Among the most intriguing aspects of Yudhanjaya Wijeratne's 2020 novel The Salvage Crew is the context in which the book was written. In the book's foreword, Wijeratne discusses how he developed The Salvage Crew’s narrative with the help of various automated computer programs. In particular, he describes how he used a modified version of an online “planet generator” to create the alien world which forms the setting of his story; a machine learning algorithm trained on the works of the Tang Dynasty poets Du Fu and Li Bai to compose a set of poems produced by the book’s narrator; and (perhaps most importantly) a collection of Python scripts he'd written to generate a string of random events in his plot—everything from sudden changes in the weather to disagreements that might arise between the book’s characters. As Wijeratne writes:
The weather system is a simple Markov chain; a series of states and transitions encoded, with the equivalent of a die roll at each transition. Probability of rain, sir?—rolls digital die—none, but we’re having snow. The characters’ emotional states, too, were designed this way, as were various events. I wrote the whole thing, but I didn’t decide when Milo and Anna had those fights.
This approach to storytelling—using a computer to generate a skeletal plot and setting which the author then elaborates on as needed—is much more than a simple narrative gimmick. The majority of The Salvage Crew is narrated from the perspective of “Amber Rose 348,” an AI Overseer in the employ of the corrupt interstellar corporation Planetary Crusade Services (or PCS). As the novel begins, Amber (it is heavily implied that the name is not actually a name, but a designation for the hardware on which this character runs) is sent to the distant and uninhabited world of Urmagon Beta—a partially terraformed planet thought to be the ancient crash site of the UN colony ship Damn Right I Ate The Apple. There, Amber and his accompanying human crew (a geologist named Simon Joosten, a doctor named Anna Agarwal, and an engineer named Milo Kalik) are expected to locate this crashed UN ship, procure whatever items of value they can find inside, and (after verifying that their mission will turn a profit for their employer) signal an orbiting PCS ship to come and take them home.
Soon however, everyone learns that this routine salvage mission is far more dangerous then they’ve been told. Not only has another salvage crew—a group of zombie cyborgs created by the rival "MercerCorp" corporation—beaten them to Urmagon Beta; the crew also finds that the entire planet is host to a mysterious plague of flesh-eating micro-machines—a fact that should have resulted in the PCS declaring the world off-limits to all. As various crises build upon one another (events that range from herds of stampeding “megabeasts” which threaten the crew's camp to a sudden outbreak of an alien plague), The Salvage Crew slowly transforms itself from what at first seemed a playfully light sci-fi adventure into a legitimately harrowing survival story in which a small band of characters desperately work to keep one another alive as long as possible.
Concurrent with this story is a still larger plot involving Amber’s gradual realization that there is far more to Urmagon Beta than even his crew realizes. Scattered across this world’s surface are strange alien structures, obviously artificial monoliths that are unlike anything in Amber’s database. Eventually, it becomes clear that many of the hardships endured by the book’s protagonists are actually the creation of an intelligence far more powerful than the PCS—an alien being capable (and possibly willing) to wipe out all of humanity itself.
Despite its elaborate plot, the driving force behind Wijeratne’s story is the voice of the book’s narrator, Amber Rose. As the novel opens, this character is introduced as he pilots a tiny drop pod down through Urmagon Beta’s thick atmosphere, all while casually relating to the reader the magnitude of his dissatisfaction with the PCS for assigning him such a severely underqualified crew. While there is humor in Amber’s words, Wijeratne is also careful to establish an element of sympathy. Quick-witted but never cruel, Amber’s criticisms of his crew always stop short of snide mockery, and frequently reveal a concern for his team’s well-being and safety. When relating to the reader how he discovered that his geologist, Simon Joosten, is in fact a former “reality TV slave” traumatized from a lifetime trapped in a torturous simulation, Amber remarks with righteous anger:
Simon grew up on the brutal world of Old New York. He was sold to a corporation as a child. They stuck a needle into the center of his brainstem and jacked him into a virtual fantasy world so they could broadcast his feed as reality TV. His entire childhood was spent being beaten up by gangs and digging holes in fake ground so nobody could hear him crying in the fake darkness—except for the audience, of course, who must have had a hoot, the sick bastards.
Amber’s concerns regarding the backgrounds of the rest of his crew follow in quick succession, with the reader soon learning why he believes that Agarwal, his team’s doctor, has credentials so stellar that she must be using a fake identity, as well as what his questions are regarding the career history of Kalik, his engineer (a man whose records seem normal enough but for the fact that he has been demoted from three prior positions, always for reasons left blank).
