On a warm March night in 2083, Judy Wallach-Stevens wakes to a warning of unknown pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay. She heads out to check what she expects to be a false alarm--and stumbles upon the first alien visitors to Earth. These aliens have crossed the galaxy to save humanity, convinced that the people of Earth must leave their ecologically-ravaged planet behind and join them among the stars. And if humanity doesn't agree, they may need to be saved by force.
The watershed networks aren't ready to give up on Earth. Decades ago, they rose up to exile the last corporations to a few artificial islands, escape the dominance of nation-states, and reorganize humanity around the hope of keeping their world liveable. By sharing the burden of decision-making, they've started to heal the wounded planet.
But now corporations, nation-states, and networks all vie to represent humanity to these powerful new beings, and if any one accepts the aliens' offer, Earth may be lost. With everyone’s eyes turned skyward, everything hinges on the success of Judy's effort to create understanding, both within and beyond her own species.
3.0 Stars I absolutely loved the first contact aspect of this novel. The aliens were so wonderfully "other" and I enjoyed learning how they differed from humans, both biologically and culturally. If this had remained a larger aspect of the story, this easily could have been a four star read.
Gender identity is a very big aspect of this story. I appreciate the importance of representation in stories but I found that these discussions frequently halted the narrative, quickly feeling very repetitive.
I did not expect this story to be such a family drama. So much of the story revolved around the protagonist's child and coparents. There were so many mentions of nursing. Since many. Then during the climax of the story, the characters are looking for diapers. I know that others mothers look for representation in fiction, but not me. Or at least not these aspects of motherhood.
If you are looking for a soft scifi novel surrounding topics of parenthood and gender identity, then you may find more in this novel.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review.
I believe that any future-set sci-fi novel worth the label absolutely needs to deal with non-binary and gender and non-traditional families. The exclusion of it feels wrong and disingenuous.
That said, they should also come with some sort of plot. I had really high hopes for this book, which were quickly dashed by endless discussions about pronouns, how do you choose pronouns, what pronouns are right. When the author isn’t reaching to you about proper pronoun usage, the focus shifts to motherhood and being a mom and babies and raising children and birthing and nursing. Yay moms, now let them actually DO SOMETHING.
This novel is something like 350 pages, but I think the actual story would struggle to fill a novella. To say I didn't like the characters would be to imply there WERE characters, rather than named mouthpieces who exist to either ask leading questions or to answer those questions with a diatribe about how the author envisions the future.
I really don't know who this book is for. People who agree with the author don't need to be beat over the head about the subject the way this book does, and people who don't agree (well, I want to say those people don't read scifi but we all know they do... for some reason...) will just be irritated.
A Half-Built Garden is a quiet, thoughtful, smart sci-fi novel that blends climate fiction with a first contact story. Set in 2083, it follows a queer Jewish woman living in climate-conscious community on the Eastern seaboard of the United States. One night she goes for a walk with her infant daughter and ends up being the first person to encounter alien species that have landed on the Earth, wanting humans to abandon the planet and join them in space before a climate apocalypse destroys everything.
This is such an interesting book. It's very much a slow-burn and character focused, but with such deep world-building and thought given to alien culture, biology, habitat, families, mating, childrearing, spirituality etc. And the same level of attention to detail given to both sustainable human communities of the future, and what the descendants of corporations with their own culture and goals might look like. The book does a lot to explore ideas of gender and gender identity, disability, and family structures. (The main character lives within a polyamorous family structure).
Philosophically, it's considering a lot about decision-making, power, living symbiotically, and sustainability. It's an impressive book and I can see why it's being compared to LeGuin. Readers who are looking for a lot of action or a fast-paced plot are not going to find it here, but it's a beautiful and thought-provoking book worth the time to read. I received an advance copy of this book for review, all opinions are my own.
“This complex, complicated, gorgeous musing on the future of humanity and the power of connection, the things we owe to each other and the essential strength of consensus, deserves to be the first contact novel that defines a generation.” —Seanan McGuire, back-cover blurb
This near-future (2083) semi-hard SF novel starts out with a bang, with a starship landing in a nature preserve, located by no coincidence near where the author lives on the outskirts of Washington DC. The starship's crew includes two species of aliens, one shaped like a giant spider. Rhamnetin invites protagonist Judy to pet his plush fur to dissipate her arachnophobia . . . and somewhat later, Judy, her wife Carol and Rhamnetin become , um, carnally involved. Interplanetary relations!
The first 200 pages or so are very fast-moving indeed. The novel does bog down a bit with the introduction of the obligatory Corp-Rat villains, but it picks up again when Judy, Carol and her family visit the alien's homeworld, an under-construction Dyson Sphere! There are some writing-craft issues there-- but how many near-future cli-fi novels manage to be optimistic? Good stuff, and it will likely take a reread down the line to sort out my reactions. Highly recommended, 4+ stars.
Other reactions: Jo Walton read an ARC in June 2021 and had a mixed reaction: "First contact story set in a future the narrator likes a lot better than I do. This is a significant book that’s coming out next year that I was fortunate enough to read early. It’s probably best described as thought provoking—it’s an interesting and fully considered complex future full of different things, and then there are aliens. (The aliens are great.) I would not want to live in this world, I would not make any of the choices the characters make, I sometimes wanted to shake the narrator, but I was completely engaged with the narrative, couldn’t put it down, and complained about it to anyone who would listen." https://www.tor.com/2021/07/09/jo-wal...
