Sri Lankan speculative fiction lifts off
An extraordinary burst of anglophone SF writing from Sri Lanka looks afresh at home and the universe(s)
Early on in Vajra Chandrasekera's lyrical, secondary-world fantasy The Saint of Bright Doors, the city of Luriat is said to be under the administration of "competing Dissolution Orders and Emergency Regulations," effectively governed by executive-run task-forces due to the "ongoing failure of Parliament." It is a moment that presents a frisson of recognition to the Southasian reader – floating signifier though that term might be – before the story returns to Chandrasekera's vividly imagined universe. Moments like these are scattered throughout the novel, anchoring The Saint of Bright Doors to a set of coordinates – a time and a place – even as Chandrasekera explores classic themes of power, memory, love and revenge.
"The only way to change the world is through intentional, directed violence," says Mother-of-Glory to her son Fetter, whom she is training to assassinate his father, for reasons yet unclear. Violence is a theme that underlies The Saint of Bright Doors: bureaucratised state violence in Luriat; revolutionary violence – dreamed of and at times executed – by the protagonist, Fetter, and his comrades; the spectacular violence that has historically accompanied the spread of institutionalised religion; and personal, "directed" violence of the kind articulated in Mother-of-Glory's desire for revenge.
Violence has, of course, been a staple feature of contemporary fantasy, with its two main narrative motifs of the "quest" and the "war," as the American writer and critic Lin Carter noted many years ago. But fantasy has often tended to aestheticise violence as well as to simplify it: an obsession with anthropomorphising swords is an example of the first tendency, and set-piece battle scenes of the second. By contrast, the violence in The Saint of Bright Doors is almost Foucauldian in how it drips from the interstices of society: as Chandrasekera put it to me, it is, "among other things, a gallery of manifestations of violence." To what extent are these manifestations informed by the past and present of Chandrasekera's native Sri Lanka? When I asked, he noted that "Sri Lanka has had several such histories compressed into the last century, each resulting in a different kind of failure."
To locate a work such as Chandrasekera's within its tradition, let us begin by noting that from its origins, modern speculative fiction – "SF", in all its variants – has been characterised by two (sometimes) contending impulses. Much of the speculation in much of speculative fiction has been about alternative worlds more or less different from our own – "world-building", to use the purist's term. World-building allows SF, should it so desire, to escape the constraints of time and place, to alter context, to ask "what if" and to "defamiliarise" familiar, "universal" themes by shifting and blurring focus. But, equally, SF's offering up a chance to construct new worlds is an invitation to shine refracted light upon this one. At its crudest, this involves SF slipping into allegory – something that J R R Tolkien long ago warned against. In its more subtle forms, however, it allows our world to creep into the cracks and shadows of SF's imagined worlds, sometimes fitting into the fissures, sometimes rubbing up against the edges. And what is "our" world depends, of course, upon the writer: their upbringing, their context, their horizon.
So it is that one of the "canonical" works of the genre, Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, is both a far-future story involving interstellar space travel, Gaian metaphysics made real and the imagined science of psycho-history, and also an elegy to the fallen Roman Empire (something, it seems, Anglo-American writers have yet to get over, 1500 years after the fact). Indeed, much of mid-20th-century SF enacted fantasies of colonialism and empire on empty planets and with non-human species. More recently, Arkady Martine's well-known A Memory Called Empire and A Desolation Called Peace have reprised speculative-fictional themes of first contact and group consciousness (among others), set in an interstellar empire that bears a strong resemblance to the writer's scholarly specialisation: the Byzantine Empire.
The Saint of Bright Doors is part of an extraordinary recent burst of anglophone SF writing from Sri Lanka that straddles both tendencies – let's call them the "universalising" and the "particularising" – even as each of its constituent works leans more towards one or the other. The diversity of the writers involved, and the diversity of forms and themes they deploy, ensures that making any grand statements about "contemporary Sri Lankan SF" is a fool's errand. (See "The Unknown World of Sinhala Science Fiction" in Roar Media for a wider sampling of all that is available.) But bringing to Sri Lankan SF the lens of universalising and particularising impulses provides a useful compass for navigating the field, and helps illuminate affinities and resemblances between works that, at first glance, can appear to have nothing in common.