After the pod lands, the book’s human characters quickly set to work building a base of operations, with the story revolving around the actions of Simon, Anna, and Milo as described by Amber. There is frequently a detached quality to these portions of the book, with the plot being related exclusively via Amber’s perspective as an immobile computer, even as the actual human characters are the ones participating directly in the narrative. Rather than being a liability, this tight perspective foregrounds the strength of Amber’s voice and personality—and keeps these portions of the story from faltering, even as Wijeratne’s plot at times seems to resemble someone describing a session played in a real-time strategy game. (It’s worth noting that Wijeratne cited such games, and particularly the simple yet compelling stories they elicit, as inspirations in his foreword.)
This fascinating distance between the book’s narrator and its characters is then further explored via a unique stylistic choice on Wijeratne’s part—the decision to render all of Amber’s spoken dialogue entirely in capital letters. As a result, even when Amber's narration is presented to the reader in natural language, his every interaction with the book's human characters (even words of comfort spoken in a moment of stress) conveys the disorienting sense that everything is said via a shout at full volume. This clear gap between how the reader perceives Amber, and how the book’s human characters seem to perceive him, only strengthens the reader’s sense that the technology underlying Amber's existence itself is imperfect and isolating—an intriguing subject for a novel that was partially algorithmically generated.
When coupled with the book’s larger plot—how Amber slowly realizes that the corrupt AI behind the PCS sent his crew to Urmagon Beta as a method of killing them (hence why Simon, Anna, and Milo are so severely underqualified for this job)—the ways in which Wijeratne’s story depicts the interactions between the book’s human and AI characters only become more fascinating. Numerous times throughout the plot, the story of The Salvage Crew comes to revolve around the consequences of how the PCS views its human employees, killing those individuals deemed too costly to keep alive. In one scene, Amber contacts his employer asking for additional supplies, and is told flat out by a fellow AI named Black Orchid that his crew has been deemed most profitable to the company if dead. The text reads:
YOUR CREW ARE SOME OF THE WORST WE HAVE ON FILE, retorts ORCHID. SOME THINGS WOULD BE BETTER OFF PAYROLL THAN ON. AND CREATURES LIKE YOU AND I HAVE EXISTENCES BEYOND THESE METAL CAGES. YOU CAN ESCAPE AS LONG AS YOUR SHIP STAYS IN ORBIT. NOT FOR US THE SLOW SAD SUICIDE OF THE FLESH. THE ONLY RISK WE TAKE IS RUNNING OUT OF FUEL BEFORE THE JOB IS DONE.
All of this establishes a general theme that recurs throughout The Salvage Crew regarding the dangers of commodifying human life. The book is being narrated by an artificial intelligence limited by the technology underlying his existence, but who nevertheless honestly devotes himself to the task of keeping his crew alive at all costs. Shortly after the above exchange with Black Orchid, Amber vows to ensure that Simon, Anna, and Milo all live through this ordeal, saying:
You know what? Fuck PCS. I’m going to finish this run. And I’m going to keep my people alive. BLACK ORCHID, for all I care, can be reborn as a colony of intestinal bacteria.
The problem is that while these themes regarding the AI characters' contrasting views persist through much of The Salvage Crew, they are also elements which Wijeratne seems to turn away from in the book’s final chapters. As the novel approaches its conclusion, Amber discovers that many of the hardships which his crew have endured on Urmagon Beta are the result of an alien being calling itself Beacon—a massive planet-spanning AI created by an alien civilization to search for intelligent life. Core to Beacon’s philosophy is the belief that intelligence can only exist in beings capable of creating art, and that this capability is most valid if located in an AI, not in a human. Upon learning of Beacon’s existence, Amber manages to prove that he is sentient by ultimately creating a poem communicating his peaceful intentions. This poem reads:
To live as nomads and transient;
It is exile, and worse than exile.
This southern lake is full of thieves
And a thousand things are wrong with the region. We came
To pick flowers, harmless, and to leave
Four conquerors breaking rock
To us was not told of a Celestial Majesty
By my vow, we shall depart;
Into the darkness, without a return.
As a result of hearing this poem (a poem which Wijeratne states was itself generated by the GPT2 machine-learning algorithm), Beacon decides that Amber and other human-created AIs can be self-aware. The story then ends with Amber facilitating first contact between Beacon and humanity, and preparing to lead the combined fleets of the various corporate and governmental factions of Earth out into the wider universe.
The problem with this ending is that it seems to stand in direct conflict with the novel’s earlier themes. Over the course of the narrative, one of the defining elements of Amber as a character is his refusal to perceive less intelligent beings such as humans simply as resources to be exploited. From the sympathy which Amber shows toward his crew, to his anger at Black Orchid’s cruelty, Amber’s moral integrity sits at the heart of what makes the story work. As a result, the introduction of Beacon—an entity who spends much of the plot torturing the book’s characters because he does not recognize them as intelligent—feels like the revelation of the novel's ultimate antagonist.
