August 7, 2022

Review: A Half-Built Garden

A Half-Built Garden A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a first contact novel unlike any I've read in ages, possibly ever. It has humans meeting aliens, but the meat of the story is the competing ideas and worldviews of the two, and the struggles of both to come to a solution. The aliens do not try to kill humans or take over the world. Far from it--they are here to save us, by their lights, and the central conflict is the protagonist and her friends standing up to say, "We appreciate your offered gift, but you must trust us when we say we don't want to be saved."

The story takes place sixty years in the future, on the far side of climate change when the efforts of decades to heal the planet finally seem to be coming to fruition. This results in a society radically different than the one we see today: a post-capitalism society, when the influence and rule of corporations (particularly the fossil-fuel industry) has been broken--indeed, the corporations and their followers have been exiled to their own floating islands--and the power of nation-states has been greatly reduced. The "dandelion networks" occupy environmentally sensitive or damaged areas and work to heal them, using the power of cooperation, consensus, and shared expertise through crowdsourcing. (In fact, in this future, the idea of private property rights must also be out of fashion, as the members of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Network don't actually say they own the area--they just live there and manage it.) Our protagonist, Judy Wallach-Stevens, is awakened one night by a sensor alarm in the bay, and she takes her wife and baby Dori with her to check it out. Within the first four pages Judy sees the spaceship that has landed on Bear Island in the bay, and the first chapter tells of the meeting between humans and Ringers, as they're named.

The Ringers have traveled a hundred and sixty light years (via an artificial wormhole device) to rescue humanity; the two species aboard the ship, the plains-folk and the tree-folk, left their own planets behind long ago. They insist that any civilization past a certain level of technology must leave their birth worlds behind and live in space. In their own system, they live in artificial habitats and are in the midst of a thousand-year project to construct a Dyson sphere around their star. They are here to help, and for a goodly part of the book they don't really care if humanity wants their help or not.

This clash of values and worldviews forms the essential conflict of the book, as humans and Ringers struggle to understand each other and reach a compromise. This is complicated by the intrusion and manipulation of the remnants of the exiled corporations, who are only too eager to accept the Ringers' offer and spread throughout the stars (and try to make as much profit as possible while doing so). But Judy, negotiating on behalf of the watersheds, insist that many humans don't want to leave Earth behind, especially when they are finally learning from their mistakes and beginning to heal their world.

The author's afterward calls this (half-facetiously, I think) "diaperpunk," as the Ringers place a high value on parents in their society and single out Judy as humanity's representative primarily because she came to them first with a baby. I'm not too fond of the trend of "punk"-ifying everything, but if we're going to stick such a label on this book, for my money it would be "philosophypunk." There are many meaty and substantive philosophical discussions in this book, as the various factions of humans and Ringers thrash out their differences, overcome their fears and prejudices, and at the end decide to form a new cross-species family to help both humans and Ringers.

This is not a beach read to rip through in a couple of days. It's a deep, thoughtful first contact story, emphasizing the values of cooperation and sharing over dominance and conquering. If you like your science fiction to be the SF of ideas, give this a try.

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