The second Commonwealth Empires book is done!

2019 might have had some real low notes in it, but it ended well: I finished the second book in the Commonwealth Empire series, and booped it off to Swati Daftuar at HarperCollins India.

I’ve written about this particular beast before.  I had a great deal of trouble with the thing. I finished the first version quite early – somewhere in March – but it just didn’t feel right: there were several interesting characters I wanted to bring in, among which was a prototype Inquisitor called Eliott Grimme. He, Charlotte Plague, and Gregory Mars were three of the first four Horsemen – the Reaper, Plague and War, respectively. To a large extent the novel was a dialogue between different generations of Inquisitors fighting against, and coming to terms with the fact that the little machines in my fictional Colombo would be their successors.

Unfortunately, the balance was off. Much of what made the novel Sri Lankan simply fell by the wayside: Ceylon through Eliott Grimme’s eyes was yet another backwater colony, yet another hostile topography to walk over. These people are, after all, colonial instruments.

Version two was finished in July. This time the balance was closer, but the background detail of Ceylon was still . . . not up to what it was in my notes, which went something like this:


So I sat down in December, after Christmas, and told myself version three would be the final. I’d use the material from version one and two, but fundamentally reconstruct the whole story from scratch – including typing it out line by line, swapping the point of view of Eliot Grimme out for characters that would play a greater role in things to come, and exploring the city of Kandy in more detail. I also wanted the book to fit between the two halves of the story shown in THE INHUMAN RACE – to show how and why Kushlani de Almeida, the protagonist of the second half of the book, goes from being in second-in-charge of what is essentially a battle Royale with humanoid machines –  to sacrificing her career and her life to make a legal case for giving those same machines fundamental rights.

The result: THE NATIVES ARE RESTLESS, a little larger than THE INHUMAN RACE. I had teasers of the Lanka Resistance Front and the political unrest in Kandy while the story happened: those were brought out more, and certain characters took on a life of their own when it came to making hard choices. The name changed: what started out as THE INHUMAN PEACE became what it is now after one person (in the book) made an offhanded remark on the political situation in Kandy.

And it fits right where I expected it to be.



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On the destruction of metanarratives: the map is not the territory, but . . .

A friend of mine recently posted this article, rather boldly titled “How French “Intellectuals” Ruined the West: Postmodernism and Its Impact, Explained“. It was either read that or watch that man eat a $120,000 banana, and any attack on intellectuals seemed slightly less depressing than wondering how the hell a banana is worth $120,000.

The article opens with “Postmodernism presents a threat not only to liberal democracy but to modernity itself. That may sound like a bold or even hyperbolic claim, but the reality is that the cluster of ideas and values at the root of postmodernism have broken the bounds of academia and gained great cultural power in western society. The irrational and identitarian “symptoms” of postmodernism are easily recognizable and much criticized, but the ethos underlying them is not well understood. This is partly because postmodernists rarely explain themselves clearly and partly because of the inherent contradictions and inconsistencies of a way of thought which denies a stable reality or reliable knowledge to exist.

Obviously, one expects it to build up to a froth from there. But surprisingly, it dovetails into an interesting, history-based examination of postmodernism and its attack on systems of an empirical bent, particularly against science (based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic), and points out that this leads to a degradation of  what the Enlightenment stood for, and all the advances it made. It attempts to put sketch number of definitions of postmodernism, but the one that interested me was “an incredulity towards metanarratives,” as explained by Jean-François Lyotard, who coined the term ‘postmodern’.

Lyotard, in a nutshell, railed against  catch-all systems that attempted to explain everything, or provide a framework for everything, including religion, science and Marxism; instead of One Universal Framework/Truth/System, he advocated ditching the metanarrative for ‘mininarratives’ – smaller, and more personal truths, and favoring lived experiences over empirically testable facts. From Lyotard the article hops to Foucault, and then onto Derrida, ultimately building an attack on intersectionality and the running thread that in the search for ever-personal, ever-relative truths, we as a society have abandoned facts, turned our back on sciences, and are running headlong into the darkness.

As a Carl Sagan fan, I can’t help but recall his words from The Demon-Haunted World: “I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…

The dumbing down of American is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance…”

And indeed, when one sees hipsters sunning their bum and yoni, the temptation to send the Terminator back in time in search of Derrida becomes stronger.

But here I must stick in the antithesis: I function as a data scientist working in the Global South: we pore over vast amounts of data, study algorithmic developments that trouble us – particularly from the West and China – and help shape government policy so that the countries we live in don’t get screwed over. Sometimes we’re successful. Sometimes we’re not.

We work in public policy. We are, to use what amounts to an insult among intersectional scholars, positivists. We have to be: public policy is made at the scale of millions of people, and for the purposes of efficiency, and because of the limits of the human mind, we must abstract people to numbers and categories.

It’s ironic, then, that our operations often function against metanarratives. Quite often we run into rival those with far more narrative power, vested interests, and funding – that do not represent our territories at all, and there we must argue and defend against them. At the recent Internet Governance Forum, for example, I argued that the current school of thought against Big Tech – trust the governments, let them regulate the platforms – is a naive, German-led strain of thought, and absolutely terrifying to those of us who have to live under dictators and malicious government actors by the day, because it centralizes power – the state already has the legal monopoly on violence: to give it the legal monopoly on narrative and dissent would mean the death of all democratic effort in our societies.  We rail against ITU indicators of development, because sometimes they make no bloody sense. We point out that Facebook’s global content guidelines cannot function for every society, and advocate for more localized knowledge of languages and content ecosystems.