And Marissa Lingen just read it and liked it a lot. She's been a reliable reviewer for me: "This is so lovely. It’s got complicated families, in which meaning well and doing well are not always the same thing–in multiple species. It’s got very crunchy real considerations of disability, cultural difference, historical weight, and watersheds. It’s got a Passover seder where Octavia Butler is quoted. Most of all, it’s got flawed, stubborn, lovable people working desperately hard for a better world, at a time when I think we all need more of that. Highly recommended." Whole review: https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog...
A delightfully intelligent and socially aware first-contact story.
I loved the thoughtfully constructed vision of a near future Earth and continuing battle with the ravages of climate change. As in her previous books, Winter Tide and Deep Roots Emrys explores emotional themes around family, and juxtaposes the celebration with the fear of differences and change. She is a skilled writer, her work deeply conversational, integrating both inner monologue and thoughtful dialogue between characters.
Not perfect, but, much like Emrys' other work, bracingly unique and very satisfying.
If you are looking for a book steeped in Jewish and queer identity & culture, that explores what it means to be human and form interpersonal relationships, that emphasizes the importance of connection to and care for the land, that eviscerates individualism & the selfish, world-destroying aims of corporations, and envisions a future where people have begun to address climate change in revolutionary ways- then look no further because A Half-Built Garden is the book for you. This is a philosophical, tender sci-fi that I think both hardcore SFF readers and those who don't typically enjoy the genre will love. This book will make you look at our planet in new and radical ways.
Something that really struck me about this book is how integral the queer and Jewish representation is to the book. The narrative arc, the interpersonal relations between the characters, the world building, and the philosophy are all influenced and driven by queer & Jewish identity and culture.
Another thing that makes this book so special to me is that it challenges the influx of climate dystopia narratives that have been released in recent years. Those books tend to be incredibly depressing, hopeless, and fatalistic predictions about the world and humanity. On the other hand, A Half Built Garden envisions a utopia caught up in dystopic realities. But truthfully, calling it a utopia is a disservice to the novel because it is not some farfetched, otherworldly society in which humans are perfect and everything is perfect. Emrys does not ask humanity to infallible, she merely challenges her characters to be the best they can be in extremely difficult situations. She offers grace for the mistakes we all make- both as individuals and as a collective- while pushing us to be the best we can be.
At times this is a family saga, at times this is an intergalactic political show down and truly everything in between. There is something in this book for the monster romance girlies, the climate scientists, the computer programming geniuses, the fashion experts, the linguists, the Trekkies & Star Wars geeks, the annoying kid in your poli-sci class who doesn't ever shut up... need I go on? Because I can go on! The point is: read this book!!!
If you loved the following books, I think you should give this one a try: Light from Uncommon Stars, The Seep, The First Sister, Beautiful World Where Are You, The Power, Babel, and Black Sun.
Thank you to Tordotcom and the author for an advanced reader's copy of the novel!
TWs: religious bigotry, antisemitism, transphobia, misgendering, colonization, sexual content, suicidal thoughts, injury/injury detail, pregnancy, kidnapping.
The set up is great! Aliens show up and inform us that we have reached a level of technology that can no longer be sustained by a planet and we must take to the stars if we want to survive. Our main character takes issue with this as she and the rest of humanity (mostly) have been working very hard to live sustainably on the planet. Diplomacy and hijinks ensue.
A hopeful future for humanity and first contact with aliens are very much my buzzwords, but this book didn't work great for me. It is kind of slow and the main character rubbed me the wrong way. She comes across as holier than thou and it is irritating. I found myself disagreeing with her at times where it felt like I was supposed to find her position obviously correct. Maybe I'm just personally too excited by the concept of space exploration that I find it hard to sympathize with a character who wants to stay home and recycle.
I did really love a lot of things about this book though. I particularly loved the portrayal of family where it is considered normal and necessary to have four adults coparenting children and all living together as a family unit. Yes, please!
Overall, this really reminds me a lot of Becky Chambers. Personally, I tend to find her style nice, but a bit over the top with the preachiness and "niceness." But I know that works for a lot of people and I think those people will love this book just as much.
Thank you to NetGalley, Macmillan Audio, and Tordotcom for the audio arc.
Sexual violence? No. Other content warnings? Kidnapping
Two symbiotic alien species, the Ringers, arrive on Earth with a warning to humans: Humanity's technological advancement spells destruction for the planet and threatens the human species with extinction. It's a process the Ringers have seen multiple times, and only this once have they arrived in time before catastrophe and destruction. Humans should leave the planet, join the aliens in a symbiotic relationship, and live in space habitats with endless resources mined from the solar system.
Except the Ringers make first contact with humans from the watershed networks, committed to fighting climate change and healing the planet. And these humans say, why would we abandon our home, when we are just now making a difference in saving it? But other human societies, like the corporations and nation-states, may have a very different agenda.
Will the Ringers force humans to leave their planet and disassemble it for parts, or will they enter into a mutually beneficial agreement that preserves what some humans care the most for?
