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Wednesday, July 27, 2022

A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys (Reviewed by Daniel P. Haeusser)


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OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Ruthanna Emrys lives in a mysterious manor house on the outskirts of Washington, DC with her wife and their large, strange family. Her stories have appeared in a number of venues, including Strange Horizons, Analog, and She is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, which began with Winter Tide. She makes home-made vanilla, obsesses about game design, gives unsolicited advice, and occasionally attempts to save the world.
OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: On a warm March night in 2083, Judy Wallach-Stevens wakes to a warning of unknown pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay. She heads out to check what she expects to be a false alarm—and stumbles upon the first alien visitors to Earth. These aliens have crossed the galaxy to save humanity, convinced that the people of Earth must leave their ecologically-ravaged planet behind and join them among the stars. And if humanity doesn't agree, they may need to be saved by force.
But the watershed networks that rose up to save the planet from corporate devastation aren't ready to give up on Earth. Decades ago, they reorganized humanity around the hope of keeping the world liveable. By sharing the burden of decision-making, they've started to heal our wounded planet.
Now corporations, nation-states, and networks all vie to represent humanity to these powerful new beings, and if anyone accepts the aliens' offer, Earth may be lost. With everyone’s eyes turned skyward, the future hinges on Judy's effort to create understanding, both within and beyond her own species.
FORMAT/INFO: A Half-Built Garden consists of forty-four chapters, from the first-person point of view of protagonist Judy Wallach-Stevens, with three brief interludes and an epilogue written from the third-person perspective of secondary characters.
The novel is published by Tordotcom on 26th July 2022 in a hardcover edition of 352 pages, as well as in ebook and audio formats.
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The official blurb above does a great job summarizing the plot of A Half-Built Garden. However, that plot is largely a framework for the sociopolitical explorations at the heart of the novel. In simplest terms, the novel is about family: its constitution, dynamics, and strengths.

This becomes clear to readers from the opening pages, with the first contact between humans and aliens. Judy doesn’t arrive at the alien landing site alone. She’s joined by her wife Carol, and their infant daughter, the latter who was already up from the typical irregular sleeping schedule of babies. They approach the palace-like spacecraft with Judy nursing to calm the baby. The alien who comes out to greet humanity likewise has smaller versions of herself clinging to her body. First contact is a meeting of motherhood, with soft infant cries of curiosity and delight replacing the stereotypical “We come in peace (shoot to kill)” or “Take me to your leader.”

Readers soon learn that family, and offspring, are key to the alien’s philosophy of diplomacy and trust. What better way to face an uncertain meeting than with both parties bearing young that paradoxically symbolize vulnerability and strength. A reminder to both sides of what is biologically, and socially, invaluable and dear. And also, unpredictable little bundles that can diffuse the tensest of standoffs with a babble, burp, or gentle reach. Pure innocence.

The aliens have come out of concern for humanity (sentient life in general), excitedly explaining that all other technologically advanced civilizations that they’ve detected had been found extinct by the time they reached them. They explain how they have learned that planets are mere breeding burrows for technological species: places not meant to stay once reaching maturity. The aliens have found their balance and ability to survive with technology by going to the stars, living in ships and fabricated environments of Dyson Spheres. They want to help humanity survive. Because they are lonely, and crave interaction that could bring humanity into their fold – their family.

Of course, this is not easy. Some humans, like Judy and Carol and the others of the water networks around Earth do not want to leave. They believe that humanity has turned the corner in its relationship to the environment and are convinced that a balance can be struck that permits some technological use by humans while still preserving ecological health. And moreover, they are convinced that the Earth and its ecologies are all central to humanity – a part of the family as it were, that we have to keep trying to live among, not flee. They view the aliens as new partners that may be able to help in that, and who they might in turn help by forging reconnections with living planets, not just technological/biological constructs in space.

Other humans, however, the fragments of nation-states, and the remnants of corporations that have fled/been exiled to island communities, are more receptive to the idea of departing Earth. And they see view the aliens as opportunities fitting more in line with their outlook on life and human destiny. Each of these three groups of humanity are like their own separate families of traditions and beliefs, in competition, but also now being forced to cooperate in alien diplomacy.

Emrys does not just fill A Half-Built Garden with focus on these political, or governmental ‘families’ of humanity, but also dives deeply into the institution of actual families within each of the three separate societies. Readers learn early on that Judy and Carol and their daughter share a household with another couple and child, a cis-woman, a trans-man, and their nonbinary toddler. Later, we learn that corporation societies keep their family situations extremely private, but have a complex system of gender identification (and pronoun use) that varies according to stylistic signs and the ability of a given person to perceive their current state or not.