Two caveats before I proceed: First, taxonomy necessarily entails some loss of nuance, and no work of SF is fully defined by either of the impulses described here. This lens presents a way to understand contemporary Sri Lankan SF, and I do not claim it is the only or the best one. Second, I am not Sri Lankan, and my location in India implicates me in a fraught web of relationships with the subject of study. To an extent, one can offset this by acknowledging that the arguments in this piece are revisable, and made with humility. Naturally, this is a partial salve, at best.
The Saint of Bright Doors is set in a secondary fantasy world of competing religious orders, with a neo-imperial metropolis called Luriat that carries on an extractive relationship with the island's hinterland, and underground resistance movements that seethe against the combination of state power and organised religion that rules the land through (some) velvet and (a lot of) iron. Into the backwaters of this world is born Fetter, who finds his way to Luriat and falls in with the resistance – only to discover that their primary antagonist, the island's most powerful religious figure, is none other than his own father.
The surface-level call-backs to modern-day Sri Lanka are evident from this summary, but they also go much deeper. Unlike much of modern fantasy – produced by writers who belong to more secularised societies, for better or for worse – religious violence is front and centre in The Saint of Bright Doors. This hearkens, as Chandrasekera pointed out to me, to the use of religion as "an apparatus of racialisation," much as Buddhism has been employed in Sri Lanka. Alongside this is the role of caste. One of the book's most striking passages reads:
The granular nature of violence in Luriat finds its mirror in the narratives of micro-resistance dusted throughout the book, and also in its analysis of power. Unlike the monolithic, imperial structures of power that are characteristic of much contemporary fantasy (including inter-personal relationships that extend such structures – for instance, those between colonisers and the colonised), Luriat experiences what historians have referred to as "layered sovereignty". State power exists, but it is in constant competition with other sources of power, both in terms of material supremacy as well as normative legitimacy. "Power produces us even as we reproduce it," Chandrasekera noted, and in that sense The Saint of Bright Doors is a nuanced exploration of how no one individual (or groups of individuals) can ever stand outside the prevailing power structure, or seek to remake it through acts of individual will or heroism.
The Saint of Bright Doors indisputably belongs to the tradition of contemporary fantasy. There is the secondary world (what we might also call the book's fictional universe), the quest (of a kind), magic, and many of the great themes of the genre: a protagonist whose identity occupies a liminal space, the making and unmaking of reality, fantasies of secession and revenge, and the struggle between memory and forgetting (indeed, perhaps The Saint of Bright Doors's closest genre ancestor is the Canadian writer Guy Gavriel Kay's magnificent Tigana). But even as it locates itself through these signposts of (what is becoming) a global tradition, Chandrasekera brings something distinctly Sri Lankan to the genre. When it comes to violence and power – two constitutive themes of modern fantasy – The Saint of Bright Doors is firmly rooted in the particular.
Nor is this unique to The Saint of Bright Doors. The particularising impulse is strong in a large segment of contemporary Sri Lankan SF. Consider Lalini Shanela Ranaraja's 2022 short story "Tusker Blue," published in Strange Horizons magazine. Like Chandrasekera, Ranaraja also addresses her story to memory: "Tusker Blue" sets up a conflict between city and village, where mahouts who ride battle elephants and have the ability to heal "rifts" in the body through colour bindings are hunted and persecuted for their abilities. The story follows the arc of the narrator, who – with the crumbling way of life of the mahouts – is compelled to leave for the city as a young child, but is forcefully reminded of her past when she is called upon to once again heal her first-ever patient.
There is perhaps an interesting side-note to this: much of Anglo-American fantasy (of the secondary-world kind) is produced from within societies that have, at least externally, been stable for a while. No wonder, then, that writers there so often reach back into an imagined distant past to detail suitably unstable societal settings – whether feudal or medieval reconstructions, or, as in some more recent works, the colonial and imperial centuries. What feels different about The Saint of Bright Doors is that it has the urgency of an attempt to capture the essence of a moment in time before it becomes (contested) history. It is, as the philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin once noted, about "seiz[ing] hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger."
