Record heat waves are starting to rear their ugly heads. Food shortages, through a combination of war, finance and climate change are featured news on the daily. It’s easy to retreat from a world on the brink and cozy up with a book…about climate change. But rarely does our climate science fiction feel more than just a setting. I realize I am still a baby as I tread these murky waters, but goddamn does it not hit when it really needs to. Which is why Ruthanna Emrys’ latest novel, A Half-Built Garden, became my top anticipated release. And not only did it not disappoint, it’s one of the rare books where climate change is the story, not just a part of it.
Judy Wallach-Stevens wears many hats as a member of the Chesapeake Watershed. She mostly practices bio-chemistry, ensuring that the toxin levels within the waters of her region do not spike, and if they do she knows how to handle it. One night she receives an odd reading, showing a near continuous stream of unanticipated effluents triggering one of her many monitors. Along with her wife and newborn daughter, they set out to investigate. Once they arrive, they find something even more unexpected, an alien spaceship. Luckily for her, the aliens are already well versed in English and immediately strike up a dialogue. Unfortunately for her, negotiator is not one of Judy’s preferred skills, but she lands the part anyway. Cytosine, the apparent leader of the off-world visitors, has just informed her that they intend to help humanity to the stars and leave Earth behind. However, Judy is not sure she wants to leave, having spent her entire life helping to restore the ecosystems of the Earth and they are just reaching the tipping point. However, it may not be up to her and the other members of the Chesapeake Watershed as the US Government and the exiled Corporations start to make their case to the Ringers. Can Judy and the watersheds convince the Ringers that Earth is worth saving, or will the Ringers make humanity leave Earth once and for all?
A Half-Built Garden is one of the most deliberate books I have read in a long time. Every aspect of it feels thoroughly thought through and explored with a level of detail Goldilocks would devour. Emrys really put the work into imagining a future that is in the process of tackling the myriad ways our society has polluted the Earth. It’s not just technology and will power that make up this world, it’s societal transformations and political upheavals. Granted, not a whole lot of that occurs within the time frame of the novel itself, but the history bleeds off the pages. This certainly makes for a dense read, but Emrys uses her 350 pages to maximum effect. Every word is unwasted and every sentence feels perfectly ground down to fit in its place. It forces the reader to take their time and really soak in the world, learning from it, instead of just consuming it.
Honestly, it’s hard to talk about this book as if it were just another novel. Does it have a story? Yes. Does it feature well realized characters that feel like they live full lives both inside and out? Absolutely! Is the worldbuilding organic to the point that you can almost reach out and touch it? One hundred percent. While all of these things are full, present, and stand on their own, they feel in service to something greater than the sum of their parts. It’s not just that Emrys uses new words to explain new ideas, it feels like the thought processes of the narrator are very different from the reader themselves, so that new ideas replace old words. It’s truly fascinating to watch the world reveal itself as Judy does not take a lot of time to catch the reader up on the future, it’s just her world she’s living in.
And my gods, what a world Emrys has created. The first chapter begins with a small passage from the “Dandelion Manifesto” introducing both upfront and very subtly the mindset of the main cast. Once you see it within the dialogue, and occasionally within the internal monologue, the manifesto’s presence is everywhere. And while I wished more chapters began with a small section of the manifesto to see it play out, I’m thankful Emrys held off, because it transforms the rest of the book into The Manifesto. The revolution led by the Dandelions does not stop just at language and pamphlets, it bleeds into their technology and social structures. It’s astonishing how incredibly political the technology employed by the watersheds is and I can’t emphasize the importance of this perspective. Technology, like in our world, is not just there. It’s not just some fancy gadget, it’s a tool designed with a very specific purpose. And while science fiction is often seen orbiting the technology, rarely is it so intertwined with how a society wants to be, it’s often shadowing how a society (supposedly) is.
And that’s before I even talk about the aliens which are just, chef’s kiss. I’m not joking when I say I want to get to know the Ringers. It isn’t just a fascination and anthropological desire. No, I literally want to be friends with them and play silly games with their children. They have personalities, desires, fears, and needs. They aren’t just an allegory (though they could be). Aliens are often always just more than aliens, but it’s rare that they feel so much like just aliens. Interactions with them are transportive and it is a journey I actively want to throw myself into. One of the Ringers, who goes by the name Rhamnetin, is just the best. I can’t even describe how much I loved his presence, I just short circuit.
I particularly enjoyed how the author handled the conflicts within the story as well. It’s a new world, trying desperately to crawl out from the ruins of the old. A lot of work has been done, but still so much work has yet to be done. It’s easy to just write off conflicts that are resolved through talking, because, well, look where we are now. Our history has been filled with people, mostly men, who refused to talk so we just accept, that’s how we’re wired. Emrys just doesn’t say “no, we’re not wired that way” she asks “why” we might be wired that way, and is it possible to build societies that not only “re-wire” but maintain a, for lack of better phrase, “new human nature.” It’s expanded upon by the Ringers desire to only negotiate when children are around, highlighting a gender politics based around motherhood and bearing children(which Emrys also takes time to explore the murky nature of), and why we are making big world changing decisions. It’s mostly shown through contrast, chiefly through Judy’s parents and the Corporations that are fenced off from the rest of the world, by the watersheds. It feels somewhat hunky dory, but it has an incredible amount of work behind it that doesn’t feel contrived. And though I wish there was a little more open conflict between some of the ideas, I recognize that most of that has already occurred within Emrys’ world and a new type of conflict is arising.
And if I have to say one more thing before I spin out of control pouring out my fascination with A Half-Built Garden, it has to be my own partiality to its geography. It takes place within the Chesapeake Bay, an area north of Washington DC, a place I had lived for four years. Emrys truly captures the beauty of not only Earth, but that particular spot. I recognized the names, sure, but Emrys truly brought it to life after I have not been back for a few years. And while it filled that sense of longing, it only made me want to appreciate the ecosystem’s across the world, bathing in their own unique interconnectedness. It’s a reminder of how much has to be done, how much has to be cared for, and how important a sense of place is when it comes to both of those things.
This is exactly the book it needs to be. Not only does it make a great story, it creates something people desperately need right now, an outline of a future. It doesn’t fall into hubris trying to be the future, and instead provides that oh so sumptuous horizon. Emrys doesn’t tell us how to get there, only gives us a glimpse beyond the blinding sun. We still have to walk towards, maybe even run to it, but something else could be there than what we fear. So put on your sunscreen, don your sunglasses and walk deliberately into the light.
Rating: A Half-Built Garden – 9.5/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.