By Gareth Jelley
Gautam Bhatia is a science fiction writer, reviewer, and an editor of the award-winning STRANGE HORIZONS magazine. His duology THE WALL and THE HORIZON tell the story of Mithila and her quest to discover what lies beyond the impassable Wall that surrounds the city of Sumer.
In the afterword of The Wall you thank your parents for setting you down a lifetime’s science fiction journey. And you mentioned Golden Age stories, and you mentioned The Hobbit and Foundation. Which early influences had the biggest impact on you as you were growing up?
So, quite a bit, actually. I think the really interesting thing about growing up in India in the mid-nineties, in a big city—I grew up in Delhi—in an upper-middle class family where both parents were academically oriented, was that you ended up getting exposed to a whole range of influences. So as I spoke about in the acknowledgements of The Wall, my dad and mum got me The Hobbit and Foundation when I was 10 or 11 years old, which set me down the path of science fiction and fantasy. They also got me a set of books on Greek mythology, Roger Lancelyn Green’s retelling of the Greek myths. So I grew up reading stories about Icarus, which you may have seen some influence of that in The Wall. Although that particular story is more in the domain of Indian myths—there is a very similar story in the Indian mythology, it’s in The Rāmāyana. And the story in The Wall involving flying up to the sun is based more on that than on Icarus. But it’s an interesting how different cultures end up with very similar myths. It’s just impossible to grow up in an Indian house without being immersed in The Rāmāyana and The Mahābhārata. You just know those stories so well because they are part of everything you know growing up.
And at around the time I was born, the Soviet Union hadn’t yet collapsed, its collapse was still a couple of years away. And the Soviet Union had this kind of cultural exchange program with India where Soviet books, story books and fairy tales, were available at extremely cheap prices in Indian book shops and in book fairs. So when I was born, my mom basically bought a huge stack of Soviet books and I grew up reading that. And there were lots of fairy tales. And the one thing that I remember is that along with Baba Yaga there was always this royal family with three sons, the elder two being fine and strapping young men, and the third being a fool, and the fool always thrives at the end. And of course in any post-colonial Commonwealth country, you know, Enid Blyton, English books. So there was always a melange of influences that I was exposed to when I was growing up and all of it basically pointed towards really loving fairy tales, and escapist literature, like borderline fantasy, magical realism, of different traditions, and just always being steeped in that. And that translated into a desire to write that kind of stuff.
And you mentioned getting into things like magical realism and I’ve seen you mention Ismail Kadare in interviews—the only Kadare I’ve read is the one about a blood feud—and I wonder, when did your reading start to spread from science fiction to literary fiction?
So, the Kadare novel you have in mind is Broken April, that’s the one with the blood feud. I think that’s his best. I’m a huge fan of his, and I’ve read most of his books, and I’d say Broken April is the best thing he’s written. It has had a big influence on me. But as to when I began reading literary fiction, it was early on. It was around the same time as the science fiction fantasy journey began. In the beginning it was a very English literary fiction—Charles Dickens, that kind of thing. Home had collected works of Shakespeare around. Charles and Mary Lamb’s prose retelling of Shakespeare and stuff like that. So the beginning was a very classical English influenced foray into literary fiction, just by virtue of growing up in a post-colonial Commonwealth country. That is basically where you start. And then in college, I grew more interested in world literature and I began to seek out writers like Kadare. And I was in Oxford for my master’s degree and I saw that there were lectures on The Aeneid being delivered by a classics professor. And he talked about a book called The File on H. which is a Kadare novel directly about orality and writing. And that book is about two scholars who try and understand why The Iliad is The Iliad and they hit upon this idea that it began as an oral epic, which is now established wisdom, but back then it wasn’t. So that’s how I got introduced to Kadare. But literary fiction was there right from the beginning and my interest in it intensified a lot more in college.
There’s a line in The Wall about the way the audience must structure the poetry for each generation. And there’s this link between speaking and listening, this orality that you’ve mentioned. When did you first decide to weave those aspects into The Wall?
