Let there be Urmagon Beta: Jaideep Unudurti reviews ‘The Salvage Crew’ by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

Sri Lankan author Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s SF romp is space opera for the gig economy

March 27, 2021 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

The visionary author Brian Aldiss once said that “for the majority of readers new to science fiction, a landing on another planet… must be their peak experiences of the genre”. Sri Lankan author Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s The Salvage Crew brings a new wrinkle to this hallowed sub-genre. We are propelled into a recognisable future where World War III and climate change have done a number on poor old Earth and it is imperative for humans to seek their destiny elsewhere. The United Nations takes over and starts colonising the stars, followed by mega-corporations.

One of the starships carrying colonists crash-lands onto the distant planet of Urmagon Beta. A century later, a salvage contract is won by the predatory Planetary Crusade Services (PCS), which offers “end to end interstellar colonization support”. Valuable tech can still be harvested from the crashed ship, so PCS sends a team to strip it. Wijeratne introduces his first twist here. Instead of jut-jawed heroes in sharp haircuts, the crew is made up of three scruffy, washed-up salvagers, who are borderline sociopaths — the “Wrong Stuff” — if you will.

Rose for your thoughts

All three human characters are in thrall to various personal demons, from alcoholism to PTSD, and the tensions that arise as they

try to execute their mission in an increasingly hostile world form the narrative drive. This operation is supervised, and the story narrated, by AMBER ROSE 348, an Overseer, a kind of hybrid AI, who was once human but is now ‘digitised’ and the property of the corporation. This is space opera for the gig economy, where the “cost of doing business” is the limitation, not something old-fashioned like the speed of light. As another machine-mind tells Amber Rose, “everything in the universe is a function of budget and power”.

Amber Rose dreams, writes poetry, and is adept at jugaad as their little outpost on the planet is threatened. Pop culture references fly as fast as neutrinos and Wijeratne sets up a distinct, snarky voice for the AI, making full use of the possibilities of a non-human narrator. For instance, after the team lands on the planet, Amber Rose opens up her solar panels saying, “I unfold, like some kind of two-ton metal tree stretching out its leaves, and catch the sunlight. The tingle of voltage runs through my cells.”

Neural nets

Later on, an android mulls that storytelling “is to assemble given universe of facts into sequential output that is pleasurable for end recipient”. Indeed, The Salvage Crew itself is a human-machine collaborative effort. As Wijeratne explains in the introduction, he has created Urmagon Beta using something called the Zarkonnen planet generator, a software that basically keeps spitting out bespoke planets with various qualities, which you can download from a website. The weather, the character’s emotional states too, even the frequency of their quarrelling is machine generated. The poems have been constructed using GPT-2, an open source AI — “the Arts, once considered immune, are now slowly waking up to the reality of neural nets,” as Wijeratne says.

Writer Haytham El Wardany once said that his concern was not to create a “literary product” but “to try and use literature as a methodology for thinking” — something which can be said of SF as a genre.

We live in a world where, instead of nation states or research organisations, the likes of Musk and Bezos are the prime drivers of space explorations. Their plutocratic outlook could irrevocably mould the manner in which our species makes the leap to the stars.

Target value

The Salvage Crew posits a world where exploration is not driven by a sense of wonder but yoked to insurance companies and profit allocations, where unless a salvage crew meets its “target value” it’ll simply be abandoned on the planet. This is a corporatised future, where even a machine thinks “living isn’t for the poor. Not anymore.”

This bleak Weltanschauung is amplified by the extreme violence that Wijeratne suffuses the text with. The default setting, whenever any lifeform encounters another, seems to be to immediately open fire, stab, devour, or tear each other apart. Between these bloodbaths, there are ideas and technologies to ponder, ranging from Terraforming to Wittgenstein’s “language-game”, from John Searle’s Chinese Room argument to the nature of Sentience. Amidst all this, there is also a yearning for a simpler life, to find a planet, a place “where they could live without bowing to the ceaseless beehive that humanity was turning into.”

The Salvage Crew; Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, Aethon Books, ₹222 (Kindle price)

The writer is a freelance journalist and graphic novelist.

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