A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys has solarpunk, hopepunk, and friendly aliens who nevertheless have a different perspective on saving your planet versus leaving it behind. As I’ve loved all of Emrys’ previous novels, I snapped this one up and was so impatient to read it that I went out of order on this challenge and read it back in April. I was extremely pleased to find the book is in conversation with Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy. There are references to Star Trek as a human reference point for first contact, and at one point Emrys quoted Butler’s Parable books in the most perfect place imaginable. As a whole, this novel’s embrace of possibility feels like a love letter to human stories about space and the future: science fiction at its best.
The first-person narrator of this novel lives in the Anacostia Watershed, in what we’d call Maryland. The Watershed areas are their own political entities, separate from the nation states that surround them and from corporations, which are walled off enclaves, such as the “aisland” of Zealand near Australia. Using extensive environmental sensors and collective discussion via their own internet-like communications network, the Watershed people have been slowly and steadily improving the effects of climate change, with a long-term view. Their Dandelion Network relies not only on crowdsourcing, but algorithms that can give more weight to expert opinions and sensor readings. They are usually but not always at odds with the nation states, and mostly at odds with the corporations, whose pursuit of profit created and supported environmental effects that brought humanity to the brink of extinction. As you might imagine, there’s tension there!
When aliens arrive in the Anacostia Watershed, all three aspects of human society need to work together to decide what to do, despite their competing wants, needs, and desires. And then the network on which the Watershed people rely, with its weighted algorithms related to the community’s moral principles, becomes unstable and untrustworthy, making everything a thousand times more difficult. Intersectionality and coalition-building among people with diverse viewpoints are integral parts of the novel. The narrator, Judy Wallach-Stevens, is a Jewish woman from a family of activists; she and her wife are parents and a co-parents with another couple. There are trans characters, a character with a prosthetic arm, an assortment of genders, and a character with autism who’s part of a larger community of Corporate “techies,” who have found a way around the very complex gender presentation games played by Corporate society. Judy’s Jewishness and that of some of her family infuses the narrative, especially resonating with the alien social role of Questioner.
This is a book about negotiation and arguing and discussing; about making mistakes; and about trusting each other afterwards and finding ways to come back together, on both the political and familial levels. Flawed human beings, anxious and sleep-deprived, must nonetheless make important decisions, using their brains instead of their base instincts to “look for the big ape.” It’s a look at how what we share can be just as important as what we can offer each other, and how opposite sides can come to terms that provide benefit to all. It’s a wonderfully complex book and will, I think, reward re-reading and discussion a thousand-fold. Highly recommended.