• Quirk NLS

Beyond the Walls of Law School: A Foray into Science Fiction with Gautam Bhatia

Gautam Bhatia is an alumnus of NLS (Batch of 2011), Oxford (where he read for the BCL and MPhil as a Rhodes Scholar, and is currently pursuing his DPhil) and Yale. He is known for being a practicing advocate at the Indian Bar and being part of the legal teams involved in several landmark cases. He also runs a constitutional law blog; has previously authored the books ‘Offend, Shock, or Disturb: Freedom of Speech under the Indian Constitution’ and ‘The Transformative Constitution‘; reviews and edits for the  magazine Strange Horizons; and now has his first speculative fiction novel, ‘The Wall’, releasing on August 13, 2020.

The novel is currently available for pre-order. Quirk has done an exclusive interview with him to hear more about the book (promise – no spoilers!), his journey as an author, tips to those looking to undertake this journey, and last but not the least, a fun question at the end!

This interview was conducted by Jwalika Balaji (Batch of 2023), Rhea Prasad (Batch of 2024), Smriti Kalra (Batch of 2021) and V Ashish (Batch of 2024).

Q: When did you start writing ‘The Wall’ and what motivated you to write it?

GB: I actually began writing it in law school, many, many years ago – in 2008. I was in 3rd year of college and although it initially began as a short story, I realised there were many ideas that could not be adequately resolved within a short story, so I expanded it. The first draft was finished sometime in my 4th year. I made a couple of revisions towards the end of college and when I was at Oxford for my masters. After that, it just temporarily got suspended because once you’re practicing, it’s a very totalising kind of life. So, unless you have strong reasons to finish something, it ends up getting cast aside. For about 4 or 5 years, it was somewhere in the drafts on my laptop — I didn’t really spend any time on it, and then back in 2018, it got finished finally and it’s coming out now! So, it’s been a 12-year long journey, with a 6-year long hiatus in the middle.

Q: Can you tell us anything more about the book, without giving any spoilers? Also, we read that it’s part of a series, so can you tell us something about the series as a whole?

GB: It’s a two-book series. The premise is that there exists a wall, which is a literal physical wall. It’s neither a metaphor nor an allegory, although I am sure people will find both in it because that’s what science fiction readers always do! This wall surrounds the city, and it’s an extremely high wall that nobody in the history of the city has ever gone beyond. No one knows what exists on the outside, and of course, there is a whole range of origins, myths, stories, ideas trying to explain why the wall exists and what’s beyond it. There’s also a very strong religious group which considers it sacred and frowns upon any attempts to go beyond it, as they think it is sacrilegious. The actual story is centred around a group of people who do finally want to go beyond the wall and find out what’s beyond it, and there are various obstacles and barriers that come in their way — not least from the citizens of the city who think the life inside the wall is pretty okay, and that an abstract idea is not worth so much upheaval. The book explores that dynamic and these people’s attempts to find the way beyond the wall. Without giving away any spoilers, that’s the premise.

And of course, it requires a fairly detailed bit of complex world-building because what you’re dealing with is a semi-closed system where apart from water (coming from an underground system) and air, every other resource is constrained. So issues of food, other material goods such as linen for clothes, iron for implements, wood & bamboo for housing — you need to live in a way that accounts for the exhaustible nature of these resources. So that leads to some questions about how you would allocate the resources and what kinds of social structures would come up in such a world. For me, that’s always been the fascination with science fiction — exploring how material changes impact societal changes which in turn gives you insights into human nature.

Q: So building up on that, while we understand that it is set in a completely different time and space. In the city of Sumer, what are messages that you want the readers to walk away with once they read the book — in terms of the parallels that you would want them to draw with the contemporary context and political situation that we live in?

GB: I’m very hesitant about ‘messages’. I don’t think the task of a novel is to necessarily send messages. Tolkien famously said that he heavily dislikes allegory [1] and I am in his camp on that. I think the author’s task is to tell a good story which people can enjoy.

In my book, I’d say it’s more about the themes that it explores through the story itself. One of the themes is how we come to accept society and its often self-imposed limitations. For instance, an economic theory that tells you to always have a balanced budget and that deficits are bad — we always get into these kinds of structures of belief that place limitations on what you think is possible. In this case, there is a literal limitation in the form of a wall. So that is one of the themes besides the limits which we think or imagine that we can’t go beyond. Second is, of course, the role language plays in reinforcing these beliefs and constructing the world around us. One of the themes of this book (well, it’s not a spoiler as it comes in Chapter 2, so I’d be safe in giving it away) is that certain words have no meaning in a world which is bound by a wall – like the word ‘horizon’. So, you can’t even imagine what a horizon would mean. Is it possible for you to see it? If you were able to, you would think less about these limitations around you, right? How one can work with language to construct alternative ways of seeing is one of the major themes in my book.