Having heard Emrys describe this book as "diaperpunk", in the vein of "hopepunk", I certainly see that description. This is punk, in terms of scrappy and from the ground up. And hope, in terms of ecological and environmental outlooks, evolving societal responses to issues like gender identities, non-heteronormative relationships, and so on... And it's totally "diaperpunk" because babies, nursing, changing diapers, and playdates are actually essential to the action, relationships, and political agenda!
The technology is also incredibly interesting. I'm fascinated by the idea of the dandelion networks and the watershed community organization that's focused on crowdsourcing, extreme community collaboration and brainstorming, and the analyzing the environmental impact of *every* decision. Key decisions are made due to erratic storm seasons, and fraught plot action is complicated by a hurricane.
This story presents a way for local political action to be deeply aligned with and concerned with environmental action, and to harness technology, communication, and at-your-fingertips data in a way that certainly makes sense but seems just quite out of the reach of our current capabilities. In many scenes, I genuinely wondered - is this change possible? Could we really hope for this? Or would human nature, greedy politics, and rampant capitalism continually crush the waves of changes needed to bring this to life?
There's a lot to love about this story. It reminded me strongly of elements in Emma Newman's Planetfall series (perhaps in the way technology is used by the characters?), but with a more hopeful tone. And I appreciated the questions being asked by the characters: What can we all do to succeed, and to preserve what is important to all of us? Whether that's a home, a culture, a food, a religion. What makes us *us*, and how do we remain ourselves while also acknowledging adaptation may be necessary?
I am always after hard, queer science fiction. Books with no fantasy elements, fantasy logic, or “speculative” sheen, that really explore gender and sexual divergence (which is so much more than just having gay characters). It's pretty hard to find (I'm always taking recs!). A Half-Built Garden is a sterling example. I loved it for that alone.
There is a certain subculture of cooperative living in the United States, represented at most colleges by one or two rickety old off-campus houses, with more considerable outposts in central-Brooklyn townhouses, in Boston's fabled coop scene. This subculture is small but significant—especially given its family relationship to Silicon Valley tech culture. Still, whenever I see what feel to me like cultural qualities of this scene attached to cooperative living in Science Fiction, I wonder… Are Boston's granola-making contra-dancers and polyamorous knitters in fact modeling the future? It may be so. In any event, the world building here felt like wishful thinking at times. And yet, what a powerful wish to put out into the world. And I loved how the corporations were imagined in contrast—once I could see the watershed networks within the larger design of the novel, I was far more interested. Especially because my own predilections point powerfully towards Emrys's corporations—with their gender play and dress up games, their irony and ambition—and away from her heroes, and the relentless social-media logic and always-divided attention of the watershed networks. Our protagonist, Judy, lives inside of an algorithmically-mediated augmented reality that I find rather horrifying, despite (or perhaps in part because of) her idealism about it. It is a lifestyle the intricate social cues of the novel’s vilified corporate society seem designed to resist—not that that justifies their greed, or penchant for manipulation.
The aliens are sufficiently interesting. I’m not sure I quite bought the interspecies-romance angle, but points for trying.
Overall, this is an intriguing novel, bursting with ideas, fun to read, and endlessly more interesting than the rote dystopianism of so much climate fiction.
It's near the end of the 21st century and the Earth has been badly damaged by pollution, climate change and corporate greed, but this is the generation after the Dandelion Revolution and that damage is beginning to be repaired.. The Dandelion Revolution was essentially a Marxist green-led overthrow of corporations that led to the surviving companies and their people to be exiled to artificial islands, nation-states and their agencies are much diminished and barely relevant, and the main decision-making bodies are collective sophisticated online forums run by "watersheds", the new basic unit of governance centered around local ecological areas.
Into this fragile new way of living on Earth comes ... aliens, the Ringers, a collective of two different species. We are the first technological species they've found, other than their two founding ones, who've survived their infancy on planet, and they have a fundamental belief that technological species are incompatible with planets. The Ringers have come to ensure that we have the technology needed to get off the Earth, and may well force that outcome.
Readers of Kim Stanley Robinson will be familiar with the sort of society that the watersheds have become and it's interesting to see it in operation when written by someone else. The implication of a trouble-filled 21st century with incredible sociopolitical change as well as fundamental changes in the way that we look at family and gender seems like a smart one.
Readers of this author's other work will also be familiar with the way that the aliens are portrayed, alien in nature and behavior, but sharing fundamental motivations and concerns that any mature technological society would have, particularly including a desire for community, compassion for others and care for family. If that can be extended to Lovecraftian horrors, it can certainly be extended to aliens. (As an aside, I think it's an implication of these books that only K-selected species can be technological ones. Certainly all three intelligent species in this book have heavy investment in their young. I would be interested in seeing the Ringers + humans encounter an r-selected intelligent species and how that would work).
The story here is excellent, dealing with how the family that first discover aliens deals with first contact and how that first contact progresses when every group involved has their own agenda. The watershed people (our protagonist Judy is a nursing mother who's from this group) want to continue their work on Earth and see leaving it as a disaster. The companies see first contact as an opportunity for primacy and unconstrained growth in the stars. The nation states dither between those extremes and the aliens just want to save us all.
My main criticism is that this is such a comfortable read, and both the human and alien internal politics as well as the fraught cross-species politics are so fascinating, that I just wanted much more of this already long book.
