of an AI overseer and cut his losses, run for it and leave his crew to fend for themselves. By now I’m dealing with a level of complexity where I’m having to consider what I think human means and whether, whatever it means, it’s any better than the alternative.
So my worldview has shifted but Yudhanjaya Wijeratne isn’t finished. What he shows us next makes everything else seem simple. When the AI finally encounters the force behind the attacks, the whole geometry of the situation changes. Everything I thought I knew, everything that I thought had been going on, needs to be reassessed. And, if the AI survives the reassessment, whatever happens next is going to be truly momentous.
Now, if I’d known what the truly momentous thing was when the book started, I wouldn’t have understood it or I’d have understood it in the way I might read schematics – seeing the logic but not the beauty or the threat or the true semantic value of what is happening.
But Yudhanjaya Wijeratne has been playing a language game with me from the first page. He’s been expanding my vocabulary and my catalogue of concepts and doing it in a way that felt like entertainment rather than work. Everything from the story being told from the AI’s point of view, through the frailty of the fractured crew, to the poems that the AI writes, has been bringing me to the point where, when the momentous thing is revealed, it means something to me emotionally and I have the language to describe it and think about it.
This is hard science fiction at its best. Good science. Scary, life-threatening challenges faced by people who are not the omnicompetent heroes Science Fiction used to love but rather societies discards, human salvage desperate enough to take a dangerous mission. Lots of action but also lots of reflection which together build a conceptual landscape and a language that allow me / require me to consider what it means to be human and what it might mean to have once been human and now be something… different.
It’s always a joy to find a fresh voice in Science Fiction. Someone not only with something to say but with a different way of saying it. Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is a perfect example of this. He’s a Sri Lankan Science Fiction writer who is also a senior researcher in Big Data. He’s a man used to thinking deeply about the interactions between people, technology and data both individually and at scale and he brings a post-colonial mindset. Best of all, he writes people I can believe in, even when they’re doing unbelievable things, and even when they’re not really people anymore.
I will be consuming his entire back catalogue.
Now a confession. I didn’t pick up ‘The Salvage Crew’ because it was written by a rising star in South East Asian Science Fiction who also knows a lot about AI. I’d never heard of Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. I picked up the book because it was narrated by Nathan Fillion and I wanted to hear him tell me a story. He was an excellent choice. Not just because, as I expected, he’s a talented narrator, but because he helped the early part of the book feel more familiar. He made the AI into a reassuring presence just because he’s Nathan Fillion. But he also carried me beyond that familiarity, through all the strangeness and unpleasantness and death, to something very different. I recommend the audiobook to you. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.
Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is a Nebula-nominated science fiction author and data scientist from Colombo, Sri Lanka.
By day he is a TED speaker senior researcher with the Data, Algorithms and Policy team at LIRNEasia where:he studies new technologies to analyze human behavior at scale, working at the intersection of technology and government policy. He was a co-founder of Watchdog, a fact-checking organization founded partly to counter misinformation. His work has appeared in Wired, Foreign Policy and Slate.