That was there pretty early on. And the interaction between oral traditions and traditions is something that’s interested me since I did the Kadare book. And then I later found out that the Kadare book, The File on H., was actually based on the on the real-life stories of Millman Parry and Albert Lord, two Harvard University scholars who actually went to Serbia to understand from the last surviving oral bards in Europe how the oral tradition worked. And there is a book The Singer of Tales which tells the real-life story of Millman Parry and Albert Lord. And then there’s an Indian equivalent called A Carnival of Parting that talks about oral traditions in Rajasthan State in Northern India. So this whole tension, so to say—sometimes tension, sometimes not—between the oral and the written, and this idea that in an oral tradition, there is no such thing as the original, because each retelling is a fresh act of creation. Whereas the moment you write things down there is an original, and then you have all kinds of debates about being totally original, interpretations, and all of that. But none of that is relevant when it’s an oral tradition. Of course, this is a bit of a broad brush description, but that’s interested me for a long time. And it was easy to explore that in the context of The Wall because in this walled city where every resource is scarce, paper is also scarce. And so this conflict between the oral and written just emerges out of the material conditions of the worldbuilding. So that was there quite early on.
How would you describe the story of the The Wall to someone who has never heard of it?
The story is simple enough. There exists a city called Sumer that is surrounded by a circular wall which is extremely high, and nobody has crossed the wall for 2000 years or more, at least not in recorded memory. Within the wall the resources that people need to survive are present in just the right amounts, so nobody really wants for anything. But of course, everyone is bounded within the wall. And because the world exists, there are a range of social, cultural myths around it that prevent people from going beyond it. And the story is about a group of young people who decide that they need to know what exists or lies beyond the wall and their attempts to find a way beyond it and how others in the city try to stop them.
I was thinking about how The Wall could be seen as some kind of colonialist project where the subaltern, where those people inside have no idea whatsoever that they’ve even been colonized. There are conversations in the novel about what exactly the city is, about whether it is an experiment or is something else. And there isn’t the language even for liberation because there is no language for anything beyond the wall, no horizon. How much do you see The Wall as a narrative about colonialism and colonialist tactics?
Not at all, not at all actually. Colonialism was not at all in my mind when I was writing the book. Of course I know the author is dead, so I won’t say that it’s the wrong reading or that interpreting it as being about colonialism is wrong. I’m not saying it’s wrong. It could well be, but it wasn’t on my mind.
What was on my mind far more than colonialism was neoliberalism and capitalism. And I’ll point to a specific instance of that. Which is like a bit of a cheeky, cheeky reference. There was a point in the book where one of the scientists in the city—they’re called the Select—says that you can vote in Sumer, you can vote for whatever you want. Every policy has to be put to a referendum. And so you can vote. But you can’t vote against the wall. The conditions of existence, you can’t really vote against them.
That’s a bit of a cheeky reference to one of the European Union officials who in the context of Italy and Italy voting in around the mid-2000s. And there was a big political controversy around Greece and the troika and austerity, and this person said that the Italians can vote for whichever government they want, but they can’t vote against European treaties that require them to keep being in austerity and require them to run a budget surplus and all of that.
So The Wall basically explores one of the myths of capitalism and neoliberalism has always been the myth of scarcity is that the reason we can’t have nice things in life is because resources are scarce and we need to distribute resources in the most efficient way possible. And then the one thing The Wall explores is a situation in which that scarcity is not really a myth, but is actually, physically a thing because it literally cuts off, it physically cuts off access to the outside world. And inside you have to ensure that the resources you’re using are used in a certain way, because they are literally scarce and if they exhaust themselves then you’re all dead.
So then what would happen when scarcity was not a metaphor and not an ideological weapon, but actually physically present as reality. And then what you can do to change or break that reality. So the deeper themes are more along those lines than along the colonialism lines.
So in that reading, what the wall does to the inhabitants is in a sense what capitalism has done to a large amount of world’s population today.
Yes, it posits itself as natural, not as an ideology, but as the way the world is. And it precludes being able to imagine an alternative. And there’s that famous line that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. So it very effectively precludes the ability to imagine an alternative way of living. But I share Tolkien’s distaste for allegories, so I wouldn’t say it’s an allegory for capitalism, but those ideas are at play, in the background.