This is also true for "Tusker Blue", written in the second-person present – as urgent a tense as there can be! The story itself exists in an ambiguous time-outside-time, but throwaway references to "Sacred Heart Road", for example, are enough to indicate that its setting is an almost-Sri Lanka in an almost-present. "Tusker Blue" communicates a sense of this has happened in the recent past, this could be happening now, and this will happen again in the future – unless we stop it.
Memorialisation is also the thread that binds The Saint of Bright Doors and "Tusker Blue" with Theena Kumaragurunathan's First Utterance (2016) – which ends with a ceremonial burning of clocks. First Utterance, a fantasy novel, slips between mythical pasts and dystopian futures. The near-future nation of Miragia is separated from its real-world, contemporary counterpart by a curtain of lyrical prose, but the book's references are both intentional and unmistakable: for instance, it features a journalist working on a story about thousands of disappearances during an imperial presidency, accomplished under the guise of institutionalising people with mental illnesses. As the story progresses, we learn that the cause of this was the need to find new enemies – the proverbial "Others" – upon the end of a devastating war and the formation of a "unified inter-tribal government." The mentally ill were the scapegoats of choice, at the insistence of the clergy (referred to as "the Three Prophets"). Attempts now to atone for that past and "reintegrate" the mentally ill into society are, therefore, met with resistance by that same clergy. Just as with The Saint of Bright Doors, in its search for grounding detail First Utterance eschews outworn feudal monarchies for something more immediate and urgent.
Reading The Saint of Bright Doors, "Tusker Blue" and First Utterance together, something of a pattern emerges. First, these are all secondary-world fantasies, but also, fantasies where the secondary world frequently bleeds into ours in its allusions, references and naming conventions. Second, even as these works are written in the familiar high-fantasy style, they do not create a stylised, aestheticised, mediaeval-feeling world in keeping with the dominant "Western" high-fantasy tradition, but something more immediately recognisable. Third, institutionalised religion – and, specifically, a militant clergy – plays a significant role in the narratives. And fourth, the construction of the "other", and the infliction of granular, bureaucratic and everyday violence (as opposed to the set-piece wars of a lot of contemporary fantasy) is a characteristic feature. In their allusiveness, then, these works seek to do what the poet Joseph Brodsky said of the writing of the novelist Danilo Kiš: create art that is "more devastating than statistics."
It may not be too early, then, to label this a fantasy style of the post-colony, and – in this specific context – an emerging tradition of Sri Lankan fantasy writing.
In this vein, it would be impossible not to also flag Shehan Karunatilaka's The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, winner of the Booker Prize for 2022. Seven Moons is not a secondary-world fantasy, but in many ways it fits well within the categorisation above. The logic of the publishing industry has dictated, however, that the book is not classified as fantasy or science fiction, is not blurbed as such, and reviewers in the "mainstream" have strenuously resisted calling it so (a grudging admission on the Booker Prize website of "elements of magic realism" is as far as it goes, even though the same page lists Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman and David Mitchell among Karunatilaka's influences). This is something of a pity, as the book's central premise – a man stuck in the limbo of the afterlife, trying to solve his own murder – is as "speculative" a theme as one can get. Were it not for artificially imposed genre distinctions, one could easily see how Seven Moons and The Saint of Bright Doors, for example, bear strong elective affinities and similar preoccupations, differing only in the degree to which a secondary world exists within them. Well, perhaps one can see it in any event!
Yudhanjaya Wijeratne's The Salvage Crew reads like a love letter to science fiction. And, like the best of love letters, it is layered and has dimensions, communicating its message at many levels.
The Salvage Crew begins – unsurprisingly – as a story about salvage. Amber Rose 348, or "the OC", a poem-writing, embodied artificial intelligence and the narrator (for the most part) of the story, transports and oversees a motley crew of three human beings – Simon, Milo and Anna – sent to the planet Urmagon Beta. Their contractually-mandated task is to salvage valuable material from a crashed spaceship and bring it back to their employer, an interstellar corporation called PCS (Planetary Crusade Services) – one of a few similar corporations jostling for economic and political dominance over space. The group soon discovers that the planet, despite extensive terraforming, is hostile in strange, unsettling and potentially fatal ways. The story eventually evolves into a tale of first contact between humans and extraterrestrial life, with the concepts of consciousness and language stretched to their limits: when I asked Wijeratne about some of the influences for the novel's more technical parts, Wittgenstein and the philosopher John Searle's "Chinese room" experiment (also referred to in-text) immediately popped up.
