A literary descendent of Ursula K. Le Guin, Ruthanna Emrys crafts a novel of extra-terrestrial diplomacy and urgent climate repair bursting with quiet, tenuous hope and an underlying warmth. A Half-Built Garden depicts a world worth building towards, a humanity worth saving from itself, and an alien community worth entering with open arms. It's not the easiest future to build, but it's one that just might be in reach.
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 livable. 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.
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Emrys (the Innsmouth Legacy series) describes this ambitious near-future mix of climate fiction, first-contact sci-fi, and celebration of Jewish motherhood as her "diaperpunk novel." In a climate change–ravaged 2083, climate activist Judy Wallach-Stevens and her wife, Carol, live and coparent their infant, Dori, with couple Atheo and Dinar, who have a toddler of their own, Raven. This unconventional family are the first humans to encounter a group of galaxy-hopping aliens led by the insect-like First Mother Cytosine and her infants. The aliens want humanity to join them in symbiotic space, leaving behind an Earth they see as doomed—and they're willing to use force. But Judy and her family have put their all into saving the planet, agitating against greedy capitalistic corporations and with little help from much diminished national governments, and they're unwilling to give up on its future. Judy's hesitant attempts at diplomacy succeed as she and the aliens find common ground in shared experiences of child rearing and nursing. Along the way, Judy learns "a different, equally valuable sort of love" with an arachnoid alien. Emrys's optimistic vision of interspecies collaboration may strain belief for some readers. It's idealism carried to a light-years-away extreme, buoyed by children binding people together. The result is thought-provoking, if not wholly successful.
A Solar-Punk First-Contact Novel
“A Half-Built Garden” is a very different type of novel by Ruthanna Emrys. It could be classified as solar-punk as well as first contact. It’s set in 2083, and there has been a bottom-up ecological and social revolution. The Watersheds are the predominant organizations, and they seek to save the world from climate change and the legacy of pollution. National governments have become secondary, and corporations have been exiled to their enclaves where they maintain their own strange complex cultures. The world is improving slowly rather than getting worse, so humanity has reason for hope.
Then the two types of aliens arrive. They set their damaged starship down in Chesapeake Watershed, and begin broadcasting based on intercepted human signals. They are here to rescue us, as in their experience, sapient species must expand into space to survive. Those that do not leave their home worlds die along with those worlds when their technological evolution destroys the biosphere of their planets. They have followed electromagnetic signals to find two extinct species so far. Humanity is the first species they have found out of their home star system that is still living.
This is the crux of the novel, the aliens believe they have to save humanity from the ecological collapse of the Earth. Most of humanity has become dedicated to preventing that collapse, and believes it is making progress. Can these two ideologies and three species come to symbiosis?
First contact, but first, a nappy to change
This lovely book sidesteps the militarism and scientism that usually pervades first contact novels.
Instead it focuses on the family, on caring for each other and the world we live in. In this imagined future gender takes on new forms, and the old battles with the new as the protagonist struggle to deal with aliens and climate catastrophe alike.
This is my first book by Ruthanna. I found out about it on Schneier.com:
“In her remarkable novel A Half-Built Garden, imagines how AI might help people have better conversations and make better decisions—rather than taking advantage of these biases to maximize profits.”
I cannot wait to read it again.