There was an interview series you ran on Strange Horizons about the city, and the Aliya Whiteley interview is particularly interesting. And there’s a book you mentioned, which haven’t got hold of yet called Against the Grain. But I’ve scanned a little bit of the thesis about the origin of states. What do you see as the connection between Against the Grain and The Wall.
James Scott, the author of Against the Grain, is an author who has influenced me quite a bit, but less about state formation and more about his idea of the hidden transcript. So one argument he makes is that in any historical society you always have the public transcript, which is the visible history, but you always have the hidden transcript, which is the people who are ignored by the dominant narrative, the people who are ignored by history. They’re not silent. They’re always speaking. And basically the job of the historian or the social scientists or the anthropologist is to excavate and uncover the hidden transcript and bring that to the centre stage. And that plays a role in THE WALL in the sense that in the very beginning, you have this idea that there used to be a time when there were many different origin myths about how the wall came to be and why the wall exists. And therefore, are people allowed to go beyond it or not? So there was a time when there were many different, origin myths that different people had about the oil. And then there was conflict between those different origin myths. And finally one triumphed and that has been working ever since. And that version is very religious, rigid, and prohibits people from going beyond the wall. But that isn’t the only explanation, or the only origin myth that exists. There are others, but they’ve just been submerged. And one of the themes of the story is how those stories that were devolved come to the forefront, and there will be a lot more of that in the sequel. So my being influenced by James Scott is more along those lines. And of course, state formation, and the ways in which different societies and communities have historically avoided co-option by the states, is also a central part of his work. But that doesn’t play a major role in THE WALL.
Aliya Whiteley made a comment in that interview about the ground on which something is built, and how we often talk about cities, but we don’t talk so much about the ground they sit upon. And I think this idea of the layers beneath cities is really interesting. How much of that history, those layers, did you have to build out in your mind before you wrote it? How much of it was plotted out?
A fair bit, yes, but not all of it. I think the linear progress of THE WALL made it the kind of novel where you could both be an architect, and a gardener. And I realised I needed many of those things as I was writing it.
In terms of the origin myths, those were planned from before, because you can’t really get a sense of the hierarchies in the city and the different groups and their motivations without at least understanding where they come from and what they’re fighting for. So the history of the city, and the myths and the legends—they were planned from before the writing began. But a lot of the other stuff emerged as I was writing.
And in terms of the duology, The Wall and The Horizon, was the shape of that clear from the beginning?
No, it was supposed to be a single work, but then the story kind of burst its bounds, and it was clear that it just wasn’t making sense to keep it as a single book. And so it just made sense to divide it into two. And the most convenient point to break it off was the present ending of book one. It was a neat way to split between books.
It’s a brilliant ending.
I’m glad that you liked it as some people strongly objected to the way in which it leaves some things hanging and there is some degree of anger.
I’m always a fan of unresolved, ambiguous endings. I’ve never had an issue with that.
I think one thing that science fiction does well is that it doesn’t answer the questions, it asks the questions, and then the reader’s imagination often is what fills the gap. And ambiguous endings can be very good in science fiction for that reason.
Ahmed Khan wrote a review of The Wall and he described it as ‘the story of quenching the thirst for knowledge, realisation, and enlightenment’ and I wonder, did you feel any pressure as you were writing The Horizon?
I enjoyed writing The Horizon much more than The Wall. First because I always knew how the story was going to end. The Wall ended at a convenient place, and it began life as a single book. So there wasn’t the pressure of figuring out how to end this story—I knew how it was going to end and how it would get there.
Secondly, I think it’s the nature of a duology that book one ends up being the worldbuilding book, and book two ends up being a much more action-oriented book, with multiple cliffhangers and just a lot more pace. So I enjoyed The Horizon more because it was moving quicker, the stakes were resolving themselves, and also it could just be because I was more comfortable writing the second book.
You’ve talked about how the dialogue in The Wall didn’t feel as naturalistic as you would have liked it to have been. Did you feel that in The Horizon you found a way to make the dialogue flow better?
And would you ever do a director’s cut of The Wall? Would you consider going back and creating another iteration of it?
