Interview w/ Gautam Bhatia on compelling worlds, imagining alternatives, and unlearning

Another day of SciFi Month rises on the horizon and honestly I’ve run out of fun ways to introduce my posts or maybe it’s just morning wake-up syndrome pulling me down, the bastard. Nevertheless, I managed to start this one with a cool reference, which you’ll only get if you read the upcoming interview, so ah ah! Get to it!

Today, we’ll have two crewmembers on the SFM spaceships reporting for rotation and we’re starting off the morning with Commander? Officer? Starlord? Gautam Bhatia, author of science fiction novel The Wall.

When Gautam approached me for a review of his book, I immediately knew I wanted to take the chance to invite him over to the blog for an interview exploring his work and his writing method and journey. Fortunately, I was able to trap him with one of my gravitational beams (these things rly come in handy when you don’t wanna get up to get the TV remote) and here we are :p

Reading first-hand about Gautam’s worldbuilding process was astounding, and I gotta say, you’ll want to see how his method expresses itself in The Wall. For now though, rouse your curiosity with this interview, and I hope it gives you a chance to connect with Gautam and his writing!

Meet Gautam Bhatia

Gautam Bhatia author photo

Gautam Bhatia is a science fiction writer, reviewer, and an editor of the award-winning Strange Horizons magazine. The Wall is his first novel.

  • Hi Gautam, welcome to the blog and thank you for letting me host you for this wonderful month celebrating sci fi! As a ways of introduction, can you ask the main character(s) of your novel to describe you?

[Off-stage: Thank you so much for hosting me; as a former book-blogger myself, these are my absolutely favourite spaces on the internet. I’m now switching to the voice of Mithila, the protagonist of my novel.]

Lately, we have had another recruit in our quest to find a way beyond the Wall. Like me, he comes from the Seventh Mandala, the child of teachers, and he dreams about being a poet one day. I gave him our standard “horizon test” – I told him to imagine the lake by the Wall, close his eyes, and make the Wall recede until there was nothing but earth and sky. Like most of the others, he wasn’t able to imagine a horizon (you know how hard it is to see something for the first time!).

By the end, he was crying tears of frustration. A would-be poet should have more imagination, I told him, and to his credit, he was able to laugh at that. He finally got there on the ninth attempt – average, at best. Of course, his eyes flew open, for a few moments he was terrified – and now he’s one of us.

He says that he loves words, and that he’s with us is because the day we find a way beyond the Wall, there will be a garden of words to water, for the world that we find. I think he will be useful as a chronicler, a record-keeper, in the days that are to come. I suspect he will not be very useful in a fight, but then – none of us are fighters!                 

  • As its name alludes to, The Wall is set in a city closed off from the outside world by a huge physical border. In this kind of semi-closed system, as you described it, how does the process of creating an entirely new world within this wall begin and end? What were some of the challenges and liberties of the process?

This was – and continues to be – a formidable challenge. I should start by saying that there is a reason why the Wall exists, and why the people of Sumer have lived for two thousand years within the Wall, and never seen the world beyond. That reason will unfold through the course of the story.  

Now, to world-building. I began with some basic questions: the size of the city, the number of people it could support, the relative area that would have to be occupied by farmland and woodland, and so on. That was the easy bit! But then, as I wrote, everything I wanted to do was defined by everything I could not do under the constraints of this semi-closed system.

For example, in the City of Sumer, the colour blue is an important status symbol. So I had to find a flower that could be the source of blue pigment, but crucially, that flower would have to be self-pollinating, because there’s no animal life in the city – no bees, in particular. After some research, I found that the woad flower suited my purposes. Woad blue thus became an integral part of the novel, and then allowed me to have all kinds of fun with it (which I won’t now reveal, of course)! 

I realised, also, that every food crop in the city would, likewise, have to be self-pollinating. Similarly, when I was thinking of what implements and tools the people of Sumer would use, I had to ensure that everything was renewable. I finally found that bog iron comes from swamps, and is renewable – but is also fragile and breaks easily. A little more digging revealed that the Vikings would mix it with bone for their weapons, and that allow would be much stronger and more resilient. That, of course, is something that could work in a closed system such as Sumer as well! 