Thematically, The Salvage Crew is located at the intersection of multiple – but familiar – traditions of global science fiction: the "other" as an alien world entire has been a genre preoccupation for the better part of a century. In the 1930s and 1940s, it was a vehicle for projecting expansionist colonial and imperial dreams, with unknown worlds that were terra nullius in the genuine sense of the term. The Star Trek-dominated 1970s and 1980s brought circumspection and humility to the enterprise, while the turn of the century has seen instances of the once-colonised "writing back". Whatever the approach, the image of human beings upon an unknown planet has been one of the genre's most enduring.
So too with first contact: from early visions of humanity conquering hostile alien life-forms (whether through force or guile) to recent, more circumspect explorations of inter-species communication, language and ways of being, we have long known science fiction by its aliens. And then there are more contemporary currents: science fiction has never been the same ever since Ann Leckie wrote Ancillary Justice (2013), with its (one-time) sentient warship protagonist. The Salvage Crew continues the genre's exploration of worlds with sentient ships and embodied intelligences (the poetry-writing bit is certainly new, though!).
Most directly, according to Wijeratne, The Salvage Crew is in conversation with Blindsight (2006), Peter Watts' highly regarded – and sometimes controversial – novel about intelligence, identity and consciousness. But The Salvage Crew's most direct genre predecessor is the Polish science-fiction master Stanisław Lem's canonical 1961 novel Solaris (later adapted into an equally canonical film by the Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky), with the story of a crew of three (again) attempting to understand – and communicate with – a vast, intelligent ocean that projects their own fear and guilt back at them. "Solaris blew my socks off," Wijeratne noted succinctly.
Thus, if the "field" in which The Saint of Bright Doors operates is contemporary Sri Lanka, with The Salvage Crew it is the genre itself, in its grandest, most ambitious, most "universalising" avatar.
In this, Wijeratne is not alone. Navin Weeraratne is one of Sri Lanka's most prolific SF authors, and a writer of "hard" science fiction (in his own words, "fiction where the science has to be correct"). Weeraratne's novels are frequently compared to the works of Arthur C Clarke (particularly relevant given Clarke's long physical presence in Sri Lanka and his influence upon a generation of Sri Lankan SF writers), Kim Stanley Robinson and Gregory Benford. The Hundred Gram Mission (2016), for example, is strongly reminiscent of James S A Corey's The Expanse, both in its genre preoccupations and in the grittiness of its form. Burning Eagle (2015), with its focus on deep time – galactic history as well as galactic futures, with each impinging upon the other – has drawn explicit comparisons with Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series. Or consider the short story "The Kuiper Belt Warden", a solar-system-spanning piece of military SF, which is in conversation less with any identifiable time or place than with genre companions.
To return to The Salvage Crew, it is perhaps one of the most riotously intertextual genre novels today: Wijeratne is in conversation not merely with the themes of global SF, but with its practitioners as well. On the first page itself, we have the memorable lines: "the Company promised me an A-Team. The kind of people Joe Haldeman wrote about in The Forever War." A science fiction reader will experience a shock of recognition, followed by a nod of understanding: ah yes, we know exactly what the narrator wanted – and didn't get. Chapter Two begins with a tribute to one of the most famous lines of science fiction cinema, the last speech of the replicant Roy Batty in the director Ridley Scott's Blade Runner ("… C-beams glitter off the Tanhauser Gate"). Speaking of replicants, Wijeratne doffs his hat to Philip K Dick, whose Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was the basis for the film, by borrowing the concept of replicants and explicitly acknowledging the source, in-world ("I've known of replicants. Designed for the UN military, presumably after someone got too obsessed with two Old Earth science fiction buffs called Phillip K. Dick and Ridley Scott.") Star Trek casts a lingering shadow throughout the novel, with its language and concepts – such as the prime directive – seamlessly melding into the narrative as off-hand remarks or observations. And there's much else besides.