Q. Another question, more related to the writing itself, and related to the science fiction, what would you put more emphasis on — would it be on the characters that reside in the world or the world itself? Who would you pick to tell the story with, who would you pick to have more emphasis on?

GB: I think that depends entirely on what it is that you’re trying to do. As a writer, I think you can choose to focus on either or both, but for both aspects you need to achieve a basic threshold that makes a story plausible. I think I tried to write a book which was driven by both, so I wouldn’t ask readers to focus on either [to the detriment of the other]. Given the kind of story, it required a lot of complex world-building — like how does the world survive and exist in this bounded kind of system. So that required a lot of research, even on minor things like ‘what sort of plants are self-pollinating?’, because you have no bees in this world! So if you put in a non-self pollinating plant, you’ve messed up that world! [3] Research on basic things like that in order to build internal consistency within the world required a lot of time, but it is integral.

Q: We’ve seen that you’ve dabbled quite a bit in science fiction, from an early piece you wrote for Quirk to Strange Horizons. What got you interested in the genre, and what science fiction writers and books do you take inspiration from, or consider your favourite?

GB: My interest developed very early on because of my parents, who are big fans of science fiction. They had these massive collections of short stories and novels from the 1950s and 1960s, which I grew up reading. I was struck by the imagination and the construction of worlds. When I was in Class 5 or 6, my parents gave me a copy of The Hobbit. One year later, I read Asimov’s Foundation. Asimov is a much more controversial figure now because of sexual harassment issues, and many other things. There’s also an intense debate about reclaiming the genre from a very particular white American sensibility. All of that is of course very valid, but my own journey involved being fascinated by Asimov’s Foundation when I was 12. Another early influence was Ursula Le Guin’s work, like the Dispossessed and the Left Hand of Darkness, and Roger Zelazny’s novels, which were quite mainstream at that time. [2]

When I joined Strange Horizons four years ago, it was like coming into a new world because I was suddenly exposed to contemporary speculative fiction that I wouldn’t otherwise have known about. That’s when I really got to understand the true extent of diversity and how plural the genre is now and the sheer breadth and scope of the people who work in it. And I think that was the second awakening into speculative fiction and my own writing. So yeah, I think it started over two periods, the first being the mainstream canon I accessed as a kid, and second, learning about contemporary speculative fiction, and how wonderful it is and the sheer range of ideas put into it.

There’s also a lot of good Indian spec-fic work coming out in recent years — Tashan Mehta’s The Liar’s Weave, which I really enjoyed, Samit Basu’s new book The Chosen Spirits came out earlier this year, featuring a near-future Delhi — again, very enjoyable. So there’s a lot of good stuff going on in India as well I think in a way that wasn’t there a few years ago.

Q: What advice would you have for any budding authors or authors looking to branch into fiction writing? And do you think being a lawyer and being in Law School helped or impeded you with this entire process?

GB: Well, I can only speak for speculative fiction and not mainstream fiction. I think I’m going to go with the old cliched answer — to write, you have to first read more and more — especially magazines like Strange Horizons, FIYAH, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, The Mithila Review, Apex Magazine, Locus, Uncanny, Interzone, and so on, so you have a sense of what is happening in the genre. Starting off with short stories is also a good way because all these magazines have submission windows to encourage you to write and unlike with novels, you don’t need agents.[4]

As for whether being a lawyer helps? Actually no, it doesn’t, and personally, I had to unlearn a whole bunch of things — as a lawyer, you are used to writing in a very austere, direct, terse way of writing that isn’t always helpful in fiction. However, being a lawyer does help you to know how laws structure society and this gives you an insight into world-building. But beyond that, for me at least, they’re two very different things.

Q: On the topic of your writing process — what do you do if you find yourself with a writer’s block and how do you deal with criticism or bad feedback to a writing piece?

GB: On writer’s block, I know this advice may not work for everyone but it’s the only thing that works for me — you just have to sit at your desk, with your laptop on, file open, and if it’s not happening, don’t force it but just sit there until it happens! And I’ve had these days where I’ve sat for hours and not a word and then I just have to come back again the next day and keep going until it comes.