So here we are arguing against metanarratives that the Global North is pushing on the world, and favoring a mininarrative. But where do we peg the size of this mininarrative? Obviously we cannot bring it all the way down to personal truths for individuals: at that scale nothing will ever get done. We can operate at the level of provinces, nation-states, cities (because sometimes these demarcations don’t make sense).

We build maps of reality and operate on those, because to look at every infinite detail is to count grains of sand on the beach without ever understanding the shape of the bay we walk in. This is the tradeoff in reasoning: we sacrifice granularity for scope, and mininarratives for meta. Even the legendary Jane Jacobs pegged her scope to communities in the city, and not on shaping policy to account for each individual in that community.

The original article explores the development of postmodernism, arriving at a rather hilarious set of snippets:

Postmodernism has become a Lyotardian metanarrative, a Foucauldian system of discursive power, and a Derridean oppressive hierarchy.

And brings up such examples as: ‘When I try, unsuccessfully, to squeeze a tennis ball into a wine bottle, I need not try several wine bottles and several tennis balls before, using Mill’s canons of induction, I arrive inductively at the hypothesis that tennis balls do not fit into wine bottles’… We are now in a position to turn the tables on [postmodernist claims of cultural relativism] and ask, ‘If I judge that tennis balls do not fit into wine bottles, can you show precisely how it is that my gender, historical and spatial location, class, ethnicity, etc., undermine the objectivity of this judgement?”

“There is something very odd indeed in the belief that in looking, say, for causal laws or a unified theory, or in asking whether atoms really do obey the laws of quantum mechanics, the activities of scientists are somehow inherently ‘bourgeois’ or ‘Eurocentric’ or ‘masculinist’, or even ‘militarist.’”

When I suggested earlier that the idea of ‘alternative facts’ draws upon ‘a set of concepts that in recent decades have been used by radicals’, I was not suggesting that Kellyanne Conway, or Steve Bannon, still less Donald Trump, have been reading up on Foucault or Baudrillard… It is rather that sections of academia and of the left have in recent decades helped create a culture in which relativized views of facts and knowledge seem untroubling, and hence made it easier for the reactionary right not just to re-appropriate but also to promote reactionary ideas.

I feel that at some point I should stop being amused by these developments. The truth is I live in a society where postmodern has been the norm since 1948, where racism is routinely defended under the banner of personal or cultural truths (completely counter to logic and science). We live in societies, for example (and I’m going to use India here, because they’ve recently been producing some hilarious examples) where ministers point out that no local studies have proved that pollution is harmful to life (minister Prakash Javadeka), and therefore the government should stop making the people worry about living in cities piled high with garbage and clouded with smog. That, no doubt, is his truth.

I think we have to stick something in the ground here and say fuck it: it isn’t just the empiricists: even these postmodernists operate from positions of privilege that make their analyses useful only up to an extent. Derrida never had to actually live in the reality he espoused. Perhaps if he had lived in India, we may have come to Lyotard, read Foucault with some interest, and got back to work as usual the next day, snorting about how these Western intellectuals make a name for themselves on useless extremes. Derrida would have died from the pollution.

So I should, really, be in agreement with the article. But I am not. I am not a philosopher, except purely by accident – in the same way that a random assortment of ingredients sometimes forms a halfway decent stew.  The more I read and understand, the more I tend to impatience with all these intellectual extremes.

Sayer defines practical adequacy as being able to: ‘generate expectations about the world and about the results of our actions which are actually realised … The reason that the convention 1, that we cannot walk on water, is preferred to convention 2, that we can, is because the expectations arising from 1 but not 2 are realised … It is not that our knowledge of water doesn’t work, but rather that the nature of water make 1 more practically adequate than 2’.

I think, on the whole, I prefer to function in this space, with Sayer’s framing. I think it’s important that we understand that a map is not the territory, but the usefulness of a map is in its similarity to the territory that it represents, to quote  Alfred Korzybski, the father of general semantics.

Were we to give up intersectionality, would we also not fall into the flaw of building metanarratives without being able to understand local nuance? And where can such local nuance come from in the pursuit of general frameworks, if not for in-depth interviews, surveys, and other tools that capture mininarratives, and expose truths sometimes ignored in the design of grand frameworks.

I think a better way – or rather, a more practically adequate way – is not to attack postmodernism, like the original article I was reading, but to acknowledge it for what it can be: a useful tool to provide a critique of how we operate. There is utility to everything. The challenge is in knowing when you’ve gone too far into the deep end, and being able to get to work in the morning. 




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My understanding of science fiction: a personal introspection

In which a Twitter argument forced me to think about my evolving personal definitions of science fiction.

Science fiction was science fiction because of my position in time, not through any other inherent feature.

Yesterday I logged onto Twitter (mistake number one in any hectic working day*), and say T.G. Shenoy, quite possibly the best-read critic of SFF in these waters, tweeting thusly.

Apparently some writer claimed that SFF was fascist propaganda designed to fight communism. I fell down the rabbit hole (mistake number two) and found the source of the tweet, which seemed to have made quite a stir on SFF twitter.

Now obviously the argument does not hold water. SFF is not a uniquely capitalist enterprise. Soviet science fiction writers created communist futures: the Strugatskys, Belayev, Bulgakov, A.Tolstoy. British writers such as Ian M. Banks championed post-scarcity socialism (the Culture). Ken McLeod, as far as I’m aware, was a Trotskyite. Even in the U.S., Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed stands out as a critique of capitalism instead of a weapon in support of it. If anything the construct that haunts SFF seems to be a sort of feudalism-lite, often decorated with charismatic larger-than-life heroes (Chrestomanci, Harry Potter, LOTR,  Doctor Who) playing around with the lives of lesser mortals.