Thanks to NetGalley & Tordotcom for an eARC of this book. The following review is my honest reflection on the text provided.
I haven't read many (or maybe any?) first encounter books, so I was very excited to receive the eARC of A Half-Built Garden, especially with such a gorgeous cover.
" That night I paced the Chesapeake threads: useless habit, given my current expertise ratings, even if the algorithms had been doing their jobs. But I still wanted that kinesthetic sense of the watershed as a whole. It felt like a hike or a prayer, but deeper: knowing in my brain and belly and bones the rivers flowing silty with stormwater, every particle that washed from land into ocean, the health of the air that filled our lungs and the seagrass that held the bay in place. I wanted to work with the planet, to understand everything she told me. My mesh picked up on those desires, or my trend toward holistic processing, and shifted from text and numbers to graphics and textures, impressionist topography that felt more detailed than the details."
The technology here is more than believable - being constantly hooked into a community-style social media that reads information about your surroundings, allowing people to comment in real-time sounds both incredible and terrifying. The part that's not explained well is how everyone is reading and commenting and making notes and sharing, all while still interacting with people in real life - there must be so many pauses and stopping and starting conversations. The connection in person would be so difficult. Although I guess you're connecting in real life while you're connecting via the network, so it's all meta and complicated and slightly distanced. This could explain the large communities/families to allow for deeper connections. I find it hard to believe that while this is the future, it's still the near future, and I doubt humans have evolved to be better at multitasking in such a short period of time.
"It had been the same with Carol: first seeking out the conversations, longer and more often, and then discovering that I'd made a place in my head to model her body, imagining more and more detail until I wanted desperately to replace imagination with observation. With touch. It had made me shy and slow then, and did the same now."
I am all for polyamorous relationships. Sexuality is fluid, and it takes a village to raise a child, and everything here makes me so happy, but I'm sorry - jumping into a sexual encounter with an alien that is described (at first) as a giant spider does not. make. sense. One step too far for me, Emrys. Maybe two.
Judy's tendency to be so in her own head forced a disconnect with me. I could only read so much before it triggered my own anxiety, and I needed a break. Overthinking everything is exhausting, even if it's secondhand. I appreciated her ability to step out of the moment and drill down to innate goals and values, but that seems so foreign to me and the world I know that it affected the believability of the narrative. If I ever attend extensive therapy, I might be able to reread A Half-Built Garden to truly get everything out of this story.
A Half-Built Garden was operating at a higher level than I was while reading it. As a thought experiment on the future (dealing with climate change, holding corporations responsible, treating others with dignity and respect and living in true communities) and on first encounters, I would highly recommend this book. A Half-Built Garden is beautifully and thoughtfully written with true skill and artistry; I just struggled to connect to the narrative.
"We should tell them that no matter what you do to us, we survive. And we remember who we are."
Review originally posted here on Britt's Book Blurbs.
I finally finished this book. I had very little time and wherewithal to eye-read and it took me almost exactly 3months to read it. And I did read nearly every day. Very disappointing. Because this is a beautiful book.
The narrative starts with a first person POV which gives the first contact experience (this is not a spoiler) urgency. There are other POVs given in 3rd person. The first POV is obviously the one we are meant to empathize with. Despite very different life experiences and lifestyle to myself, I do, in fact, empathize quite a lot with our narrator. Not to mention that she seems to be a thoughtful, good person who nevertheless makes a couple of bad choices for all the right reasons.
One theme of this book is one that goes beyond Found Family to that of Created Family. Family created mindfully and hopefully.
There is a lovely sentiment/belief in the book that our current climate woes can be turned around using technology AND conscientious effort to become a part of the ecosystems again. I would sign up.
Did not finish, I simply couldn't get past the agenda being pushed just in the first few chapters rather than any form of actual science fiction novel.
When the main characters in the story get angry at a visiting alien race for implying that the woman who gave birth to a child should be defined as mother, as opposed to someone who identifies as one. When this same future society also figures it to be a priority to find out what pronouns the alien race prefer to use. And later openly wonder how they will explain important concepts to an alien race immediately after meeting them like Non Binary parenting while calling the otherwise peaceful aliens "ignorant colonizers" in the same vein as indigenous socialism supporters............
Seems like any supposedly scientifically minded future society would have far greater things to address on first contact than Trans, Non binary, and gender identify politics. And the constant bombardment with this really dragged this story down. I have no problem with trans, non binary beliefs, and really wouldn't have minded if these concepts were brought up in passing as part of the story, but they weren't, and I was more interested in actual story development, rather than an ongoing social treatise on this ideaolgy. If you take out all the agenda and Trans politics, the story would have made for a short 2 hour novella rather than a 15 hour audio book.
I did finish the book, but I honestly considered quitting less than 100 pages in.
The premise of this book I thought sounded interesting. Aliens come to Earth & make first contact and think humanity needs to be saved from our dying planet. The execution was really a failure though, the book got way too bogged down by other stuff.
The aliens were interesting and non-humanlike which I appreciated. They apparently made the effort to learn to communicate with humans but didn't respect their culture and expected them to just fall in line with what they thought was best.
I didn't care about any of the characters, just wanted to see how the two species would reach some sort of agreement.
