I have previously known Ruthanna Emrys for her revisionist Lovecraft fiction series, which sees the ‘fish people’ of The Shadow Over Innsmouth as a persecuted minority, and tries to imagine life from their point of view. (I also saw an interview with Emrys, in which she pointed out that her own grandparents, Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe who came to Brooklyn in the 1920s, were precisely the people about whom Lovecraft expressed his racist revulsion. I immediately identified with her comment, since my maternal grandparents were Jews who emigrated to Brooklyn in the 1920s as well).
A Half-Built Garden is quite different from Emrys’ previous work. It is a semi-utopian first contact novel. (She also describes it in the concluding acknowledgements, somewhat humorously, as ‘diaperpunk’.)
We are in the late 21st century. The Earth has undergone a big reorganization, for the better. Though nation-states and large corporations both still exist, they have been displaced from much of the Earth’s land surface by “watershed networks,” ecological communities that are more or less anarchist and communal in organization, each of which is responsible for the watershed in which they live, and which have succeeded — over the past half century, since the mostly nonviolent revolution that allowed them to be set up — in slowing down, and even to a certain extent reversing, the ecological damage that had been done to the planet by the two previous centuries of unbridled capitalism.
The watersheds are characterized by a mesh of extended families, tied together by nonhierarchical computer networks using automated (computerized) comment moderation, designed to maximize democratic discussion, and weighted according to the core values of the communities: shared resources, volunteer work sharing, and concern for the broader environment (so that the rivers, trees, etc. have their interests represented as well). Ubiquitous computing allows people to access and participate in the network through unobtrusive technological prostheses (mesh nets over their heads, projection into their glasses, etc.). Decisions are made by consensus, but without the annoyance of having to attend hours of meetings all the time. All this is beautifully presented, both in terms of the way that the writing conveys it (through community/environmental description without excessive infodumps) and in terms of being down to earth and deidealized (people are not any more perfect in such a setting than they are in capitalist America today, it is just that authority is decentralized and decisions are made better).
We get the point of view of Judy Wallach-Stevens, a woman who lives in the Chesapeake watershed. She has an extended family: she and her partner have a baby, and they live with another couple who also have a toddler. This enlarged household is also tied to other, surrounding ones (both through family relatedness, and simply through geographic proximity). Gender is refreshingly fluid and changeable; though some people identify themselves as “male” and “female,” many do not. Multiple sets of pronouns are used, and in terms of both physical presentation and community expectations, nobody is tied in to a single identity — they can stay as they are, if they are happy with that, but they can also shift if and when they want. There is no assignment of gendered responsibility for childraising; at a minimum, both adults identified as the parents share equally in childcare, and the other adults in an expanded household pitch in as well. (It is considered rude to enquire as to which parent actually physically bore the child in their womb).
Nation-states (like the US government) still exist, but they seem to have greatly reduced authority. Corporations exist too, but they have been exiled from the mainland of all continents, and exist only on artificial islands that they have constructed. The corporations still manufacture certain high tech goods that they can sell to the watersheds. The way financing works is not entirely clear, but in the watersheds most things are commonly available without money; and whatever monetary basis the corporations work with does not have the universal reach that finance does today. The corporations are evidently still very hierarchical, and they are always seeking to extend their power and regain the control they had in the 20th and early 21st centuries — so the watersheds still need to exercise vigilance with regard to them. However, the corporations as much as the watersheds have rejected traditional gender roles, and have replaced gender binaries with continually shifting forms of self-representation. These forms are central to the jockeying for dominance that is a major feature of corporate cultures, but again it is completely free of and apart from what we take for granted as male/female binaries.
All the world building in the novel is convincingly and vividly done. And it is solid enough that I was not bothered by questions of how the unaddressed portions of social organization and technological infrastructures might work.
At the same time that the background of Emrys’ world is conveyed, the narrative is mostly about how this organization and way of life is disrupted by First Contact. An alien spaceship lands in the Chesapeake region. The crew consists of two separate sentient species, originally from two separate planets, who have lived in symbiotic communities with each other for more than a thousand Earth years. There are ‘plains people’ who are sort of like human-sized arthropods on twelve or more legs; and ‘tree people’ who have mammal-like fur but look more like giant spiders (though again, they have a lot more limbs than actual spiders do). The aliens have learned to speak English from watching all the movies and television series that we have inadvertently beamed into space for decades. The aliens are organized into cross-species extended families, with gender systems that are a bit different from ours (I mean from the more liberated one that humans have in the novel’s future setting), but not unintelligibly so. They aliens place a very high value on their children, whom they take with them everywhere; part of the initial bond that the novel’s narrator makes with them is that she is nursing her own child when she first meets them.
The aliens are friendly, but they have an agenda. In the course of their technological development, both species destroyed the environments of their home planets. They now live in huge constructed orbital habitats around a single sun, all of which are kept in ecological balance around a planned, controlled, and limited ecosphere. They live in company with numerous trees and other plants, and with some nonsentient animal species; but this is (by their own admission) a rather limited environment compared to those of their original native planets. They are flourishing, but only because they have constructed an ecosphere that is basic enough for them to manage.
The aliens now seek to rescue other sentient species from ecological catastrophe. They are unhappy about having reached three planets in other solar systems too late, when the species in question had already exterminated themselves through self-generated environmental catastrophe. They are happy to have reached the Earth in time. What they want to do is rescue Homo sapiens by having us all abandon Earth en masse, and taking us instead to share their artificial space habitats. They hope to convince us by reason and persuasion to join them. But they are not averse to using force if they cannot get us peacefully to agree. They believe that if we refuse to abandon Earth we are endangering the lives of our children, so they have to force us for the children’s sake. (What would Lee Edelman say about this scenario?).
This creates confusion and disunity on Earth. The corporations love the idea of forcible removal. They see it as a way to increase their markets and their power, and maybe even to return to the practice of continual expansion that is no longer allowed on Earth, but that could be renewed on other planets throughout the galaxy. The nation-states are also attracted to the idea, for less extreme but somewhat similar reasons. But the narrator, and most of the people in the watersheds, unsurprisingly resist the idea of leaving Earth forever. They feel that they have made considerable progress in healing the Earth, and that as they continue to do so they will be able to live in reasonable harmony with a large and vibrant ecosystem, rather than with the severely reduced one that they aliens have created for themselves. Judy initially gets along well with the aliens — having been the first Earth person to meet them, and sharing their insistence on the importance of children — but tensions arise because of the aliens’ ultimate aims. But there are also a number of additional contributing factors that complicate and enrichen the narrative, including both interspecies sex between humans and aliens, and tensions that arise because the corporations deploy computer viruses to disrupt the watersheds’ networks.
So the novel has substantial dramatic tensions as well as great worldbuilding and great aliens. Things are semi-resolved (there is a reason why the “garden” of the title is only “half-built”) over the course of the book, mostly through complex negotiations among all the various parties. Discussions, arguments, shifting of locations and of background assumptions. One of the great things about the book is that it makes these negotiations as exciting and as emotionally compelling as violent conflicts are in other speculative novels. (I also appreciated all the specifically Jewish stuff in this book. Unusually for American literature, this is a book that is essentially non-Christian — by which I mean there are no traces of either a Christian or an anti-Christian sensibility).