Review: A Half-Built Garden, by Ruthanna Emrys

Russ Allbery eagle at
Mon May 22 19:48:08 PDT 2023

A Half-Built Garden
by Ruthanna Emrys

Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: 2022
ISBN:      1-250-21097-6
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     340

The climate apocalypse has happened. Humans woke up to the danger, but
a little bit too late. Over one billion people died. But the world on
the other side of that apocalypse is not entirely grim. The
corporations responsible for so much of the damage have been pushed out
of society and isolated on their independent "aislands," traded with
only grudgingly for the few commodities the rest of the world has not
yet learned how to manufacture without them. Traditional governments
have largely collapsed, although they cling to increasingly irrelevant
trappings of power. In their place arose the watershed networks: a new
way of living with both nature and other humans, built around a mix of
anarchic consensus and direct democracy, with conservation and
stewardship of the natural environment at its core.

Therefore, when the aliens arrive near Bear Island on the Potomac
River, they're not detected by powerful telescopes and met by military
jets. Instead, their waste sets off water sensors, and they're met by
the two women on call for alert duty, carrying a nursing infant and
backed by the real-time discussion and consensus technology of the
watershed's dandelion network. (Emrys is far from the first person to
name something a "dandelion network," so be aware that the usage in
this book seems unrelated to the charities or blockchain network.)

This is a first contact novel, but it's one that skips over the typical
focus of the subgenre. The alien Ringers are completely fluent in
English down to subtle nuance of emotion and connotation (supposedly
due to observation of our radio and TV signals), have translation
devices, and in some cases can make our speech sounds directly. Despite
significantly different body shapes, they are immediately
comprehensible; differences are limited mostly to family structure,
reproduction, and social norms. This is Star Trek first contact, not
the type more typical of written science fiction. That feels
unrealistic, but it's also obviously an authorial choice to jump
directly to the part of the story that Emrys wants to write.

The Ringers have come to save humanity. In their experience,
technological civilization is inherently incompatible with planets.
Technology will destroy the planet, and the planet will in turn destroy
the species unless they can escape. They have reached other worlds
multiple times before, only to discover that they were too late and
everyone is already dead. This is the first time they've arrived in
time, and they're eager to help humanity off its dying planet to join
them in the Dyson sphere of space habitats they are constructing.
Planets, to them, are a nest and a launching pad, something to
eventually abandon and break down for spare parts.

The small, unexpected wrinkle is that Judy, Carol, and the rest of
their watershed network are not interested in leaving Earth. They've
finally figured out the most critical pieces of environmental balance.
Earth is going to get hotter for a while, but the trend is slowing.
What they're doing is working. Humanity would benefit greatly from
Ringer technology and the expertise that comes from managing closed
habitat ecosystems, but they don't need rescuing.

This goes over about as well as a toddler saying that playing in the
road is perfectly safe.

This is a fantastic hook for a science fiction novel. It does exactly
what a great science fiction premise should do: takes current concerns
(environmentalism, space boosterism, the debatable primacy of humans as
a species, the appropriate role of space colonization, the tension
between hopefulness and doomcasting about climate change) and uses the
freedom of science fiction to twist them around and come at them from
an entirely different angle.

The design of the aliens is excellent for this purpose. The Ringers are
not one alien species; they are two, evolved on different planets in
the same system. The plains dwellers developed space flight first and
went to meet the tree dwellers, and while their relationship is not
entirely without hierarchy (the plains dwellers clearly lead on most
matters), it's extensively symbiotic. They now form mixed families of
both species, and have a rich cultural history of stories about first
contact, interspecies conflicts and cooperation, and all the perils and
misunderstandings that they successfully navigated. It makes their
approach to humanity more believable to know that they have done first
contact before and are building on a model. Their concern for humanity
is credibly sincere. The joining of two species was wildly successful
for them and they truly want to add a third.

The politics on the human side are satisfyingly complicated. The
watershed network may have made first contact, but the US government
(in the form of NASA) is close behind, attempting to lean on its widely
ignored formal power. The corporations are farther away and therefore
slower to arrive, but the alien visitors have a damaged ship and need
space to construct a subspace beacon and Asterion is happy to offer a
site on one of its New Zealand islands. The corporate representatives
are salivating at the chance to escape Earth and its environmental
regulation for uncontrolled space construction and a new market of
trillions of Ringers. NASA's attitude is more measured, but their
representative is easily persuaded that the true future of humanity is
in space. The work the watershed networks are doing is difficult,
uncertain, and involves a lot of sacrifice, particularly for corporate
consumer lifestyles. With such an attractive alien offer on the table,
why stay and work so hard for an uncertain future? Maybe the Ringers
are right.