My main issue was that the human population felt very alien to me. The author also felt way too preachy for me, it really ruined the book for me. The author has prioritized explaining gender fluidity & non-binary parenting as what we first need to address when meeting an alien species and then the characters trying to impose their view of gender onto an alien species (which the aliens don't even seem to possess, they are male/female but their society is based on reproduction and the mothers being in charge).
The main character was upset by the fact that the aliens didn't want to wear badges with their pronouns (which I would not want to either) and there was just a huge amount of focus on pronouns & not giving children any gender on birth (they apparently choose when they want to go through puberty and pick a gender?). Then we get introduced to Zealand where the characters are apparently always gender fluid and I couldn't even understand the discussion about their pronouns (e, em, eir, tha, thon & thos).
I've read a lot of books that had non-binary or transgender characters at this point and this was easily the worst one for me. This book is set only 60 years in the future and it felt like an alien planet, nothing about their society was really recognizable to me.
There was also this whole co-parenting thing where apparently a couple needs to partner with another couple to raise their child. People do get married, but it didn't really seem like monogamy was even still a thing at all - it seemed like it was totally acceptable to just take whoever you wanted (co-parents or someone new) as a lover. People who have polyamorous relationships exist, but again it's a minority of people - many people wouldn't want their spouse hooking up with others.
My other annoyance with this book was the author constantly talking about breastfeeding the baby. The main character, Judy, very frequently talks about nursing her child Dori throughout the whole book, at times it felt like every 3 pages. There is a massive amount of discussion from the aliens about not understanding why humans don't take their kids with them everywhere they go, but there's also no mention at all of any schools or childcare as if it's now obsolete.
I picked up the book for the sci-fi aspect of it, and felt like the author's obsession with gender identity/pronouns kind of took over the book. It's the exact opposite of how you should write a story where you have a character who's married to a woman, living with a person and their spouse - raising their children together.
This was, frankly, excellent. This is the kind of philosophical, big-idea science fiction novel that changes the way you look at the world, that could be read and remembered for generations.
This is a first-contact novel. It’s set in our near-future, in a world where the excesses of capitalism have been reined in and humanity is working towards repairing the damage done to the planet. There’s a long way to go - climate refugees, frequent storms, massive wildfires, and the Mississippi deciding to change course are all low-key things happening in the background - but carbon levels are starting to go down, pollutants in the waters are being reduced, frogs are multiplying, and strict pollution controls are in place (even if everyone assumes the remaining corporate entities are skirting those to whatever degree they can get away with).
The aliens, it turns out, are actually two different species who have formed a unified, space-based culture. They’re eager to welcome a third species to their ranks, and have come to invite humanity to join them in the partially-completed Dyson sphere they’ve been building for the last thousand years or so. They’re delighted and relieved to have made it in time, they tell humanity. Every other time they’ve detected signals (centuries old, due to lightspeed) from a technological civilization, they’ve gone to the planet in question and found nothing but dead cities and ruined climates. A technological civilization, they tell humanity, is fundamentally unsustainable on a planet, and for their species to survive they *must* evacuate.
Humanity, being humanity, is of mixed opinions on this. Those who have been working the hardest to save the planet (including the protagonist) are very much against the idea of abandoning Earth now that we’re just starting to get it *right*. The corporations, direct descendants of those who so thoroughly broke things in the first place, are eager to get the hell off of this rock and resume their old endless-growth model in an environment with orders of magnitude more room and no pesky regulations getting in their way. Others are in between, eager to get humanity to the stars and yet unwilling to give up on Earth entirely.
The aliens, meanwhile, are having their own debate. They had been expecting to meet a people desperate for rescue and grateful to get away from their dying home. They’re unsure what to do about this mixed response, and they are asking themselves if they can, in good conscience, let these innocent, naïve people stay on their doomed planet, even if that’s what they say they want.
This book is all about learning about each other; not just human vs alien, but human vs human (vs human vs human vs human vs human vs…). Who we are, what we want, what’s important to us, and how we want to get there are all critical questions in this book. It doesn’t provide answers, clearly, because these are unanswerable questions - or, at least, everyone’s answer will be unique. But this book got me thinking about them, and I doubt I’ll think about them in exactly the same way again.
In my private goodreads notes for this book, I had apparently written “Ada Palmer rec’d it to me cause I like Terra Ignota’s worldbuilding.” I have no idea when or how this happened (twitter? An AMA?) but oh, was it correct. It’s, in some ways, an old-style first contact story, very reminiscent of Le Guin, with plenty of human/alien cultural worldbuilding. But in other ways, it’s very much modern, with some very interesting takes on gender and a post-capitalist world struggling to repair the damage done to Earth. It did not truly hook me until about 60% in, but the worldbuilding indeed intrigued me right from the start.
When checking for pollution in the water, Judy finds an alien spaceship – with aliens. Having crossed the universe in their conviction that technologically advanced societies must leave planets behind before they drive themselves into extinction and join them in space, they found humans. But humans, especially the watershed networks Judy and her household belong to, finally feel like they might be doing things right, slowly fixing Earth, and might not be as grateful and instantly willing to leave their lives here behind as the aliens think.
First off, I loved how genuinely optimistic it was. Yes, the world is not perfect, but the entire premise is that it can get better and it’s worth working on. In time of all-too-frequent online doomerism, it was a refreshing perspective. I also can’t ever remember reading a sci-fi novel where a large portion of humanity would refuse to leave their world behind for the stars and this wasn’t presented as a bad thing. Not a weird fringe belief or suicidal stubbornness, just plain understandable refusal to give up on their home they spent so much time working on.