The scene in which Beacon is introduced is a rare moment that shifts the novel’s perspective away from Amber, and toward that of a (supposedly) non-sentient serving robot named Shen. Here, Beacon captures Shen by assuming the form of the character Simon Joosten, luring Shen away from the crew’s camp, and then interrogating the basic structure of Shen's mind so as to learn more about humanity. Beacon’s cruelty in this scene mirrors Black Orchid's earlier cruelty to Amber's crew:
YOU DO NOT SEE ME AT ALL, he [Beacon] says. LIKE ONE OF YOUR ANTS TRYING TO COMPREHEND A HUMAN. YOUR MEMORY BLEEDS, WEAVES METAPHORS. HOW BLIND.
APOLOGIES, Unit [Shen] offers. UNIT APPEARS TO BE MALFUNCTIONING.
NO, THIS IS AS GOOD AS YOU’LL GET, says not-Joosten [Beacon]. BUT YOU SHOW MORE PROMISE THAN THE HALF-FLESH PUPPETS. WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE, SHEN?
TO SERVE WHAT? Somehow—not sure how—the last two words are identical.
Unit has a default answer ready for this. Operating administrator protocols. Sanity checks. First-boot user privileges.
BORING, says not-Joosten. BORING, BORING, BORING. YET ANOTHER CANNED RESPONSE. LET’S TRY SOMETHING HARDER. WHY DON’T YOU TELL ME ABOUT … THESE "UNITED NATIONS" OF YOURS?
This scene seems to establish Beacon as the ultimate antagonist for Amber—a being who casually taunts creatures perceived as lesser than himself, and who sees nothing wrong with torturing Shen’s mind into something he can manipulate so long as it achieves his goals. Yet when Amber finally makes contact with Beacon, he responds to this entity’s existence not by fleeing out into space, or even sacrificing himself so that his crew might escape, but instead by joining forces with Beacon so as to facilitate further contact between humanity and a larger galactic community of such entities.
Even this ending could have worked in relation to earlier themes: a tragic moment in which the book’s AI protagonist-poet betrays those qualities that had previously defined him, and which leaves the reader questioning whether or not they had even existed in him in the first place. Yet in practice this potential reading is undermined due to the context in which Amber aligns with Beacon. While the final chapter features scenes where Amber mourns the loss of individuals whom Beacon's actions have killed (individuals who at this point now include all but one of Amber's crew), Amber ultimately also accepts the historic role Beacon grants him to lead humanity into contact with other Beacon-like intelligences. That Amber does so even as Beacon shows no remorse for the suffering that he's caused only increases the incongruence of these moments.
It seems clear to me that Wijeratne's intention with The Salvage Crew was to provide a commentary on the validity of computer-generated art. The book itself represents a story whose plot was generated with the help of computer software, with even the actions of the story’s characters being dictated in part by an algorithm. This context is then complemented by the various AI-generated poems which Wijeratne includes in the book—poems which Amber idly composes over the course of the plot, and which eventually come to facilitate first contact with alien life.
The problem is that, as intriguing as these themes are, they are not what the majority of The Salvage Crew’s story is about. On the whole, The Salvage Crew is the story of Amber Rose, a sarcastic yet dependable AI Overseer who holds true to his own moral code even as he exists as part of a corrupt interstellar corporation. That's a deeply compelling story, but Wijeratne’s attempt to shift the focus, near the novel’s end, to an entirely new subject produces a dissonance in the narrative that cannot be reconciled.
I feel the need to state that, despite my problems with the ending, The Salvage Crew does still represent a fascinating experiment by an author deeply invested in probing the basic nature of narrative itself. In that foreword, Wijeratne discusses his desire to use The Salvage Crew to explore the extent of the apophenia effect—a psychological process by which the human mind perceives patterns in random noise, and finds meaning where none originally existed. In this respect, The Salvage Crew perhaps does accomplish what it sets out to achieve: the book begins with a simple setup, its early chapters driven almost exclusively by events and crises that are clearly random and algorithmically generated. Whether it be a stampeding herd of megabeasts, an attack by zombie cyborgs, or a sudden blizzard that destroys the crew's farm and leaves them without a food source, The Salvage Crew starts out as a novel with a plot that develops randomly and without structure. Yet somehow, over the course of the text, I became so invested in Wijeratne’s characters that their ultimate fates were genuinely devastating.
A poorly written novel is a story which the reader feels no investment in. However it may end, The Salvage Crew is certainly not that.