To a reader in the know, these easter eggs are tremendous fun (how many can you spot? etc.). I'd suspect, though, that even non-SF geeks would enjoy them because it is so clear that Wijeratne is having fun himself – these references are often snuck in as ironic asides, with gentle ribbing of the genre's classics. Fun apart, though, the dusting of these references across the pages of The Salvage Crew represents an almost conscious turn away from particularisation, of the expectation (imposed by Western readers, editors and publishers, of course) that SF from the Global South should, in some way, be recognisable (that is, recognisable to the West) as SF of the Global South. Wijeratne told me his approach was something of a reaction to the "pigeonholing" that came with his previous novels, such as Numbercaste or The Inhuman Race. As he explained, "So people started to say – oh, he's the five-minutes-into-the-future guy, check out his stuff if you want to understand what's coming, or whoa, it's postcolonial Sri Lankan sci-fi, you know, Southasian new wave and all that, check out the Ricepunk Manifesto, et cetera, et cetera. And my mistake was I started taking all of that too seriously, and I began to set strict boundaries for myself."
There is also a third level at which this pushback takes place: in the non-SF references that form part of the scaffolding of the novel. The Salvage Crew's closing lines are from Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem Ulysses. Elsewhere, the characters fall back upon The Charge of the Light Brigade to express their sense of a mission doomed by the hubris of people who will never have to bear the consequences of what they command. And Shakespeare is ever-present (at one point, there is a memorable mash-up of Nietzsche and Shakespeare: "God is dead, hell is empty, and the devils are all here").
In his interviews, Wijeratne has spoken about the "hybrid" nature of growing up in the post-colony (especially the Southasian post-colony), where an individual is equally exposed to the myths and legends of their own culture and to the canon of Anglophone classics (whether literary or SF). Wijeratne listed to me the science fiction and fantasy novels he grew up on, which would be familiar to anyone who has ever browsed the fantasy and science fiction shelves of a bookshop in Delhi, Mumbai, Karachi or Kathmandu: Lem, Iain M Banks, the Strugatsky Brothers, Yevgeny Zamyatin, and so on. Similarly, Navin Weeraratne has recalled reading Arthur C Clarke's 2061:Odyssey Three at the age of nine, and being drawn into SF through the medium of Star Wars.
Thus, the anglophone Southasian reader's shock of recognition at these moments in The Salvage Crew is not the same shock of recognition one might have while reading The Saint of Bright Doors. It is located not in common experience but in a common set of reference points. It feels but natural for characters to view a doomed charge through the prism of The Light Brigade, to understand grand striving in terms of Ulysses, and to have a sprinkling of Shakespeare to give voice to inarticulable emotions. The Southasian-ness and Sri Lankan-ness of The Salvage Crew, then, is (perhaps paradoxically) in its comfort operating within this universalising set of coordinates when it comes to both the literary and the science fiction canon.
It is this precise sense that characterises "The Secret of Silphium", Megha Spinel's debut novelette, published in the July/August 2022 issue of Asimov's Magazine – one of the oldest and most respected science fiction magazines still in existence. An interesting thematic overlap between The Salvage Crew and "The Secret of Silphium" is that both involve an advanced alien intelligence's (often frustrated) attempts to communicate with human beings, and without any compunctions about getting into their heads to do so. Beyond that, Spinel's story belongs to the tradition of ecological SF: the titular "silphium" is a herb with (allegedly) magical healing properties, and the story itself radiates through time, with silphium pivotal to salvaging something from a ravaged earth and – eventually – offering a tantalising glimpse into the terraforming of Mars.
However, it is the primary setting of the story that is of particular interest. "The Secret of Silphium" takes place in Cyrene, in 92 BC, soon after the erstwhile Greek city has become a part of the Roman Republic. From the opening ("It is the Year of the Consulship of Pulcher and Perperna"), Spinel evinces an easy familiarity with the period, from its art and architecture to the relationship between Jews and Romans, as well as to the internal politics of the Roman Republic itself. The evocation of the atmosphere of ancient Cyrene is both vivid and non-intrusive, a background frame within which the story does its work – a feat that can be accomplished only with a thorough knowledge of the subject matter.