And then the dandelion networks that the watersheds use as the core of
their governance and decision-making system all crash.

The setup was great; I was completely invested. The execution was more
mixed. There are some things I really liked, some things that I thought
were a bit too easy or predictable, and several places where I wish
Emrys had dug deeper and provided more detail. I thought the last third
of the book fizzled a little, although some of the secondary characters
Emrys introduces are delightful and carry the momentum of the story
when the politics feel a bit lacking.

If you tried to form a mental image of ecofeminist political science
fiction with 1970s utopian sensibilities, but updated for the concerns
of the 2020s, you would probably come very close to the politics of the
watershed networks. There are considerably more breastfeedings and
diaper changes than the average SF novel. Two of the primary characters
are transgender, but with very different experiences with transition.
Pronoun pins are an ubiquitous article of clothing. One of the
characters has a prosthetic limb. Another character who becomes
important later in the story codes as autistic. None of this felt
gratuitous; the characters do come across as obsessed with gender, but
in a way that I found believable. The human diversity is
well-integrated with the story, shapes the characters, creates
practical challenges, and has subtle (and sometimes not so subtle)
political ramifications.

But, and I say this with love because while these are not quite my
people they're closely adjacent to my people, the social politics of
this book are a very specific type of white feminist collaborative
utopianism. When religion makes an appearance, I was completely
unsurprised to find that several of the characters are Jewish. Race
never makes a significant appearance at all. It's the sort of book
where the throw-away references to other important watershed networks
includes African ones, and the characters would doubtless try to be
sensitive to racial issues if they came up, but somehow they never do.
(If you're wondering if there's polyamory in this book, yes, yes there
is, and also I suspect you know exactly what culture I'm talking

This is not intended as a criticism, just more of a calibration. All
science fiction publishing houses could focus only on this specific
political perspective for a year and the results would still be dwarfed
by the towering accumulated pile of thoughtless paeans to capitalism.
Ecofeminism has a long history in the genre but still doesn't show up
in that many books, and we're far from exhausting the space of
possibilities for what a consensus-based politics could look like with
extensive computer support. But this book has a highly specific point
of view, enough so that there won't be many thought-provoking surprises
if you're already familiar with this school of political thought.

The politics are also very earnest in a way that I admit provoked a bit
of eyerolling. Emrys pushes all of the political conflict into the
contrasts between the human factions, but I would have liked more
internal disagreement within the watershed networks over principles
rather than tactics. The degree of ideological agreement within the
watershed group felt a bit unrealistic. But, that said, at least
politics truly matters and the characters wrestle directly with some
tricky questions. I would have liked to see more specifics about the
dandelion network and the exact mechanics of the consensus decision
process, since that sort of thing is my jam, but we at least get more
details than are typical in science fiction. I'll take this over
cynical libertarianism any day.

Gender plays a huge role in this story, enough so that you should avoid
this book if you're not interested in exploring gender conceptions. One
of the two alien races is matriarchal and places immense social value
on motherhood, and it's culturally expected to bring your children with
you for any important negotiation. The watersheds actively embrace
this, or at worst find it comfortable to use for their advantage,
despite a few hints that the matriarchy of the plains aliens may have a
very serious long-term demographic problem. In an interesting twist,
it's the mostly-evil corporations that truly challenge gender roles,
albeit by turning it into an opportunity to sell more clothing.

The Asterion corporate representatives are, as expected, mostly the
villains of the plot: flashy, hierarchical, consumerist, greedy, and
exploitative. But gender among the corporations is purely a matter of
public performance, one of a set of roles that you can put on and off
as you choose and signal with clothing. They mostly use neopronouns,
change pronouns as frequently as their clothing, and treat any question
of body plumbing as intensely private. By comparison, the very 2020
attitudes of the watersheds towards gender felt oddly conservative and
essentialist, and the main characters get flustered and annoyed by the
ever-fluid corporate gender presentation. I wish Emrys had done more
with this.

As you can tell, I have a lot of thoughts and a lot of quibbles.
Another example: computer security plays an important role in the plot
and was sufficiently well-described that I have serious questions about
the system architecture and security model of the dandelion networks.
But, as with decision-making and gender, the more important takeaway is
that Emrys takes enough risks and describes enough interesting ideas
that there's a lot of meat here to argue with. That, more than getting
everything right, is what a good science fiction novel should do.

A Half-Built Garden is written from a very specific political stance
that may make it a bit predictable or off-putting, and I thought the
tail end of the book had some plot and resolution problems, but arguing
with it was one of the more intellectually satisfying science fiction
reading experiences I've had recently. You have to be in the right
mood, but recommended for when you are.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-05-22


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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