Coding Worlds

Good science fiction depends upon good world-building. In particular, science fiction that imagines alternate ways of living, or alternate societies, must grapple with questions of social organization.

This is where the law becomes central to world-building. Laws both shape and are shaped by, society. Fundamental questions of how resources will be produced and distributed, the relationships between different classes, and the governance of social life (within the family, between genders, and so on) all find expressions in a society’s legal code.

 Much of this, of course, is invisible. An imagined world full of lawyers would be a dull world indeed. But, like plumbing, it is invisible but necessary: without it, the imagined world would collapse, or at least, look, sound, and feel wildly implausible.

When I set out to write The Wall, I had to confront multiple challenges of world-building. The story is set within a circular city called Sumer, which is surrounded on all sides by a very high wall, that nobody has ever crossed. In technical terms, this is a “semi-closed system”: apart from air and water, all other resources are present in limited quantities (just enough for survival), and their exhaustion would result in severe distress (and even possible extinction) for the citizens of Sumer.

 The handling of these resources would have to be firmly policed so that they would be able to renew themselves even as they were consumed. Sumer’s laws would have to reflect this induced scarcity, and their very existence, in turn, would cause social conflict. In The Wall, these laws take the form of harvest quotas and appropriation of farmland to produce by landlords, which – in times of a bad harvest – spur protests from farmers, and proposals for an alternative, and more equal systems, of food production and distribution. My reading of the history of Enclosure Laws in England, and agrarian reform movements in world history, from the Roman Republic to post-Independence Kerala, was greatly useful in thinking through this.

In a world within a Wall, with scarce recourses and constrained physical space, overpopulation would be a constant political and economic concern. This would, of course, be reflected in straightforward laws, such as population caps. But it would have deeper impacts as well: there would be no basis for the obsessive fear that many societies have had for homosexuality (or other forms of non-procreative relationships), and so, there would be no laws criminalizing sexual orientation (sexual orientation would cease to be salient in the first place).

These are some of the examples – economic and social – in which laws intersect with daily life, and how world-building for something like Sumer required me to pay close attention to the law. But having engaged with the law for so many years, there is one other thing that I know: the law has been, is, and always will be a terrain of power. Law grants power to some takes it away from others, and for that reason, is a perpetual site of contestation. The process of law-making and of legal change, therefore, is a process of conflict: every legal change takes power from some and gives it to others (it may be a democratic change, or – as is more often the case, unfortunately, a change that concentrates power further). In Sumer, with its small and constrained physical space, these conflicts are sharpened, and the stakes are heightened: they shape contestation around the land, around marriage, and around the most basic question – are the citizens of Sumer permitted to go beyond the Wall?

The Wall, I promise you, is not a novel about the law. Nor is it legal science fiction, or science fiction from a legal perspective. It is, first and foremost, a science fiction novel, written by a science fiction fan of two decades or more, and is meant to be read as such. But in reading it, from time to time, the ways in which law forms the warp and weft of our world – and how it can be unwoven and re-woven in a more just design – may peer through the cracks. I hope you find The Wall richer for that.

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