Speculative Fiction Books

Sailing towards the horizon: Review of Gautam Bhatia’s ‘The Horizon’

Astronaut walking on the street. This is entirely 3D generated image. LR and SM

As visual media hijack shrinking attention spans, modern-day writers, forced to compete for survival, opt for motion-picture-like storytelling formats with a jackrabbiting cadence. Gautam Bhatia steers clear of the pitfall this poses for literature — in The Horizon , sequel to The Wall , he eases new readers into the complex universe of The Chronicles of Sumer through a narrative full of gravitas and a charismatic kind of solipsism. The layered story unfolds at a pacy gait underpinned by a cinematic feel and lively repartee between characters.

The series has the usual tropes of speculative fiction (SF) — revolutionism, sociopolitical churn, allegory, world-building (including

etymologically-sound nomenclature and other markers of a historied fictional civilisation), alchemy, metaphysics. A quick synopsis: Sumer, a walled and self-contained city, is a strictly controlled pre-industrial society stratified by labour and governed by propaganda, which is reinforced by strong-arm methods and preserved through secrecy. Its citizens consist of a conservative faction intent on maintaining the status quo; a group of radical idealists determined to remake their world; and a general populace too busy fulfilling its duties to be of any relevance to the narrative. Just like our world.

Within the broad category of SF, the book is versatile in its scope in terms of genre and tone. Providing chills and thrills are action-packed battle scenes, stunts and dynamic PoV sequences; the solace of poetry is available almost at every turn of the page; philosophical arguments over social and civic reform serve as a throwback to the Greek agorae that birthed the Socratic method and promoted democratic discourse; emotionally-charged relationships frayed by the intensity of their bonds add spice and make the characters relatable; strategic machinations, fluctuating allegiances, inscrutable motives keep readers on their toes; scientifically plausible alchemical magic punctuates depictions of warped reality to remind us that it is a fantasy novel after all. At times, the dialogues strike you as overly self-indulgent and self-important before you remember the high stakes involved.

Scoring high

The very purpose of SF is to reimagine the workings of the real world through the prism of alternative realities, wherein the author and readers can together engage in thought experiments and dissect their ramifications in the safety of a hypothetical environment. The book scores high on this front. Past literary works and historical archetypes lend credibility and a frame of reference to any SF work — the challenge for writers is to decide on the degree of intertextuality and eclecticism. But Bhatia has painstakingly constructed an intricate and cogent world in its own right.

Bhatia himself lists the bibliographical references used in the novel. The series also seems to draw inspiration from venerable works of SF — in the idea of venturing beyond the perimeter of the known world to transcend one’s existential binds, there’s a parallel to The Truman Show ; in the idea of martyring oneself to save one’s people, there’s a link to what drove the cosmonauts in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar ; the medieval cityscape governed by an elite power centre is reminiscent of King’s Landing from Game of Thrones (including a shout-out disguised as battle cry, “For the Wall!”). The scenes of vociferous debates among Sumer’s policymakers trading barbs and biases pay direct homage to the sessions regularly telecast on Sansad TV.

Have you ever wondered about the boundary between Being and Nothingness? The immutable wall of Sumer sheltering and sequestering its inhabitants from the unknown world beyond serves as an exciting microcosm of this idea. If the axiom of Time can be viewed as an emergent construct (the poets of Sumer seem to reimagine it as an architectural feature manufactured by the divine ‘Builders’ and subject to collapse as such), the notion of Nothingness can be conceived and befriended. That’s a nice piece of metaphysics to chew on and a worthy distraction from all the earthly bickering that goes on, on this side of the wall.

The Horizon; Gautam Bhatia, HarperCollins India, ₹499


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Printable version | May 8, 2022 5:16:15 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/books/sailing-towards-the-horizon-review-of-gautam-bhatias-the-horizon/article64825683.ece