I may end up doing that in the near future because I have my my rights to The Wall outside of South Asia. And since February I’ve been querying The Wall with agents the US and the UK without success, but the process is on, and I have some manuscripts out there. And if an agent makes me an offer, then they will have some edits to make to The Wall. So I could well end up working on it again in 2021 or 2022. Although I don’t expect deep structural edits.
My friend Samit Basu published Chosen Spirits last year with Simon & Schuster India and it is now being republished by Tor in the US as The City Within, and he has had to make edits and changes, which of course I’m sure will we be improving the novel. So if the book is republished in the US then it would definitely involve playing around with it a little more.
I was talking to Lavanya Lakshminarayan about the difficulties of getting her book to a wider readership, and it feels like there are multiple worlds when it comes to publishing. What are your thoughts on the state of publishing at the moment?
Those multiple worlds definitely exist. And I’ve really had a strong taste of that. Lavanya and I were both published in India last year, and we both began querying in February of this year, so we’re in exactly the same boat, and we are very good friends. But you’re right that the worlds are radically different, and honestly, you don’t really understand how different they are until you’re in them.
I’ve been fortunate that a range of book bloggers whom I have approached personally have been kind enough to take the book on, read it, and engage with it. And I’m grateful for that. And the book, after some back and forth, was given a good review by Gary Wolfe in Locus. But it is still a completely different world because the two other big US-based science fiction magazines that publish reviews, Lightspeed and The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, have not carried The Wall, despite my sending it to them. Nor have they published reviews of Chosen Spirits by Samit Basu book or Analog/Virtual by Lavanya Lakshminarayan. And those are the three big science fiction novels that came out of India last year. And some of the very big fantasy and science fiction book blogs have not reviewed it, despite the book being sent to them.
It’s a well-known fact by now that the success of a book in a large part depends on the kind of marketing that it gets. And the amount of money publishers are willing to put on it. A book may fail despite that, and the book may succeed without that, but there is a correlation between the two. And so you publish in India you don’t get that kind of marketing or publicity or money behind you. So that avenue is out. And at the same time, the other avenue, which is through the community, through these magazines and these big book blogs and so on, is also closed to you because they don’t seem to want to look at you unless you are published by Tor, or have a publicist who’s actually in touch with them, or an agent and so on. So in that sense, you just get shut out from both sides and you’re basically gasping for air, air here meaning exposure. And I’ve been lucky that there were many book bloggers I reached out to who actually took the book and read it and wrote reviews of it and then that’s been great. It’s been beyond my expectations. But you can’t help seeing the very different treatment to books published by Tor, Orbit, HarperCollins Voyager on the one hand, and books published outside of Europe and the US on the other.
If you look at the award shortlists, you just have to ask yourself how many of the finalists are those who are not published by Tor, Orbit, Saga—basically the big presses. So it is a completely different world and that effectively makes it necessarily for you as a writer outside of the UK or the US to go the same route, which of course is much harder because many authors meet their agents at conventions, at places like Clarion West, which of course is much harder if you’re not actually physically located in the US or the UK. So I think it is still two different worlds. But that said, I think there is a sense of openness. And it is possible to engage and that wouldn’t have been possible 10 years ago. It does seem that there is a dialogue and a conversation happening, or at least the beginnings of it.
You mentioned that you were friends with Lavanya and she wrote an article in The Scroll about flying into New York and having a really terrible experience.
I think the story Lavanya told you is a particularly blatant and egregious example. But there are much more subtle things that just exist. And Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, who you interviewed recently, said something broadly similar that if you are from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, all these countries, and you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, the assumption seems to be that you are basically going to end up writing something that has gods and multiple gods and goddesses, and this kind of like a timeless medievalistic/ancient India with gods and goddesses, and something that is suitably, exotic, but not really exotic because we’ve moved beyond that. So we are expected to perform our Indian-ness, or Pakistani- or Sri Lankan-ness.
But I think as Yudha said, that just doesn’t make sense because that’s not how we grew up and that’s not like our childhoods and our teenage years were not spent reading about gods and goddesses. Yes, that existed as part of the atmosphere around us, but it could equally have been The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and Enid Blyton and Tintin and a whole range of things. And so a book like Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories is actually a far more accurate depiction of the kind of hybrid environment in which people like us grew up in than some kind of fantasy novel with these gods and goddesses in this kind of timeless idea of India.
