Gautam Bhatia’s debut novel The Wall (Harper Collins, 2020) is set in Sumer, a city enclosed in an impenetrable, unscalable barrier that seems sky high. To its inhabitants, whose ancestors have lived there for 2,000 years, the place is more than a city or even a country—it’s their universe.
Sumer’s residents know something is on the other side but have no desire to explore beyond the wall. They are content with what they have, living comfortably with the resources, rules and hierarchies that have sustained them for centuries.
But every couple generations, some people crave more. In this generation, a group calling themselves the Young Tarafians are determined to breach the wall once and for all.
“It’s not that there is some kind of very visible and wretched oppression that’s keeping people down,” Bhatia tells me in the new episode of New Books in Science Fiction. “At the end of the day, the resources are distributed in a way that everyone has enough for at least a decent standard of life. So it’s not meant to be a dystopia, and that’s part of the point. … Rebellion need not only come from a situation of desperation … but you still may want to rebel and alter things.”
When the troika of powers that rule Sumer—the civil government, the scientists and the religious elite—prosecute the Young Tarafians’ eloquent leader, a young queer woman named Mithila, each side has an opportunity to make their case.
“It’s actually taking a great risk by going beyond the wall. And for what? That makes the conflict between those who want to go beyond the wall and those who want to stay a much harder conflict to resolve,” says Bhatia, who is a lawyer and constitutional scholar. “Both sides have good arguments. It shouldn’t be a very clear binary between who’s right or wrong.”