And this is just a cursory glance based on what I grew up reading, which was usually the British stuff and Sinhala or English translations of the Russian writers [0]. American fiction does, indeed, seem have been leveled against communism in the 60’s, and the reasons behind that can be seen in Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding. I suspect modern American SFF is a lot more anti-capitalist than anything else. But that aside: Britain and Russian science fiction exist, have existed (for a long bloody time, one might add, at least since the 1900s).

Anyway, the rabbit hole made me think about SFF, and even about the use of the word SFF, which I seem to have rather unconsciously adopted. And judging by the rabbit hole, people have vastly differing definitions of what SFF is.

So I’m going to attempt to break up how the definition has evolved in my mind.

Early years (2002-2007):

  • Science Fiction
  • Fantasy
  • ‘Other’ science fiction

Or rather, growing up, there was Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Stanislaw Lem. This was stuff that took thought and tried to push it to the brink. In fact, this was most science fiction in Sri Lanka, primarily because Clarke lived here, and his impact was so vast that it was as if a black hole settled in Sri Lanka and we all bent around it.

As I said in my introduction in an upcoming anthology:

… he settled down here in 1956, when Sri Lanka was still Ceylon. From here he delivered to the world a tremendous output of thought that cemented his status in history. He nodded towards his adopted homeland often; he placed his space elevator close by, and his favorite novel – The Songs of Distant Earth (1986) was about a planet named Thalassa, which in Sinhala breaks down very clearly into “Under the palm trees”. He was the Chancellor of the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka’s leading technological university, for 23 years. He wore a white sarong and shirt – the national dress – as part of the Sri Lankan delegation to the United Nations disarmament talks in the 1980. Sri Lanka bestowed upon him the titles of Vidya Jyothi (‘Luminary of Science); Sahithyaratna (‘Gem of Literature’); and the Lankabhimanya (‘Pride of Lanka’), the highest honor a civilian can achieve.

All of which is to say: in Sri Lanka, Sir Arthur was science fiction. He was an icon of intellect. We grew up in his shadow. The first science fiction book I read was Rendezvous with Rama. I grew up with a line in my head: there was Clarke, Niven, Lem, Asimov ….

In the fantasy bracket, there was René Goscinny, J.K. Rowling, Dianna Wynne Jones, Ursula LeGuin, Terry Pratchett, Lynn Flewelling, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Garth Nix.

Then there was this strange ‘other’ category. Ian Banks and William Gibson occupied that sphere. And, increasingly, so did Stanislaw Lem. Instead of pushing materials sciences, electronics and physics, they explored social theory and philosophy.  The physics was a backdrop. It was interesting, and a gateway drug to the interests that would shape me as a writer.

Then there was Star Wars, which I first saw in 2006 (a pirated copy of The Phantom Menace; I remember this not because of Star Wars but because I also saw Tomb Raider and developed an instant crush on Angelina Jolie).

What to make of Star Wars? It was exciting, but so blatantly not hard science fiction. Possibly it fit in this other category, but in my mind lumping it in with Lem and Gibson and Banks was impossible. I think I ended up regarding it as a type of fantasy that wore scifi skin. I mean, it had magic. It had mystical elements.

There was no theory behind this typology. Just loose attributes that I saw [1].

O/Ls- A/Ls (2008-2010):

Around this period I had more reading time on my hands [2].  The taxonomy mutated:

  • Hard Science Fiction
  • Soft Science Fiction
  • High Fantasy
  • Low Fantasy

This structure seemed much more useful. Clarke et al remained in the Hard SF category, using its seed some technological change. Social Science Fiction, which I was reading more of, covered the likes of Banks and Lem. Star Wars I placed alongside LOTR in the High Fantasy category. Low fantasy was what we might call magical realism today.

In my head the boundary was between predictive and descriptive. Science Fiction attempted to predict what could be. It was a die-roll game: often a book that might get ten things wrong might nail two or three things. One of my friends, who had a rich dad, brought a smartphone to school – the first I’d ever seen: an enormous Nokia with a huge camera. It looked like a calculator, but a bit smaller. It could fit in the palm of your hand. He took pictures of us in the class and showed them to us, and we went “ooh!”. And maybe to get my interest, he said, “Look, it has a dictionary! You can connect it to a computer!”

Now I looked at this thing, and I thought: wait a minute: this seems familiar. I’ve never seen this thing before, but I knew exactly what it could do. I reached into my bag and found the book that I had, the previous day, stolen from the library. Imperial Earth. Arthur C Clarke. Date of publication, 1976.  And there, Clarke described a device.  It looked like a calculator, but a bit smaller, it could fit in the palm of your hand. It had a dictionary. You could connect it to a computer.

I went back to the library, returned the book, got caned by the library teacher, and then asked for more books. In hindsight it wasn’t a very good library – all of the stuff it had was really old – but the shape of ideas I saw around me seemed to be from that science fiction section. Rockets? Moon landings? Submarines? Jules Verne, 1800’s. Video calling; Skype; Google Hangouts; that came from 1911 (Hugo Gernsback). Anti-depressants? 1931 (Aldous Huxley). PDAs sounded like, Douglas Adams, 1981, The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Now it was simply a matter of sorting these out into the Hard or Social categories. Mary Shelley presided over this category of what could be. Peter Watts fit here. Fantasy, on the other hand, described what is with what could not be. Terry Pratchett, particularly.