So Indians writing science fiction and fantasy like Lavanya’s Analog/Virtual, like The Wall and Chosen Spirits, which has influences that are very clearly visible both from classical Indian myth on the one hand, and also very distinct mainstream science fiction tradition on the other, including Clarke, Asimov, and of course Le Guin and more contemporary versions, that’s much truer to the kind of cultural milieu that we’ve come up in. But again, there seems to be a mismatch between what we are writing and what the expectations seem to be once, you say this is Indian speculative fiction.
Yudhanjaya Wijeratne mentioned this hybridity when I spoke to him, particularly in relation to The Ricepunk Manifesto, and he talked a lot about growing up reading stories from multiple cultures, as you did earlier. And it is fascinating because that mix does lead to science fiction which is much more of a hybrid, for example in S.B. Divya’s Machinehood there are all sorts of interesting concepts from religions and mythologies that are integrated in a really subtle and sophisticated way.
Machinehood is a very good example of exactly this.
Moving on to your work at Strange Horizons, how did you get involved with them and how has working there changed your sort of view of the scene?
This is a great question. Back in 2014, I just wanted to be involved in some way with the fan community, because it had given so much to me as a fan and as a fanfiction writer. So I just wanted to find a way to get more involved. And this was just when Howard Jacobson’s J had just come out and I just wrote a review of the book and I was going through the various science fiction magazines that existed and it was easy to submit to Strange Horizons and I sent it off to Abigail Nussbaum, who back then was reviews editor, and she got back in touch saying she really liked it. And they ran the review after some edits. And then I thought that was the end of it, but they put me into the regular reviewer pool and I began to get emails, and they asked me for preferences, and I began to review books on a regular basis.
And a year and a half after that, they had an opening in the articles department, so I applied and there was an interview. And I think one wonderful things about Strange Horizons has always been that there has been a genuine commitment to ensuring that it’s not just diversity along the regular axes, but that it’s diversity in that people from all over the world of arts magazine. So they got me on, and in the same cohort as me there was a person from Singapore, a person from England and someone from the US. So then in 2016, I joined the articles department and began nonfiction editing, along with continuing to review—I think I’ve reviewed about 25 books for STRANGE HORIZONS over the last six or seven years. And then the chief editor of the articles department became the chief editor of the magazine and I moved into the head role at the articles department. And now he has moved on, so we restructured, and I’m playing a coordinating role.
As to how it changed my understanding of the genre, it had a massive influence on me because as I said, if you’re growing up in India your reading is determined by what you see in the bookshops. And I think this is changing now in 2020, but in 2000 when I was a kid, when I was 12 years old, when I was looking for science fiction and fantasy to read, the bookshops had Asimov and Clarke and Le Guin and Wolfe, maybe Zelazny, Tolkien and Harry Potter and all the Star Wars books. So what we had access to was very white and predominantly male. And I’m not saying this as a criticism, because those books had a huge influence on me and they really shaped the. They were my gateway into the genre. And I for one don’t really get what seems to me to be an urge to completely dismiss what those books meant. Of course they are dated and a lot of them haven’t aged well. And some of them like Campbell were fascists and their work should be treated accordingly. But a lot of those books, some parts of them may not have aged well, but they are still good gateways into the genre. So my view of the genre was still limited to writers who had a very specific sensibility, both in terms of being from the US and the UK, and being white, being male and so on. Strange Horizons really exposed me to the sheer plurality of the genre. And so it completely opened it up in a new way because I was exposed to writing and writers that I wouldn’t have come across had I still continued to just get my reading from bookshops in India, or even in the UK.
And what is important about Strange Horizons is that unlike some of the other big magazines, we are entirely volunteer run. So we have a huge team to spread the burden because none of us are paid. And you begin to understand that the first reader is as important as a chief editor, if not more important. You can’t leave anyone out. Everyone contributes equally to them, to the magazine.
Switching back to your writing, were you ever writing short fiction, before The Wall?
No, I wasn’t. Apart from school magazine stuff, which doesn’t really count. I was always obsessed with novels, right from the beginning. My teenage years were full of fan fiction novels. So now I’m actually trying to experiment with short fiction, but that’s after writing the novel. So for me, the novel has been my intuitive form.