To set a science fiction story in (or around) ancient Rome is not novel; as I've pointed out above, Roman nostalgia is an easily recognisable trope in modern SF, and, one of the most famous SF series of all time is a thinly-veiled meditation on the fall of the Roman Empire. But there is something striking about a Sri Lankan writer making that choice: at a time in which (again, as noted above) dominant SF discourse seeks to box non-white writers into their specific identities by valorising claims to authenticity in storytelling, "The Secret of Silphium" appears to be an act of breaking free through a return to – and mining of – one of SF's most well-worn historical inspirations.
Yet a moment's thought should make clear that – much like the presence of classical English poetry in The Salvage Crew – ancient Rome is a logical choice of setting for a writer from the British post-colony. At the height of their empire, the British believed that they were the second coming of the Romans; this twice-filtered Roman residue is still very much a part of the post-colony – in educational materials, in the types of English-language history books available, in the very popular Asterix series (notwithstanding that it is originally in French), and so on. Much like the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole has claimed Bach and Rembrandt to be a part of his heritage, Rome is woven into the intellectual heritage of anglophone Southasian writers. It's in the way of telling that the difference between them and Western writers lies – for example, the presence in "The Secret of Silphium" of a woman from the Subcontinent, whose being there is painstakingly explained to ensure that it is consistent with history.
As with Wijeratne and Weeraratne, the universalising impulse underlies Spinel's SF writing (just swap in ecological/climate SF for first-contact SF); but in the choice of universals, and the manners of their telling, their context as Sri Lankan writers, steeped in the hybrid cultures of the anglophone post-colony, is revealed.
One of the striking features of modern SF discourse is its focus on identity. For a long time (the argument goes) anglophone and Western SF was dominated by cis, able-bodied, straight, white men, publishing primarily out of the United States and the United Kingdom. SF refracted their concerns, their preoccupations, their fears and their insecurities: hence, space opera as a thinly disguised justification for colonialism, fear of the "other" articulated through the conquest of alien species, and a return to romanticised feudalism through the medium of epic fantasy. However (the argument continues), SF is now in its "rainbow age", more open and accessible than it has ever been (although there is much work yet to be done to overcome the legacy of "whiteness"), and the kinds of stories now being told reflect the diversity of the storytellers.
This story is accurate to a great extent, although things are not quite that simple: even in the 1930s and 1940s, for example, SF had its "contrapuntal canon" (the term is Edward Said's), and even now, in the "rainbow age", publishing power is centred in the United States. At a deeper level, too close an adherence to this story carries risks, which are becoming evident in how the discourse manifests itself.
One risk, of course, is an impatience to "move on" from the canon: thus, the tired, outworn "Why read the classics?" debate that has recently found new life in the SF context. Specific to this essay, however, there is a bigger risk of boxing in, of pigeonholing writers to produce only such stories as reflect their identity to the (Western) reader. Not only is this limiting, it is also asymmetrical: while dominant-identity writers can continue to address more "universal" themes in their work, writers from the Global South must perform their specific histories or ethnicities in order get a fair hearing. As the Palestinian-American writer Rasha Abdulhadi memorably put it in their editorial introduction to a Strange Horizons special issue on Palestinian SF:
A serious consideration of SF from the Global South – in this case, contemporary Sri Lankan SF – resists flattening, resists narrow identitarianism and resists easy expectations. Part of the reason for this, to repeat Yudhanjaya Wijeratne's point, is that colonialism necessarily creates hybridity, and – crucially – not all of this hybridity is reducible to force, violence or oppression. Just as Teju Cole is unwilling to give up his claim to Bach and Rembrandt, there is no reason for a post-colony SF writer to give up their claims to Arthur C Clarke or Iain M Banks. At its best, Sri Lankan SF celebrates the hybridity of the post-colony, taking the legacy of a Clarke or a Banks, arguing with and against it, and weaving it into context. In the words of Navin Weeraratne, "we'll show them bits of our world and our own people's stories, while we talk about stars and galaxies."
The writers and works covered here reshape the SF tradition into "a more malleable shape for [their] own purposes," to borrow the words of the Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera. What emerges is a kaleidoscope or a fluid weave: to define or to affix labels to it would be a disservice. We can, perhaps, do no more than gesture towards the elective affinities, and tentatively say that this is what we talk about when we talk about contemporary anglophone Sri Lankan speculative fiction.