Review by C.J. Bunce
An almost unrecognizable look at Earth’s future at the time of an alien close encounter, the new novel A Half-Built Garden arrives as a bit of a rarity in a bookstore section filled with so much future noir and dystopia. But writer Ruthanna Emrys’ future feels just as unfamiliar and strange as Blade Runner or Mad Max. The digitally interconnected, wired world seems out of control in the year 2083, and yet the characters are going with the flow when aliens arrive to clue-in we Earthlings to the need to move along because the course we are on is otherwise going to be–no surprise–oblivion.
The first contact with the aliens is a volunteer IT/network tech type in Chesapeake Bay named Judy, sharing duties with co-mother Carol as they live the life of baby-rearing, which in the future means the babies come along to work and attend government ambassadorial functions and the like. Luckily for Judy, the aliens have similar ideas. Are the aliens here for good or ill? Are they trying to force us to leave or are they really telling us our time is up and Earth can’t survive?
Emrys knows the world of her imagination, but it’s difficult to envision, to actually see on the page. Readers are dropped into this future, but lack of clues and clear descriptions, and more telling than showing, make this story difficult to wrap your brain around. The future elements are all there with quirky change-ups and extensions of current technologies, but it misses the all-so important “building” part from the concept of world building.
This is another tale where a single person must save the world in a world so complex that even a story about optimism seems naively optimistic with respect to the capacity and abilities of the individual. I’m always wary of adults that act like wide-eyed kids in stories–here one would think the Earthlings would exhibit outright horrifying fear of these creatures, enough to send them running into the woods. But the reactions here aren’t even with the surprise of young Elliott encountering E.T. for the first time. Is everyone on valium? I’m also wary of characters that have all the answers. The story’s protagonist uses all the resources at her disposal–lots of technobabble derived from extensions of present science and tech–but the storytelling feels more like a political science experiment in sci-fi dress.
The ideas are novel, the imagination is there, but the ideas get lost in a convoluted world of complexity for complexity’s sake. It skips over a lot to get to its point (like communication challenges, germ chambers, etc.). Would the story be the same if it took place today, or would it just be another telling of Arrival? The optimism–the world gets its ducks in a row, is well on its way to solving its global problems, and thinks it’s smarter than aliens with superior tech coming to warn us it’s not good enough–may seem a bit tone deaf in an actual world bent on ignoring climate change and rights of the individual. Yet it may be useful for readers searching out a dose of optimism outside the Star Trek paradigm, and so this book seems to be written for them (as well of those who like stories about rearing babies and kids, a big theme of the book).