(Though it certainly doesn’t help that the aliens don’t understand consent, or see humans as a mature species capable of making their own decisions.)
Another big theme of the book is gender. Among the three different factions of humanity and two species of aliens, each has their own take on gender. Watershed network humans for example see it very similar as we might in an ideal world – transition easily available if desired (though one character had traumatically hateful parents) and the use of pronoun pins for politeness. Corporate humans, however, see their internal sense of gender, hormones, and body fully private and taboo to ask about, but use a variety of pronouns and modes of external presentation to “play” as it suits them. And so on.
The third theme, I’d say, is motherhood. Those looking for books featuring mothers who go on adventures, look no further. Both Judy and her partner Carol are nursing mothers and motherhood is also one of the aliens’ central values – they even expect children to be present at negotiations because it calms everyone down.
It is, also, thoroughly Jewish. Most of Judy’s household is practicing and keeps kosher, which can be a challenge given another culture’s habit of making strange-looking food and refusing to explain what’s in it. They’re all very understandably extra touchy about the possibility of being forcefully exiled into space. And the Passover Seder scene was one of my favourites.
If there’s one complaint I have, it’s that it just didn’t pull me in until fairly late. I was intrigued by the world, sure, and especially by the question of what’s up with the aliens, but as in a lot of big idea sci-fi, the characters weren’t super compelling, the plot was initially very slow, and the flood of information relentless. Funnily enough, what hooked me was the hint of a romantic relationship developing between two humans and one of the (very much non-humanoid) aliens. Because apparently, the idea of very gentle romance between humans and a spiderlike being with too many legs and eyes and mouths is now my thing. If cheering for a certain relationship to happen in Hench wasn’t enough of an indicator.
In short, I highly recommend. Though I am not responsible if it awakens anything in you.
Enjoyment: 3/5 Execution: 4.5/5
Recommended to: Le Guin fans, Chambers fans, those who like slow and thoughtful sci-fi, those looking for Jewish SFF, anyone who likes alien aliens and culture clash plots, fellow monsterfucking enthusiasts Not recommended to: those looking for a light, fast-paced read
A novel with a good premise of aliens visiting Earth to save mankind from themselves but not bother asking if they want to be saved. Yet the execution didn't work for me. There was way too much introspection of the first person main character to get a plot going. It didn't help that some of it was dedicated to the problem of pronoun tags at the first meeting. Considering that it was about the future of humankind and a first contact situation this emphasis felt rather artificial. We get a lot of exposition about the social structure on this near future Earth which felt repetitive after the first few times. It didn't help that most of the characters were rather flat and interchangeable. The interesting one ironically being one from the "baddies", the corporations. In the end this reader couldn't help but muse why the respective parties hadn't talked at the start.
Imho this would have profited from a novella length.
4.5 stars. This is ultimately a hopeful story, where people learn to talk to one another, making themselves open to new ideas and experiences.
A first contact story, and also dealing with climate reclamation, gender identity, respect for others, diplomacy, and parenthood. There is conflict, based on some fairly fundamental cultural differences and perceptions of gender and roles, family, and how to mitigate environmental disasters.
There are also adults working together to solve deep, complicated problems, while, and this is the best part, the people central to solving the contact problems are parents having to figure out big problems while making sure their young children are fed, rested, and happy, giving weight to the idea that diplomacy would work differently if one had to factor caring for children into decisions affecting everyone.
This SF novel combines first contact, communalist utopia, environmental dystopia and little kids. I read it as a part of the monthly reading for April 2023 at SciFi and Fantasy Book Club group.
The book starts in the year 2083, the location is the Chesapeake Bay. The protagonist, Judy Wallach-Stevens wakes to a warning of unknown pollutants in the water. She takes her infant daughter Dori and joins her wife Carol in the investigation. They found an UFO and not an empty one. There are aliens and they came to save us humans, whether we like it or not. However, the fact that their first contact was with Judy, who is a member of the watershed networks – environmentalist communalist societies, which try to reverse environmental degradation caused during our present. And she doesn’t agree that Earth is a lost cause.
The novel has a lot of interesting ideas, but the execution is lacking. There are more than one alien species, multiple Earth interest groups, a bunch of interesting technologies and societies. However, a lot of them are simplified as the story progresses. And this is a pity for ideas have a lot of potential!
The author is compared with Ursula K. Le Guin, supposedly because The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia and the watershed networks both contain communalist societies, but the approach is quite different, for here, like in most modern US SF depictions of communalist utopias, they are all positive, no negative, which is probably a response to the fact that the US has far less redistributive governments (affecting education and healthcare among other things) than Western European democracies.
My reasons as posted in the SFFBC group: I am just simply and completely unattached to this book. I think the only character that I really like is Dori, and she's an infant! I was attracted to this book because I've enjoyed the author's Innsmouth series. This SF novel, though, is just not hitting me with any vibes whatsoever.