Of course, I now realize the flaws of this classification. But at the time it captured most of my world. Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Fooled by Randomness, Black Swan) points out that we often generate erroneous rulesets based on observations and we assume those observations hold. If you see a million white swans, you assume all swans are white. Then the Black Swan arrives.

2010: Left Hand of Darkness, District 9, V for Vendetta and the return of Clarke

In 2010 I encountered not one, but four Black Swans: Le Guin’s science fiction, Neill Blomkamp, Alan Moore.

District 9 – set in a science-fiction-ey scenario – was more a description of race hatred and what is rather than anything that could be. V for Vendetta, though set in London, echoed across space to show me parallels in the rising centrist control of Sri Lanka and all the abuses of power that come about when information is tightly controlled.

The kicker was Left Hand of Darkness. Until now I had only read Le Guin’s Earthsea. LHoD’s Gethen to me was a fantasy construct, and yet it was set on other planets, against the backdrop of an interplanetary United Nations of sorts; and it was a powerful, extremely intellectual critique on the way that I had seen the world; it not just described what was, but I felt it took a stab at [accurately] predicting a future society where gender was giving way to a more freeing androgyny, and the tensions between the cracks.

It was the introduction to LHoD that was the final straw on the camel’s back of my classification system:

Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. “If this goes on, this is what will happen.” A prediction is made. Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of a purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life..

Fortunately, though extrapolation is an element in science fiction, it isn’t the name of the game by any means. It is far too rationalist and simplistic to satisfy the imaginative mind, whether the writer’s or the reader’s. Variables are the spice of life.

This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let’s say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the second world war; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens…. In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed. The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future – indeed Schrodinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the “future,” on the quantum level, cannot be predicted- but to describe reality, the present world.

Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.”

And then the ghost of Clarke, whispering:  “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

It was a slow-burning fuse, and in hindsight it should have been obvious, but I kept having to think about this, especially on my Prachett re-reads. Especially Going Postal. Science fiction was science fiction because of my position in time, not through any other inherent feature. Had Going Postal been written before the advent of the telegraph, it would surely have been science fiction.

And, going from this: almost every science fiction story contains within it one big lie, be it lightspeed travel or generation ships or even something like being able to mathematically model the future behavior of entire civilizations without a fraction of the data we have available today (Asimov). If we accept that as science fiction, why not dragons? With a few advances in genetic engineering, upscale lizards are far more plausible than generation ships. And surely visitations from aliens are about as fantastical as a giant turtle bearing the world on its back. It seemed entirely a matter of opinion.

So the taxonomy was not only useless: it was irrelevant.

Present Day

Today I have three types of fiction in mind:

  • SFF-predictive
  • SFF-descriptive
  • SFF-escapism

Notably, while fascist strains of any literature can exist, I have yet to see an argument for these three categories for being fascist by design or by representation in reading material.

I cannot fully accept Le Guin’s thesis that science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive. To do so would be to ignore actual predictive work. For example, David Brin’s Earth is often cited in the policy circles I float in, particularly among the generation of policymakers that saw the rise of the Internet and the switch from telephony policy to broadband policy. Aspects of fiction – such as William Gibson’s mega-slum, the Sprawl – are commonly referenced in arguments around the office about urban design and the future of cities such as Delhi. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is in play around AI ethics.

But I can broaden the definition a bit and say: science fiction and fantasy are thought experiments, and they come in three types. Predictive fiction rolls on, with writers exploring everything from hard engineering problems to climate change. The finest of this category fits Frederick Pohl’s definition of science fiction:  “a good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.”

And descriptive fiction yields glorious bounties in understanding the world. Pratchett presents magnificent allegories on the world today. I can add Kafka and Borges and Madeleine l’engle and Jeff Vandermeer and be quite happy.

The divide is primarily the observer’s point in time and space. Categorizations shift as events unfold. Neuromancer is already descriptive in its depiction of megacorporations that have taken on the functions of government, such as holding a legal monopoly on violence. In a few years we may end up in a world where Paolo Baccigalupi’s the Wind-Up Girl or Neal Stephenson’s Anathem turns out to be descriptive rather than predictive. Works that are already in transition, in my mind, are those of Malka Older and Annalee Newitz, to name a few.

But the Fantasy / Scifi divide does not matter as much anymore. Where the bookshops put this is irrelevant to their effectiveness as predictive or descriptive fiction. The frame also allows me to add certain things that are usually, for some reason, excluded from a tighter frame – such as Michael Chrichton. Why is Timeline, for example, not discussed as part of SFF canon?

This seems to tally with how non-writers in my circles approach things. They generally read very few books in the genre, and as a consequence approach something only if it has extraordinary predictive or descriptive value. I was recently surprised when the Chairman of LIRNEasia, Rohan Samarajiva (a former telecom regulator, Professor of various things, and an ardent Brin-and-Gibson fan) used the dynamics of the two-person Panopticons in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to explain the social effects of grassroots, community-led surveillance [3].

I could use the term speculative fiction. But to me this seems a word coined out of defensiveness. Harlan Ellison used it to avoid being pigeonholed; Margaret Atwood used it to set her work (which features climate change, bio-engineering, corporate governance and people with glowing blue penises) from “scifi”, which she sees as “squids in space”. So I have grown more comfortable with the term SF/F, or SFF, because the two sub-genres borrow much from each other – a really good example is Foundryside, which presents cyberpunk themes (and certainly, programming and AI) with fantasy constructs – and because the term doesn’t look down its nose at the rich and robust history of the genres.