So you see, world-building in a semi-closed world is a continuing process where every time you solve one problem, two more crop up. Some of these problems are still cropping up even as I’m about to finish my sequel! And I haven’t even begun to talk about the knock-on effects the scarcity of resources would have on social structures. 

But I have to say, actually being able to create a coherent and (I hope) compelling world working through these constraints has probably been the most joyous and exhilarating part of the writing process. I remember calling up my editor late at night with Eureka! I have found it!, and then squealing with her about the solution. Magical!         

Cover for The Wall, Gautam's first science fiction novel exploring the implications of a closed-off society
Cover for The Wall, Gautam’s first science fiction novel exploring the implications of a closed-off society
  • Without giving too much away, what interesting cultural, linguistic, and social aspects has the reclusive system inside the wall allowed you to explore?

Oh, so much! As my answer to your first question probably reveals, I’ve long been fascinated by language, and by how language both reflects – but also shapes – our world (I’m thinking of the works of Samuel Delaney and China Mieville in the SFF tradition). So the first thing I thought about was how a barrier like the Wall would not only physically cut you off, but also cut off your language, make it poorer and less complete. There would be concepts you can’t imagine, and you wouldn’t have the words to imagine them. My characters struggle against this lack of language and this inability to imagine (and to act upon that imagination).

One of my favourite scenes to write – and this is very early on, so it’s not much of a spoiler! – was my characters struggling to visualise a “horizon”.  They’ve found the word in an old book, and they’re trying to imagine what it might look like, because they’ve never seen it – and that’s because the word is out of joint with their experience of the world. It’s so hard for them to do something that (to us) is so natural. 

On the social side, I’ve always been struck by Ursula Le Guin’s exhortation to SFF writers to imagine alternatives to the way we live. A society that has been shaped for two thousand years in a physically constrained environment gives you a lot of scope to imagine a different set of social structures.

Sumer – the city – has evolved without patriarchy. There’s no concept of gender roles (because the material bases of gender roles don’t exist); and also, in a world where population growth is a tangible fear (as opposed to our world, where it is used as a bogey to mask the real issues of unequal resource distribution), same-sex relations would not be subject to prejudice – in fact, they’d likely be valorised. So in the city, same-sex relationships are called “pure unions”, and in fact, are liberated from the onerous conditions put on heterosexual unions, where the fear of population growth is always lurking. This was also a lot of fun to imagine and write.       

  • That’s really fucking cool, tbh! I am absolutely in love with your worldbuilding method and thought process. Now, being speculative fiction, how does The Wall project, discuss, and reflect the real world of today?

I’ve always been fascinated by how contemporary neoliberal imagination places constraints upon what human beings can – or are entitled to – have. We are fed myths about scarcity, about debt-to-GDP ratios, about market discipline, all of which serve to prop up and entrench an unequal and unjust status quo. These are no more than myths. But they have an enduring force, a force that’s reflected in our laws and policies and international treaties, enforced by courts and (if necessary) by armies, a force that is stronger than what any physical barrier can exert.

I wanted to explore what happens when that myth takes physical form, when there is a literal barrier and literal scarcity, and when human beings have accepted it, for much the same reasons that we’ve accepted the myths of neoliberalism – we are remarkably adaptable creatures, for better and for worse! And I wanted to explore what happens when someone rises to challenge that myth, when someone says, this is only a myth, it doesn’t have to be this way. Once again, Ursula Le Guin’s words:

as SFF writers, our task is to imagine alternatives!       

Ursula K. Le Guin
  • I was extremely excited when you approached me for a review. One reason is that the “closed off society” is a concept I absolutely love to read in sci-fi. How do you think these isolated systems that are created, even outside speculation, can impact not only the people living within them but society as a whole? Where does the divide lie between free will and enclosure?

Robert Frost has a famous poem called Mending Walls, which has the lines

Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out.” 

I think that the first thing enclosure does is that it creates the “other”, it defines categories, and – as a famous Latin American philosopher said, in words that have stuck with me (and which I mischievously put into the mouth of one of my characters), “to define is to exclude.”

At the same time, an enclosed system can also be an experiment, it can be an experiment in ways of living that are deemed no longer viable in the world outside. You know, keep all the conditions standard, change one or two conditions, and see how the subjects of the experiment react. 