On the plus side, I finally watched the movie "Arrival" tonight, which as you all know is based on the amazing story by Ted Chiang. Now that is a first contact story. This group introduced me to the awesomeness of stories that Chiang can produce in the short form. I cried after I read the story, I cried after the movie ended. I read because I want to feel something from the narrative. Reading this book is as exciting as reading the back of a package of eco-friendly toilet paper. And then I decided that life is just to short . . . well, you know how the sentence ends!
Conceptually interesting - seriously, very interesting idea - but nearly non-existent world-building and utterly and contemptibly unlikable characters make the book a tough read with very few bright spots. The pacing is kind of terrible as well, but honestly, least of the book's problems.
There's no one to root for in the book. The human characters are either saccharine and pathetic (Judy, Carol) or cartoonish and egomaniacal (Adrien, Jace). Other characters are underdeveloped (Atheo) or unnecessary (Dinar, Brend, Tiffany). The aliens are moderately more interesting; the book could have been better from their perspective.
The main question of the book, whether to accept rescue from well-meaning aliens or keep slogging away at pointless ecofreak dipshittery, is too easy to answer, especially given the no downside-ness of accepting the offer...except for the human pettiness angle that the main character (such as she is) won't let go. Yuck.
I don't want to even start with the gender issues in the book. It's like watching a Gen X-er exposed to trans people (and all other gender and equality issues, basically) for the first time - like a train-wreck bathed in pure cringe.
The only culturally interesting parts were the bits of Jewish culture, which from the perspective of someone who's not Jewish seem well done and yes, interesting. BUT these could be just as misguided and weird as the gender parts and I literally just don't know any better.
Why two stars? My undying love of Dyson spheres. That alone.
Overall, read the book blurb and then use your own imagination. You'll enjoy the results more.
‘A Half-Built Garden’ by Ruthanna Emrys is a very different science fiction novel! In all my years of reading, I’ve never encountered a plot like this one.
I copied the book blurb:
”On a warm March night in 2083, Judy Wallach-Stevens wakes to a warning of unknown pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay. She heads out to check what she expects to be a false alarm--and stumbles upon the first alien visitors to Earth. These aliens have crossed the galaxy to save humanity, convinced that the people of Earth must leave their ecologically-ravaged planet behind and join them among the stars. And if humanity doesn't agree, they may need to be saved by force.
The watershed networks aren't ready to give up on Earth. Decades ago, they rose up to exile the last corporations to a few artificial islands, escape the dominance of nation-states, and reorganize humanity around the hope of keeping their world liveable. By sharing the burden of decision-making, they've started to heal the wounded planet.
But now corporations, nation-states, and networks all vie to represent humanity to these powerful new beings, and if any one accepts the aliens' offer, Earth may be lost. With everyone’s eyes turned skyward, everything hinges on the success of Judy's effort to create understanding, both within and beyond her own species.”
I’m a big-city kid, so I would not like a community that is run and organized like the 1970 hippy communes, or like some of today’s communities of preppers’ homes. However, in this novel it is these types of communities that are restoring the polluted earth back to its more pristine environment of balanced nature. The main narrator, Judy Wallach-Stevens, lives in a such a community. She fervently believes in sustainability over progress unless it is something which helps cleans up the pollution which has destroyed many areas of the earth. She is a co-mother of a child, Dori, who is still a babe in arms. Since she is lactating, I think she is the birth mother. She lives in a house with four people - two couples - her partner being another woman, Carol. The other couple consists of a transperson and a woman. Gender fluidity is a given in Judy’s watershed community. They all must wear what pronouns they prefer on pins on a scarf worn around their necks.
Unexpectedly, the aliens, “the ringsters” who invade earth choose Judy to be a spokesperson for Humanity because she is holding her baby when they land and come out to talk. The three groups of aliens who are in the ship have a system of political authority based on members who are mothering babies. Mothers holding their babies in diplomatic talks can be trusted to deal with others equitably because of their self-interest in the safety of their children.
The book is very high-end. It develops an interesting science fiction future of two different earth civilizations that dictate how technology should be employed to advance or maintain human lives. One civilization is focused on restoring environmental balance to the polluted earth through natural farming and social values similar to the fantasy writer J. R. R. Tolkien’s hobbits, using only that technology which supports family and farming-community life in village lifestyles. The villages are not entirely homogeneous - some promote strict gender birth rules, while others do not. They all support the open knowledge of everything everybody is doing, through a Twitter-like communication system. Everybody has their say in everything. I didn’t like this, gentle reader, since the mesh communication threads often devolved into social condemnation and gossip. Plus, I simply didn’t like everyone having the power to try to push decisions on others because of being in a majority of a whirling storm of comments. These watersheds had a governance similar to the alien invaders humans called the ringsters, imho. A democracy of opinions and prejudices, not science.
The other human civilization is exiled to islands (“ailands”, which is *ahem* an authorial opinion, imho). (Get it? Ailing lands?)The ailands use technology not only to maintain life and family cohesion, but also in frivolous playfulness, like in fashion, art, cuisine, cosplay, etc. However, because the island communities were populated by financial and commercially powerful business folk, the people are very competitive social climbers, still using money, still valuing power relationships and technological ‘progress.’ They despise the people of the watersheds.