I’ve applied this to my own work as well. Numbercaste is predictive. The Commonwealth Empires series is descriptive; I was initially taken aback by reviews that insisted that I should extrapolate the technologies of a future British Raj faithfully, but that is outside the mission, which is to examine otherization and Sri Lanka’s political factions through a whole assembly of cyberpunk conceits.

And then there is escapism, which is self-explanatory. We all need that from time to time, because nobody can maintain thought experiments 24/7/365 unless an absurd amount of acid is present. All stories are escapist: some are more escapist than others.

Fine, but there’s better ways of doing this

Absolutely. I suspect Wittgenstein will always have a hoot on this particular subject, and all I’ve done is really lay out my head-canon.

There have obviously been many people who have thought about the subject and arrived at different conclusions, and often with far more rigor than I have. Arthur C. Clarke said that “Science fiction is something that could happen—but you usually wouldn’t want it to. Fantasy is something that couldn’t happen—though you often only wish that it could.” Orson Scott Card insisted that

  1. All stories set in the future, because the future can’t be known. This includes all stories speculating about future technologies, which is, for some people, the only thing that science fiction is good for. Ironically, many stories written in the 1940s and 1950s that were set in what was then the future—the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s—are no longer “futuristic.” Yet they aren’t “false,” either, because few science fiction writers pretend to be writing what will happen. Rather, they write what might happen. So those out-of-date futures, like that depicted in the novel 1984, simply shift from the “future” category to:
  2. All stories set in the historical past that contradict known facts of history. Within the field of science fiction, these are called “alternate world” stories. For instance, what if the Cuban Missile Crisis had led to nuclear war? What if Hitler had died in 1939? In the real world, of course, these events did not happen—so stories that take place in such false pasts are the purview of science fiction and fantasy.
  3. All stories set in other worlds, because we’ve never gone there. Whether “future humans” take part in the story or not, if it isn’t Earth, it belongs to this genre.
  4. All stories supposedly set on Earth, but before recorded history and contradicting the known archaeological record—stories about visits from ancient aliens, or ancient civilizations that left no trace, or “lost kingdoms” surviving into modern times.
  5. All stories that contradict some known or supposed law of nature. Obviously, fantasy that uses magic falls into this category, but so does much science fiction: time travel stories, for instance, or “invisible man” stories.

Card’s definition evades the point-in-time anchor trap, but at “all stories set in other worlds, because we’ve never gone there.” – the Left Hand of Darkness is tapping at the door. It wants to have a word. And the rest of fantasy is behind it. I think Andrew Milner’s ultimate cop-out is the most honest: “Science fiction is a selective tradition, continuously reinvented in the present, through which the boundaries of the genre are continuously policed, challenged and disrupted, and the cultural identity of the SF community continuously established, preserved and transformed. It is thus essentially and necessarily a site of contestation.”

So for now, I will stick to my three categories:

  • SFF-predictive
  • SFF-descriptive
  • SFF-escapism

Until the next Black Swan arrives and disrupts my thinking again. I look forward to it.

[0]There has always been a prominent Russian-inspired Marxist strain here in Sri Lanka: see the JVP rebellion; the JVP is still in Parliament today

[1] I realize the structure of the post so far may make it seem as if I came across scifi first. In reality the chronology was not so neat. I came across Asterix first, then Dianna Wynne Jones’s Chrestomani; then we got swept up in Harry Potter (I was in grade 2 or 3 at the time, and I remember painstakingly replicating the Harry Potter logo from my pencilcase, and subsequently having to kneel outside class for two periods not paying attention to the teacher). Then came Terry Pratchett and DWJ, who I suspect I will read until the day I die.

[2] Two things happened in this time. One, money reached up and slapped me in the face. And when I say that I mean my father had had taken out a loan on our house to send me to private school, and the loan amount was done. He had, of course, defaulted on the loan: my mother and I had been living apart from him since 2001, when creditors seized our house and locked up all the furniture (and my books) and threw us out – but I always had school to return to the next day.  So I was kicked out of school (the principal made it known to all parents that school fees had not been paid, and This Was What Happens When You Act Like You Can Afford Things You Can’t) and spent a year school-less while applying to public school. That year I did nothing but read.

Two, the amount of violence in my life increased.  Until this point I had thought the regular police and hospital trips were normal, and people just didn’t talk about it. We lived in what could be called a slum: one room, tin roof, wooden walls, one plug point wired from the neighbor’s light socket, water and toilet at the landlord’s. Every family fought day and night, and most evenings I preferred to sit outside and read. But now that was added to the school situation – the school I went to at first was President’s College Kotte, which was basically gang turf. So I did what I could: I joined the meanest bastards on the block – the Army Cadets – whose reputation was such that as long as I completed training for the day, and as I could hold my own in a fight, I could skip class and read without being harassed too much for reading English.  Needless to say, I read a lot of Pratchett.

[3] I have been trying since 2014 to get him to read Pratchett. Eventually, he will read it. Hopefully, before his next reincarnation.




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What I learned from The Malazan Book of the Fallen

In which I read the Malazan Book of the Fallen as a writer and talk about the things I’ve learned, from handling themes to the tradeoffs of branching storylines to shaved knuckles in the hole.