And you mentioned fan fiction and Star Wars. Can you imagine yourself writing inside a franchise at some point?
This is a fantastic question. My first foray into serious fiction writing was on a website called Dragonmount.com, which still exists, but the writing does not, and I know this because out of nostalgia I was looking for it last month, and much to my regret, it seemed to have all gone. So the great thing about Dragonmount.com, which is a Wheel of Time fan site, was that they had this thing called role-playing where you made your own character, within the Wheel of Time universe, and then you basically collaborated with other writers to write stories for these characters. And it was a fantastic discipline because you couldn’t make your character unrealistic because then nobody else would be interested in co-writing with somebody who is strong and fast and has invisibility powers. So you had to make sure your protagonist is a genuine character. And then you would write a scene and then somebody else would write the next scene, and then third person, and the story would emerge collaboratively. So you would have to ensure that you were giving the hook for the next person to continue. And it was marvelous, you made friends and stuff—it was fan fiction, but also like collaborative fanfiction.
So I did begin by writing inside a franchise, although not formally. But going forward, I’m a big fan of Una McCormack and I think her Star Trek novels are wonderful. I am a very recent convert to Star Trek, so maybe 10 years later with enough reading and immersion, I can totally see myself writing a Trek novel. It’s always interesting to do this kind of collaboration because many minds working on something is always more interesting than one mind working on it. Ideas like the Prime Directive. A lot of interesting stuff in Discovery, like the mycelial network, I think it is fantastic to think about that, and write with that.
What are you reading about now that maybe we might see in the future in terms of ideas or research?
So I’m reading quite a few things that are directly going into outlining for the next novel. I’ve just finished a book called Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, which is all about fungi and how fungi shape our world. And in fact, it’s interesting because there’s a point in Entangled Life where Sheldrick points out that the character Paul Stamets in Star Trek: Discovery was based on the actual science of fungi scientist Paul Stamets. And the real-life Stamets was an adviser to Star Trek: Discovery. So the mycelial network stuff in Discovery is based on the real-life behaviour of fungi. So I just finished that book and made copious notes.
And the other set of readings I’m doing are on extractivism in Latin America and I think that’s a fascinating area. So in, in countries like Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, and so on there is great conflict between on the one hand, the imperatives of resource nationalism, which require you to mine, your resources, so that you can take the wealth and then redistribute it and alleviate poverty and bring equality to a country on the one hand. And on the other hand, the fact that we are basically scarring the earth and also invariably the places where you mine are where indigenous communities are located and you are displacing them, polluting the water, and so on. So they of course have excellent reasons to oppose that, and that kind of creates intractable conflicts. And of course these conflicts matter for the rest of the world, because the Chilean mines are directly connected to supply chains in China. So there are global supply chains that connect the microchip or in your laptop or phone that is traced back all the way to a copper mine in Chile.
I remember you mentioned Planetary Mine in a tweet and I instantly wanted to know more about it.
It is an excellent book and you’ll see a lot of it in the next book. I’m still outlining it, but when it comes out you’ll see a lot of influence from Planetary Mine in that novel.
Are there any writers at the moment, aside from some of the ones you’ve already mentioned, who you feel should be getting more exposure?
So, Lavanya Lakshminarayan and Samit Basu are friends of mine and have had novels out recently. There is Tashan Mehta who wrote this book called The Liar’s Weave, which was published in 2017 in India by Juggernaut, a very unique and different kind of fantasy novel set in colonial Bombay. It’s not often a site for fantasy novels, and again, there’s the same issue that if you’re published in India by an Indian press, the global science fiction community—there’s a gap in knowing about the existence of books like that. So, I would recommend that for sure. Tashan Mehta is great and the book is great.
And I recently read a fantastic climate fiction novella by Octavia Cade called The Impossible Resurrection of Grief. I really enjoyed that. It’s published by Stelliform Press so I guess the marketing would be somewhat limited, but I really enjoyed that and I’d like to see people talking more about this type of urgent, good climate fiction.
Check out more wonderful interviews by Gareth at Intermultiversal.