50 pages • 1 hour readJohn Lanchester
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John Lanchester’s The Wall (2019) is dystopian cli-fi (climate science fiction) novel set in a near-future in which severe weather events and rising sea levels destroyed all the shores in the world and created a refugee crisis in countries of the Global South. The United Kingdom’s response is the ethically-dubious decision to build a Wall and to kill or press into labor people who make it there. Defenders like the protagonist, Joseph Kavanagh, are tasked with holding the Wall. Part of a burgeoning body of work focused on the societal and psychological implications of climate change, The Wall presents a bleak, dystopian future in which the characters’ storytelling is the only bulwark against despair.
John Lanchester is a British journalist who writes nonfiction on topics such as end-stage capitalism and finance. The Wall is his fifth novel and was longlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction. This guide is based on the 2019 Norton Kindle edition.
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The Wall is narrated in the first person by its protagonist, Joseph Kavanagh. Joseph is a young Englishman. He lives in a world that is beginning to experience the severe effects of climate change. The United Kingdom has built a wall around itself as a measure against rising sea levels and to keep out desperate climate refugees, called Others. Joseph is serving his first two-year tour on the Wall as a Defender. From the Captain, his stoic commander, he learns the basics of Wall defense: Stay warm, stay vigilant during the 12-hour watch shifts, follow all guidelines to the letter, and kill all Others on sight. If the Defender fails to prevent Others from making it to the other side of the Wall, the Defender will be put out to sea.
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Being put out to sea is a potent punishment. The North Atlantic and other bodies of water are dangerous places because of severe weather, pirates, and the lack of fresh drinking water. There is no hope of escaping to another place once you are put out to sea, as the rise in sea level has destroyed all the coastlines. In place of shores, there are sheer cliffs. Joseph joined the Defenders because there was little else to do inland, and like many of his peers, he holds older civilians responsible for the state of the world and the environment.
Adjusting to life on the Wall is difficult, but Joseph meets Hifa, a fellow Defender for whom he feels a growing attraction. After several weeks of exhaustion, Joseph begins to feel more confident in his abilities as a Defender. Life at the Wall is ordered and makes sense.
Joseph gets his first leave. As he rides home, he feels close to his rowdy peers, whom civilians fear and avoid, as Defenders’ regular encounters with life-or-death situations make them fearless and dangerous. The trip home is painful. Joseph feels alienated from his parents and angry with them because they let climate change go unchecked. Joseph grows even closer to his shift mates when they go on a camping trip, complete with unpaid labor called Help, who are Others allowed to stay in the United Kingdom in exchange for lifetime servitude. He begins to think that maybe he can aspire to be more than just a Defender.
Joseph and his company go away from the Wall for a training exercise in which the company splits into two, with each side assuming the role of the Others in turn. Joseph’s shift manages to sneak many assumed Others over the Wall during their exercise, but being on the losing end when the other side does the same makes Joseph wonder if Others and Defenders are so different after all. He also learns that the Captain was once an Other, back in the days when having in-demand skills still allowed a path to citizenship. The Captain is on his fourth tour, likely because of the perks and benefits it brings to his family.
A visit from James, a young, inexperienced politician, lets Joseph see up close what the elites look like, and Joseph is not impressed. James spouts platitudes about the menial but necessary work the Defenders do, but he also warns them that there is a network of United Kingdom citizens who believe Others deserve asylum; these dissidents help Others by providing them with the implanted chips that will allow them to pass as citizens.
Joseph’s relationship with Hifa progresses. He is wounded during an attack by the Others. In the aftermath, he and Hifa decide to become Breeders—people who have children to become laborers at the Wall in exchange for benefits and perks, including less time at the Wall. James shows up again to award the company medals for their defense of the Wall. It becomes clearer to Joseph that although he wants to be an elite, most elites are no better than the average Defender. Joseph, Hifa, and the others move to a northern post on the Wall, where attacks almost never happen because it is too cold and too far for most Others to make it there.
However, a group of Others overwhelms Joseph and several of the other Defenders with help from the Captain. The Captain has planned and plotted for 10 years to help the large group of Others make it over the Wall. The success of the plot is unprecedented. The Defenders who survived the attack, including Joseph and Hifa; the politician James; and the Captain are all put out to sea on a raft with a few weeks of food and water. They avoid pirates on the first few nights and eventually find shelter with a floating community that is protected in a lea of an island; they cannot hope to live on the island because there is no shore. Joseph finds relief and purpose as a diver, securing edible seaweed and scallops.
Pirates raid the floating community, killing many of its members. James sets the pirate ship and the floating community on fire when he throws a grenade during the confrontation. Joseph and Hifa cut themselves loose, but they drift too far to reconnect with the remnants of the floating community. Luck saves them. They float toward an old oil and gas rig. The occupant—a hermit who is so isolated and traumatized that he is incapable of speech—saves them by lowering telescoping ladders that are the only means of entering the installation. Inside the installation are furniture, food stores, and carbon-based fuel—oil and gas—enough to last a long time. Joseph and Hifa take one risky trip down to get the last of their meager supplies from the boat, then retreat to the installation, where they set up house, and Joseph tells Hifa his own story to soothe her to sleep.