Every year I try to read the Malazan Book of the Fallen. That is to say, I pick up Gardens of the Moon and plough on, and inevitably fail around Memories of Ice [1].

This time I actually finished the damn thing [2]. I started reading about four months ago. I read like a writer: as carefully as I could, notebook in hand, keeping an eye out for prose tricks, worldbuilding, and ways of bringing a plot together. I read no other fiction in between and read every single day. By the end of it I felt like Coltaine himself, compelled by narrative chains that snapped and bit and pulled me even as real life hounded me on all flanks.

First, a disclaimer: I’m playing a guessing game, and have no contact with the author. As far as I’m concerned, Erikson is operating several tiers above me in skill, so all of my analysis could be so much so much pseudointellectual hogwash. Second, this whole post contains spoilers.

1. In media res (Latin: “into the middle of things”) is the art of starting a story in the middle of the action. There is such a thing as too much in media res. On the whole, this series seems to be constructed in such a way that everything is told from the middle.Case in point, the plot structure:

This works really well to set up a universe that feels like it has serious history (Star Wars did the same). This use of in media res happens at every level – from the ordering of chapters in books to the books themselves.

The downside is, at Malazan’s scale, you need the entirety of it in your head to really appreciate what goes on. For example, it was only after the Pannion wars that I began to appreciate the enormity of what happened to at Pale; almost the entirety of the magic system is a confusing mess until the Errant/Panoes heritage revelation.  And I still have no idea what the epic K’rul-Kruppe-Mhybe-Silverfox arc was about, other than to set up the Redeemer vs the Dying God, and I have no idea what the Dying God was about. There’s hard information/attention limits at play here – part of the series’ famed difficulty, I believe.

This can technique be interpreted as a critique of the usual way of introducing things – a linear narrative, a “journeyman” character that knows only slightly more than the audience, and needs to learn about the world around them. I suppose I can read it as the polar opposite of the opening infodump found in Clarke’s scifi (which I grew up reading), but I’m not entirely convinced [3]

We certainly know that it’s a deliberate choice by the author. I’ve read Erikson’s Willful Child, a Star Trek parody/homage that reads like a high-octane version of The Orville. It’s completely different.

What I learned: to be more aware of how information is delivered to the reader in a story – both in terms of volume and velocity. Malazan easily scores above my upper limit for complexity – somewhere up there with doing a literature review on trade-migration relations.

Going back after Malazan, I think the handling I prefer is somewhere around Yan Lienke’s Explosion City Chronicles, in BattleStar Galactica (the reboot), Dianna Wynne Jones’ Hexwood and Dan Simmon’s Hyperion. If we’re comparing epic-scale behemoths to behemoths, Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto and Worm. 

2. Convergence and outlining: Gripes with information delivery aside, I’m now firmly convinced that Erikson could give Tolkien a run for his money when it comes to bringing together sweeping plots and legendary characters. The very nature of convergence (power attracts power) dictates some pretty epic boiling pots have to happen, and Malazan delivers in spades.

There was a moment when Kruppe, on his mule, met Iskarul Pust, also on his mule, while Anomander Rake battled Hood, then Dasseem Ultor, and who else makes an appearance but Karsa Orlong, Samar Dev, and Toc bloody Anaster, the Hounds, the Daughters trying to steal Dragnipur. These are characters we’ve seen introduced somewhere in the orbit of a couple of million words ago. Each of these characters trail clear story arcs bringing them there to that fateful battle. It’s Dickensian on the grandest scale possible.

Naturally, I had assumed that Erikson has some level of god-tier outlining process going on. If JK Rowling does this:



And Brandon Sanderson does this, and we all know of Tolkien’s legendary notes, what does Erikson do?

So I was surprised to find this:

And this:

My outlines are works-in-progress throughout the period in which I’m writing.  I adjust as I go along, although I usually have a fair idea of where it all ends, and where certain characters need to be, and the things that need to happen on the way there.  But I’m not obsessive about outlines – they’re notes for guidance, and always malleable.

I find this absolutely fascinating. The fact that he pulled off Malazan with just ‘notes for guidance’ and maps terrifies me, so naturally I tried to take it apart:
1. Whatever note-taking system he has, and his writing process, speaks a lot to the power of serious outlining; either that or he’s either got an attention span a couple of dozen times larger than mine.
2. He deploys, with extreme cleverness, an entire deck full of Deus Ex Machinas that he can use to shepherd plotlines as he wishes. In fantasy series, it’s often hard to tell the Deus Ex Machinas apart from, well, all the other machinations. But Quick Ben, Kruppe, the Trygalle Guild, Kilava, Mael, the wandering nature of Shadowthrone’s warren – they strike me as the writers’ version of shaved knuckles in the hole.

What I learned: aside from the futility of playing a knowledge battle against Erikson? I realized that I should outline more using keystone moments in the plot, and just get more comfortable being the front-loader that I am. As of late, I’ve been experimenting: Numbercaste had a notebook’s worth of plot diagrams and scribbles; the Commonwealth Empire trilogy (HarperCollins) I’ve been building off a single large note, revised constantly, describing key scenes; the Salvage Crew (Aethon) I’ve been playing the simulation game – drop characters into a setting, figure out how they’ll interact, like playing a game of Rimworld. I also learned the value of having seriously disruptive and somewhat mystical secondary characters lying around to push a story in certain directions.