I haven’t yet had bad feedback because the book isn’t out yet, so I am still to hear what people have to say about it. Like any other sci-fi writer, I’ve workshopped parts of the novel before it was published, and it went through multiple editorial rounds. You kind of get hardened during that process and you get pretty blunt feedback on stuff that isn’t working out and you understand that the point of negative feedback is to make you understand what isn’t working, and work on it. I think there is a difference between bluntly critical feedback and nasty, vicious stuff. I think the distinction is that blunt feedback is like “this is not working, this is why it’s not working, this is what you could think of to make it work”. Nasty or vicious feedback is like “this sucks” and I think that has no value. So, if someone says that — just ignore it, because clearly it’s not coming from a place of good faith. I think that’s true for reviewing in general. To take a very, very bad analogy using some law, basically it ‘s fair comment and defamation, right? You’re commenting on something, but at the same time for it to not be defamation, for it to be a fair comment, you’re laying out the factual basis of what you’re basing your comment on. In this way, the reader has access to both the facts, and your views on them, and not just your views. I think that is what you’ve got to do when you’re reviewing. If the review doesn’t have that, then you should just move on with your life.

So if there’s something I haven’t liked in a book and I’m reviewing it, I first make the point to say okay, this is what worked for me in the book. Because there is no book which is so bad that nothing works in it, right? And then I say, okay, I can see what the author was trying to do, but they couldn’t pull it off, in my view —which is open to disagreement — and what the reasons are for it not working out. The reader can then choose to disagree or agree with you on that. I think the criticism has to take that form, where you can be clear that look, these are your views, your views are informed by these ideas, you lay it out all before the reader.

Q: Our next question is about time management! As a practicing lawyer who runs 2-3 blogs, an Instagram page, reviews books, writes books amongst several other things that you do, how did you find the time to write this?

GB: You have to basically ring-fence time. By that I mean that there must be a schedule you follow that specifically sets apart time for things that you have to do. So for me, for this novel, it was basically post dinner, post 8:30 PM was devoted to writing this and that would exist no matter what else is happening in life, and if I had like work deadlines or if I had like a submission or something, I would just stop at 8:00 PM and I wouldn’t go beyond that. That’s not always possible in litigation and I think it’s no wonder that I was able to finish this only after I was temporarily out of practice and starting a PhD. And so, I do understand constraints, but I think that ultimately that is the only way — otherwise the main thing you do, whether it’s like litigation, whether it’s like legal research, whether its law school project submissions or whatever it is, that just expands to take up your entire day.

So you have to say that, okay look, I have a number of hours in the day I will dedicate to law which is a profession that I’m involved in and that does not mean I’ll do it for like twelve hours a day. I will, say, do 8 hours a day starting at so and so time ending at so and so time and that’s it. That will mean that you may not be that amazing Senior Counsel who has like 15 matters a day in the Supreme Court and is revered as a great lawyer, or you may not then become a law firm partner at the age of 35. It’s an unreasonable demand that the profession makes of us. So in terms of tangible career advancement you may have to take a hit if you want to have literature into your life and that’s a choice that everyone has to make about what interests them more and there’s no judgement here. I just think that if you want to do multiple things then you can’t be having this situation where your entire day is colonized by law and that’s all you’re doing. But without the hard stop that will happen.

Q: For our last and final interview question, we’d like to ask a more fun one! If you could introduce a sci-fi concept in law school, what would it be?

GB: Ooh that’s a tough one. I’m not going to give an easy answer like a time machine to finish projects or an invisibility cloak to sleep in class or something like that — that would be really boring and tedious!

I am presently reading Iain M. Bank’s Culture series which is set in a far-future universe with no resource scarcity and post any kind of division of labour that requires capitalist social relations. In that world for obvious reasons you no longer require a capitalist legal structure. So, I would have that sort of world in which you would just be able to abolish all law courses that are implicated in that structure because these laws wouldn’t exist anymore — starting with corporate law and moving on to insurance, banking, and consumer protection laws that presume the existence of capitalist structures. We would still require laws of course, and you would require law schools to teach the law, but that law would be very different, so yeah, that would be my answer!

 

[1] “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.”

[2] Apart from recommending these to anyone who wants a gateway into speculative fiction, Gautam Bhatia would also recommend the novella a ‘Word for World is Forest’. His other recommendations include this year’s Hugo winner, ‘A Memory Called Empire’ by Arkady Martine – which explores themes around the empire, colonialism and so on in a very critical and advanced way; Tamsin Muir’s ‘Gideon the Ninth’ which came out last year and has a very recent sequel too, representing the best amongst this genre; ‘A Planet for Rent’ by Cuban sci-fi writer/punk rocker/chemical engineer called Yoss which is a bunch of short stories where Earth has been colonised by a much more advanced alien species and basically becomes like a holiday resort – forming a very sad and haunting set of short stories about what it means to be colonized from the other end. For further recommendations, do check out his Goodreads account!

[3] This point was brought to my attention by my dear friend Naomi, who’s had a massive influence on the final version of the book.

[4] GB: “There are a whole bunch of writing workshops but they’re very expensive and we don’t have access to them in India – Clarion West, Odyssey, and so on based in the US. I do know Indians who have gone there and had access to them, but it is quite difficult to start in the US.”