Fiction

The exciting aftermath of crossing The Wall

| Updated on: Dec 08, 2021
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Gautam Bhatia’s second novel The Horizon, a deeply satisfying sequel to his speculative fictional book The Wall will thrill fans of the original

What makes a sequel compelling to read? They let you really examine characters and make you relate to them more, and put them in new situations or have them overcome new challenges beyond what they faced earlier.

The Horizon is the second novel by Gautam Bhatia. He is a legal scholar who has written two books on the Indian constitution, and a speculative fiction novel ‘ The Wall’ which is a prequel to The Horizon .

Sequels are at their most effective when their predecessor has done the groundwork of establishing characters and settings, as well as setting up larger arcs of events that need to be resolved beyond the immediate concerns that the protagonist has to deal with.

The Horizon is an example of such a kind of sequel. Bhatia does a fantastic job at picking up where The Wall left off and explores some new interesting themes that will leave fans of the original very satisfied.

However, this comes at a cost of accessibility, as new readers can't just pick it up and start reading it without a knowledge of the characters and settings that the prequel provides.

Some notes on the settingOne way to think about the series is effectively a cross between the most exciting dramatic moments of a courtroom drama like 12 Angry Men , and the slow-burning palace intrigues of a Fantasy series like Game of Thrones.

Instead of battlefields, the action takes place in town squares, parliament assemblies, and courthouses, in the form of trials, lawmakers debating a new policy, or demagogues stirring up a mob. Gautam Bhatia layers these scenes in particular with a lot of references to real-world philosophy, mythology and other science fiction works. There is also an appendix at the end of The Horizon that describes these call-outs and references in detail, which is very helpful.

The books are set in a city called Sumer. For the last 2,000 years of recorded history, it is surrounded by a big wall that nobody can climb or damage. Nobody knows who or what put the wall there and why.

The residents of the city have come up with their own elaborate theories and mythologies about the mysterious ‘Builders’. A section of the population believe that the imprisonment within the wall is a punishment for sins of the past and heavily discourage any attempts to get out of it.

So what is The Horizon about, then?The protagonist, Mithila, leads a team of young rebellious youths called the ‘Young Tarafians’ who follow the teachings of Taraf - a long dead poet who dreamed of a world beyond the wall. His ideas and poems drive Mithila to the extent that he is almost an additional character in the book, a kind of invisible Gandalf to whom she turns to in moments of doubt.

At the climax of the first book, she executes a daring and improbable escape, becoming the first person in Sumer's recorded history to cross the wall.

The Horizon deals with what happens in the aftermath of that.

The book is split into two parallel narrative sections. The first follows Mithila in her journeys in the world outside the wall, while the second follows Alvar, one of Mithila's closest friends in the young Tarafians as they deal with the other forces in the city who want to suppress them.

It also made me think about the capabilities and the limits of human beings to deal with rapid and unpredictable change. The issue is the world can change in ways that we cannot anticipate and have no conceptual vocabulary or toolset to describe (what the science fiction author Iain Banks calls " Outside Context Problems ").

Nobody anticipated that someone could have actually escaped the wall, so Mithila's escape precipitates a series of cascading events that throw Sumer into chaos. If Mithila could, why can't others? What if all the laws and mythologies that underpin the city were actually false?

In a lot of ways, The Horizon is about ideas , and the power they have to convince people to do things that were previously thought to be impossible. But it is also, equally if not more so, about the consequences of these ideas on other people and the burdens of leadership.

Mithila is basically an ordinary person, without any special powers or intellectual gifts. Except she is very charismatic and has this idea in her brain that "what if the wall didn't exist" that she can communicate in a convincing enough way that plunges the entire city into a civil war. However, Mithila isn't a born leader. In fact, she sucks at it and makes a lot of mistakes. She finds difficult to compromise with others until she receives a harsh reality check of the human costs of her actions and grows as a character.

New patterns of thoughtThere's also something interesting called the Sapir Whorf hypothesis in Linguistics which has been explored in other science fiction works, most famously Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life (more recently adapted for the screen as the 2016 movie Arrival )

It basically argues that the way a language is structured, affects the thoughts that a speaker can have and the ideas they can come up with.

In Sumer, the Wall determines language and society and how they think about things. For example: they don't have a word for sunrise! Instead the day starts with a "wallrise" because that's the time when the sun clears the wall.

In fact, the idea of a world without a wall is so alien that Mithila and her friends have to come up with new ways to think about it because their brains literally can't process it. Early in the novel, as Mithila is wandering beyond the wall, there is a beautiful scene where she comes across the sea for the first time, and her brain literally short circuits because she is seeing the horizon - (that until-then mythical idea the ever-present wall prevented her from seeing) for the first time.

I sometimes worry that I have become very jaded and cynical, but when I found myself sharing her sense of wonder - of seeing something new that you could have never imagined for the first time - for those few seconds I felt like a child again. And that was pretty great, actually.

About the Book

Check out the book on Amazon

(N Chandrasekhar Ramanujan is a product designer and researcher working in the tech sector. He is also a budding author, with a short story published in January 2019. He lives in Pondicherry. )

Published on December 08, 2021

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