3. On class hierarchy in systems: Malazan is a military book. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Erikson describes weapons and armor. What struck me was that he sets down class hierarchies in his societies very early into their introduction. There are Adjuncts, High Fists, Fists, Captains, Seargents, Corporals. Kings, Queens, Consorts, Chancellors, High Priests. Pure, High Watered, Watered. Different classes of Moranth. Seerdomin, Children of the Dead Seed, and so on. These delineations are marked.

Interestingly, magic is kept vague, despite the hint of ‘classes’ of magic. The Hold / Warren divide is made known, but I have no idea if High Thyr can take on a Shadow Dance, for example. We know Omtose Phellack is OP, but no idea if Beak’s full-warren unveiling could shield an army from Hood.

Likewise, the skill levels of heroes themselves. If we discount the gods, at least seven people are clearly OP at offense: Anomander Rake, Quick Ben, Icarium, Karsa Orlong, Tool, Sinn. And Daseem Ultor, brief though his appearance is. Surprisingly, they seem to hold a lot of themselves in reserve, and quite easily cross over into god-killing turf. I had initially assumed a loose hierarchy in the form of Gods > First Heroes > Ascendants > Mortal Swords > Mortals, but the lines blur by the end. Quick Ben is also probably an match for Shadowthrone in plotting. And Fiddler with the right equipment could probably take on almost everyone listed above [4].

I suspect the vagueness is a plot device, lending both a sense of mystery and an ample source of shaved knuckles in the hole (see above). This is in stark contrast to, say, Brandon Sanderson’s ‘hard magic’, and more in line with Glenn Cook’s Black Company or Dianna Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series. The social divisions are sketched out at the start; the power roughly in the realm of handwavium. Despite this vagueness, these stories work. I enjoyed it. I cheered on Quick Ben.

What I learned:  Not all types of demarcations need to be set in stone. The mechanics of magic, in particular, can be obfuscated to a certain extent, as long as a complex facade is built – Rowling did the same with Harry Potter. Pay more attention to social hierarchies.

4. On monologue by the author and unreliable narrators: Malazan throws an enormous number of unreliable narrators at the wall. Kruppe is a blatant example. Then you watch the legends of Coltaine distort, but I think it really hit home for me with Kallor and Bleak’s entirely alternative description of the magic system.

On one hand, this is useful for setting out themes to think about. Malazan has quite a few, or at least I inferred these:

  1. Every life is worth examining; every villain is the hero of their own story
  2. Civilization appear, thrive, vanish. And cities are overrated
  3. Diversity and equality is strength
  4. Bottom-up objectives-based thinking beats top-down process-based thinking
  5. Gods are people writ large (or people are gods writ small)
  6. Life is a highway to hell, but tenacity, courage, compassion, friendship, love – they make the darkness worthwhile
  7. Shit happens and flowers grow on it (and sometimes this happens to be civilizations).
  8. All of this has happened before, and will happen again

On the one hand, it’s extremely easy to overdue this and end up using the characters as standalones for the author’s essays on how things should be. 

I’ll admit I was in burnout by the time I got through book 7. Reading this series every single day, with nothing else in between, is difficult – it’s some four million words, after all, and it felt like multiple characters had just given me their personalized  equivalent of A Brief History of Humankind (or, in the Letherii case, the Wealth of Nations). But pulling back, assuming a reasonable pace: would I have enjoyed the monologues?

Probably not. Malazan, to me, falls roughly in the same category as many anime. Naruto is the obvious example. Epic, tackling big themes, with plenty of examples both at micro and macro scales, often with heavy use of monologue.

I’m personally more of a Gin-Tama and William Gibson fan; Gintoki would fall asleep during such pontificating; and Gibson will paint a picture, say “the street finds its own uses for things,” and leave it at that. Malazan, like Naruto Shippuden, stretched my patience.

What I learned: my limits on how much talk-no-jutsu I want to read and write. That said . . .

Nonlinear, branching storylines. The series taught me a lot about storylines, because within it are many different stories moving at entirely different speeds – and sometimes in completely different directions.

Where to begin? I was bored by Dust of Dreams. Toll the Hounds brought an interesting stylistic twist – a more omniscient third-person narrative camera at the start of each major section – and that let me envision Darujhistan better, though quite frankly I found the whole book irritating except for the Convergence. I wanted to get back to the Bonehunters, dammit! I read Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice like a madman, chainsmoking one cigarette after the other.

I get what Erikson is doing here. Side arcs, offshoots, all add to the richness of the universe, the feeling that this is a world that exists beyond the Malazan’s fatal tango with the Crippled God. This  also creates what copywriters call “open loops” – teasers that hook curious people in.  It’s like watching some kind of gigantic jigsaw puzzle finally fall into place. There’s a very visceral feeling of satisfaction when it does.

This technique of complex branching storylines I’ve seen in only a handful of places: in some types of RPGs and in the WH40K Black Library. Do works like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlass and Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain count? I suppose they do, but they play effectively with a much smaller space. This  seems a very tough act to pull off, and even RPGs with complex story (see Final Fantasy VII, the Bioshock series, Planescape: Torment) adopt a method that keeps the player close to the core sequence.

But let’s cut down to a story arc level [5]. I found I enjoyed the plotlines that steadily ramp up and up and plug into each other and make the overall plot move forward, with no faffing about in the middle. And I seem to prefer characters with backstory moving these plots. I preferred logical ends.

I felt irritated by plots that didn’t seem to follow these criteria, except for the Adjunct Tavore, because the entire story is extremely self-aware about the fact that nobody can figure out why the hell they follow her into certain death [6], and then the twist is that she’s probably been the one of the few  people who understood the full field of play, and literally a vehicle for Malazan compassion.