A large part of A Half-Built Garden explores concepts of gender, with Judy and other characters frequently trying to understand and navigate the labels and conventions of both the other human societies that sit apart from the water networks, and the aliens. This element becomes such a huge focus particularly in the middle of the novel, which takes place on a corporate ‘aisland’. It also starts to bog down the pace of the novel, with Judy’s fish-out-of-water confusion compounding on the reader.

However, I understand why Emry’s puts such focus on this element of gender. It’s a central theme to the novel within this realm of ‘family’. Family (or symbiosis as it is put often in the novel in a sociological, more than biological, sense) is built on the balance between cooperation and conflict. Living together with one shared goal means individuals will disagree and fight, but what becomes supremely important is that everyone should be respected. The gender politics of A Half-Built Garden are just one manifestation of the familial diplomacy at play in the novel, paralleling the politics of whether humanity should be ‘forced’ to leave its planet of birth or if there is choice to be respected in the matter, even if it doesn’t make logical sense to the other party. Such familial diplomacy conflict is also manifest in the plot through attempts by the corporate faction to sabotage the communication network of the watersheds and steal interaction with the aliens for themselves.

They myriad forms of these themes in the novel means it doesn’t really need to focus quite so much on the topic of gender as it does. The fact that speculative fiction has already done a lot with this from Le Guin to Delany to Leckie makes it seem a bit much here as well. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying it should be an absent theme. It’s an important one for this specific novel, and in literature in general. It’s just brought up a lot here.

What Emrys does incorporate into A Half-Built Garden, within the familial diplomacy umbrella, with more of a feeling of uniqueness are elements of sexuality. Or perhaps alternative ways of loving or eroticism would be more apt. The novel explores the variety of ways that humans and aliens alike might choose to interact within that realm of emotional connection. Within each group, and even cross-species. It’s a fascinating manifestation of that cooperation/conflict balance that Emrys is addressing here in the novel, with those principles of mutual curiosity and respect among those participants who are trying to forge a new connection.

Another thing that I adored seeing in A Half-Built Garden is the fact that the aliens are just as diverse and conflicted as humanity. The aliens are actually two distinct species from separate, neighbor planets, that came together off their home-worlds into the stars in a ‘symbiosis’ that took a long time to forge. In this way, humans would be the third added to the family. Despite the alien species partnership, the two are still very unique physically and in personality. And within each species, individuals are of different minds on how to deal with humanity.

The complexity of this first contact situation then is that a union is being forged between three species, each of which has its own prior histories and assumptions, each of which is composed of differing factions, and each of those factions filled with individual minds and agency. A blazing symbol of ecological ‘hierarchy’: individuals, populations, communities, ecosystem. If balance can’t be found with our planet, how can we ever expect to find balance with other intelligent life?

I don’t want to spoil how things wrap up in this complex novel, but I do want to note how much I also appreciated Emrys’ use of religion as an aspect of tradition that could forge cooperation. It’s not a typical way of looking at religion, which most often is seen as exclusionary, and not welcoming, unfortunately. In this case the religion is Judaism, and a Passover Seder is used to tie the familial diplomacy all together with the novel’s plot to achieve resolution. And it’s just perfect.

Readers looking for more speculative details on how humanity has turned the corner from climate change to begin healing with the Earth may be disappointed in the lack of specifics here. However, Emrys does have a lot of speculative detail on the communication technology used by watersheds, and this – along with some light touches on language/syntax – give A Half-Built Garden a distinct feel of being near future.

Though a compelling take on first contact, the novel is likely to most appeal to readers who are interested in the sociopolitical threads that hold that plot together. There is a gentle warmth and optimism to A Half-Built Garden that really highlights the love and respect that should be at the heart of our lives, shared together.
CONCLUSION: Using a first-contact plot and speculative themes of ecology, Ruthanna Emrys explores the politics of human interactions in A Half-Built Garden. The novel delves deeply into elements of gender, sexuality, and diplomacy, tackling the balances of discord and harmony, competition and cooperation, that go into the institution of government and family. Some readers may feel the novel lacks concrete details of its speculative world in terms of how humanity achieves an ecological turn for the better. However, Emrys does significantly develop speculative details of communication technology, and brings greatest focus to explorations of sociological possibilities Though pacing struggles in its middle, its captivating opening and its incisive conclusion make A Half-Built Garden a successful and significant novel in the first-contact subgenre and speculative literature in general.



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