But of course, you’re still going to have human beings in that experiment, and that raises all kinds of ethical questions, including – as you’ve pointed out – questions about free will. I think, on balance, human-created closed systems (except in special cases, such as a spaceship) are based upon an idea of control, and of determinism, that is incompatible with the human spirit, and what it means to be human and free.    

  • The blurb for The Wall describes it as “for fans of Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed”. How do you feel those two inspirations influence the novel?

I should start by acknowledging something I only learnt recently about Asimov: that there exist multiple credible accusations of sexual harassment against him. 

Nightfall remains, I think, a powerful exploration of how human beings will react when they see something that we consider most normal and natural – in this case nightfall – for the very first time. It reminds us of the fragility of our most basic axioms, and the contingency of the very bones of our world. It’s almost Borgesian, in that sense.

The Dispossessed is perhaps my favourite novel in all SFF. I think there’s no better use of the medium to explore questions around what it means to be free and equal, the ever-unfinished dream of building societies that try to approximate that ideal, and the thousand perils that lie on that road.

  • The Wall is your debut speculative fiction novel. How was the journey from the first time the idea struck your mind, to publication, to now?

I began writing The Wall in 2008, so it’s been a 12-year long journey. I wasn’t writing it all the time, of course – I wrote it in bursts and starts, before finally finishing it during a sustained period in 2018. 

The journey has been immense. When I started writing it, I’d just begun college, and I’d grown up in and around the SFF that was available to a school-going kid in New Delhi, India. This was overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male (Asimov, Clarke, etc etc). So the first draft of my novel was overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. I didn’t know that any other form of SFF was possible. 

Things changed when I joined Strange Horizons as an editor in 2016. There I was exposed to the diversity, the plurality, and the inclusivity of contemporary SFF, and I realised that my writing didn’t need to be an imitation of the 1960s canon. So I threw out a lot of stuff (the names and many of the men were the first to go!), and basically rewrote the novel, without these chains I had put myself in. 

I think – and I hope – that the final version of The Wall does more justice to the vast variety of ways of living that make up our world.  

Logo for Strange Horizons. A weekly magazine of and about speculative fiction that highlights the vibrant, radical spectrum of spec fic. Gautam has been working as editor for SH since 2016.
Logo for Strange Horizons. A weekly magazine of and about speculative fiction that highlights the vibrant, radical spectrum of spec fic. Gautam has been working as editor for SH since 2016.

My experience with, and work in, the law has shown to me how it constitutes the unacknowledged plumbing of our world. Law does not make us free and cannot make us equal, but at all times it structures how we pursue freedom and equality, and in that pursuit, law can be an impediment, or a facilitator. This awareness of law’s pervasive – but often invisible – presence in our lives made me pay careful attention to the underlying legal structure in the City of Sumer, and how it interacted with social, political, and cultural hierarchies. 

At the same time, in the writing itself, there was a lot I had to unlearn. Legal writing is direct, stark, and austere. Fiction – unless you’re trying to imitate Hemingway, which I certainly am not! – is the exact opposite. So I had to spend a lot of time forgetting legal writing to write The Wall!  

  • I for one am both glad and relieved you are not aiming to mimic Hemingway :p This is only the first installment of the Sumer series. When and what can readers expect from the rest of the series, in very loose, non-spoilery terms?

Sumer is a duology. The second book is almost done, and is due out next year. It’s going to carry the story forward, answer (many of) the questions that Book 1 poses, and (hopefully!) give readers closure at the end. 🙂   

  • Lastly, do you have any projects in the making you can tell us about?  

Well, right now, I am entirely consumed – mentally and emotionally – with finishing Book 2, and completing this world that I have inhabited for so long. I have a short story called The List, which is forthcoming in the second volume of the Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction, and which deals with borders and lists in the shadow of what is happening in India right now. And then I have vague ideas of a new series, imagining – in the style of Iain M Banks and the Strugatsky Brothers* – a post-capitalist space-faring society, but – unlike Banks and the Strugatskys – focused more on the mechanics of how it works, rather than the conflicts it engenders with opposing civilisations. It’s still very much a thought-bubble in my mind, but I’ll keep you updated on how it goes!      

*Blogger’s note: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

  • Sounds awesome already, looking forward to it!

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