But I digress.

What I learned:  A story is a map of events, chained together by causality.  I learned better the tradeoffs between exploring the map and sticking to one path. This is all useful for the Metal Karma Cycle, which R.R. Virdi and I are co-writing: we’ve been figuring out how to explore the repercussions of events in branching sub-stories, and in that sense Malazan has been a lot like Kruppe – wordy, but ultimately something can learn a lot from.

And ultimately: I am now a fan of Malazan and Erikson. I wept for Coltaine and Fiddler’s lament. I read the last battle with Audiomachine’s “Wars of Faith” and Phillip Beesen’s “Lost Souls” playing in my mind on repeat.  My brain feels like it climbed some sort of literary Mount Everest, and has filed a petition for several shots of arrack, a packet of cigs and a long day watching something silly.

[1] Steven Erikson’s Malazan is no joke, and considered by many in the fantasy community to be one of the grandest epics of all time. I would tentatively say “Imagine Peter Frankopan’s Silk Roads” and add that to this famous Reddit explanation: “Imagine a massive-scale battle-royale over decades (and aeons) between the Romans, the Turks, the Mongols, emogoth dark elves that are not to be fucked with, a bunch of extremely pissed-off Inuit, Conan’s roided-up big brother, undead neanderthal warriors, uber-samurai, gods, elder gods, demigods, usurper gods, alien gods, insane priests, sorcerers, warlocks, shamans, witches, nearly-immortal orcs with the driest imaginable sense of humour, demons, sea monsters, assassins, shapeshifters, a giant-beetle airforce and T-rexes with swords for arms, all competing to see who can fuck each other over the hardest.

[2] Main series, books 1-10; I have not yet touched Ian Cameron Esslemont’s work.

[3] Because the series introduces journeymen characters all the time. Crokus knew exactly bugger-all about anything other than thieving and the Daru streets at the start. Udinaas made an excellent introduction to the Tiste Edur. And the tale of the Malazan Army and the Crippled God is, if anything, a swan song to linearity, as Shadowthrone, Rake and various actors are LITERALLY orchestrating events right from the start. The Silchas Ruin – Rud Ellale conversations are enormous infodumps.

[4] Which begs the question: how and why do these some of these people stay at the level of people, taking orders from others far less powerful, when their compatriots are roughly god-tier threats? Why is it Shadowthrone and Cotillion running Shadow instead of Quick Ben and, say, Kalam? What exactly did Dujek Onearm and Whiskeyjack do to deserve such soldiers?

[5] Opinions as a reader: the Chain of Dogs was magnificent. Rhulad’s ascension to the throne, brilliant. The war against the Pannion Dominion both horrifying, fearful and sad. Karsa Orlong’s story, and that of Felisin Paran, I genuinely enjoyed;  the long march of the Bonehunters I would have liked – but it was the characters, not the direction. The Greyswords were cool; the Perish a professional distraction. Hellian’s perspective was fun and then became rapidly overdone. And I wish I could skip the Redeemer/Dying God, the Snake arc and the Shake (Yedan had a pretty epic innings, but what relevance was it?). Shadowthrone’s overall plan is a neat twist I didn’t see coming, but completely in line with his apparent credo of not taking power for himself, but limiting other peoples’ power.

[6] This idea of the successor to the Bridgeburners crossing their own desert was nice, but I kept wondering whether it was a plot device that failed or a critique of legendarily high-attrition military decisions, like the German invasion of Russia in WW2. The Bonehunters lost thousands, ended up arriving last and diverting no troops from the Spire. A much smaller team of outriders and marines could have snuck in and planted the otataral sword – this is definitely just me, but I kept hoping the march would let Fiddler’s lot peel off and get behind enemy lines while the Bonehunters did something about the Forkrul Assail god and Icarias.



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Update on the Inhuman Peace (Commonwealth Empires #2)

Saturday. Powercut. I’ve been lying in bed going through the editor’s feedback on the Inhuman Peace (book two of my Commonwealth Empires trilogy).*
The feedback for book one and two has has been largely the same: “show us more of this alternate Ceylon!”

I had intended the first book to be short, sharp, a setting of the gameboard, as it were, and I was wary of over-writing and over-describing. I opened the second book with alt-Britain, and then moved on to alt-India; Goa, to be precise. Then I launched into the Ceylon, which my Sri Lankan readers know and can intimately connect to – but not something that a reader elsewhere would understand with such easy shorthand.

Now I need to a) dial down alt-Britain and b) sketch out the Ceylon scenes with as much detail – really take those notes and maps and describe my Pearl of the Indian ocean more.

This is good, because I can talk about the world more, and in light of the recent April bombings in Sri Lanka I feel I have more things to say about how people recent to shock and loss. This is also going to be tough, because it means I’ll have to take apart large chunks of the story and redraft – I don’t want to do a Robert Jordan and weave in endless descriptions for the sake of detail. Things have to make sense. Different characters notice different things, and all of us privilege some types of information over others; there’s a limit to how much omniscience I can pull off here.

I’ve technically written one novel and five short stories this year (and led another large project I can group under ‘futurism’). It’s been a really good six months of writing. But as I approach the end of my workload, I feel heavier, because some of this stuff won’t be out for years.

*Book one seems to have been more read by writers than readers – it’s cited in articles and so on, but Goodreads shows only a handful of reviews (maybe that’s a facet of it only being available on the Indian subcontinent). I hope this situation changes.


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