What would happen if the polluted, but slowly recovering, earth is invaded by a community of interstellar races who judge other races based on the environmental condition of their home worlds? The suppositions are:
-inevitably, all upcoming civilizations destroy their home planets through technological pollution. -the answer to planetary pollution is moving all planetary civilizations off world to the more ecologically-controlled environments of star rings. -living on star rings is WAY better than living on a planet whether it has become polluted or not. -star-ring civilizations have the authority to decide the future of planet-bound civilizations because star-ring species have more powerful technology.
Whatever. The book describes all kinds of species who believe they are a democracy, but they all work more like benevolent dictatorships of majorities because of personal beliefs and opinion polls. Sometimes issues are decided simply because of a species’ strong biological traits and drives - gender dominance, body scents and hormones. Even just being a person with leadership qualities. I have no idea if the author intentionally meant to create these uncomfortable democratic environments of various groups and civilizations. But in reading this novel, it sort of stood out to me that all of the societies operated under the belief they were being ultimately democratic, under authority of the “common good”, always benevolently, of course.
The entire book reminded me of the argumentation surrounding the theories of “The Tragedy of the commons”:
I would hate to be hand-raised by any alien species who know nothing of humans, our histories or our cultures except through our broadcast television shows. In any case, there is a strong reason implicit in this novel to support the American quality-programming on many PBS TV stations or the high-end BBC television shows.
This is an interesting take on colonialist first contact that feels like a more optimistic version of the Xenogenesis series. It tries to juggle quite a few current hot topics but never goes beyond the surface level. Part of me loves it, but at the same time I'm a bit disappointed because it feels rushed and incomplete. Nearing the end, it was clear the author still had a lot to say, but suddenly she really felt the need to wrap up and that was that.
It's still a very enjoyable read bound to resonate with a lot of people.
The aliens just don't seem very alien. I know, I know, Star Trek and many other SF classics had aliens that not only act human, they look more or less human. But they at least had the excuse of being early SF, and also much greater cost involved if they had truly alien looking aliens.
But, for a book which appears to be in the venerable SF theme of First Contact, the inscrutability and Otherness of the aliens is fundamental, and it is the 21st century text, not 20th century television, so my standards are higher. While the aliens are anatomically different, they speak fluent English and act like humans.
Actually, it's worse than fluent English, it's English with odd vocabulary choices but native grammar, even though grammar is the harder part to get right even for a human learning another human language. More fundamentally, the conversations with aliens just never felt all that alien. I've read accounts of encounters between European and native in Africa or the Americas that seemed to involve more culture shock. If it were space opera, perhaps I could roll with it better, but it was a First Contact story, and the aliens not being alien was the equivalent of a hero's journey where the hero is lame, or a whodunnit where the murderer's identity is obvious. It's a fundamental problem, for me at least. For others, it may not be as much of an issue, and Ruthanna Emrys is a good writer who makes easy-to-read prose. But it didn't work for me.
A very ambitious story that wanted to juggle first contact, motherhood, the Jewish diaspora and exodus, gender, capitalism, ecology, statehood and politics, and managed to do so, but a couple of the balls fell during the act.
Things that were cool:
-Moms as diplomats: It was cool that science and obvious displays of the traditionally feminine were seen as powerful here.
-Watersheds: I do love me a conceptual model of industry and control outside of capitalism with focuses on socialist policy distributed through the hands of the many instead of the oligarchs. Rational anarchy, man, love to see it.
-Very alien aliens. Hard to do, but fun to see, and I liked how this was approached. I often think...if someone from outerspace comes to Earth, why would anyone think that Terrans would control the mode of the meeting? Obviously the aliens would have done more research and have more tools, so we'd follow their lead, no? Emrys seems to agree with me.
-First 40%. This was really good, strong world building, cool interactions, believable characters.
Things that detracted:
-Lots of filler. While this is likely not incorrect in how humans would hem and haw and posture should something large like alien contact occur, it's really boring to read about. Especially since our POV is not someone who understands or is good with politics.
-Shifted to tropes. At some point the ambition outgrew motivation and the author moved from a nuanced look at the ways humans interacted and gave in to moustache twirling and highhandedness.
-Holes in research. We're supposed to be getting this story from the POV of a mom of a toddler who is also an ecological biologist focusing in water ecology. Now, I don't think an author needs to be an expert in the same things their characters are, but I do expect some light Googling when obvious bits of the work would interact with the story. Similarly, the idea of co-parents needing to be physically intimate, and indeed how co-habitation would work was just very off.
-Romance. This is when things went downhill for me. It felt very sudden, tacked on and gross. Granted, I dislike romance and I hate spiders, so all the antipathy from me personally, but from a technical perspective, I didn't think this worked.
-Plot point intrusion. The book was so plodding that anything that moved it forward stood out like a beacon. Aha, the next plot point! Something unrelated to anything that came before that will get us to the next area to explore! It felt very shoehorned in, with transitions like in PowerPoint, not in cinema.
2.5 stars rounded down because I ended up skimming the last 30%. I can't say it was good if there were literally no chapters after the halfway mark that I felt were strong enough to re-engage me fully.
HIGHLIGHTS ~aliens that absolutely do not look like spiders ~corporations stuck in cages ~optimistic environmental sci-fi ~never underestimate a dandelion ~can we have this future??? please???
I have been staring blankly at my screen for over a week now, every time I sit down to try and talk about this book. It. It’s just. I have no idea how to be coherent about it. It’s brilliant and beautiful and breathlessly compelling, thoughtful and hopeful and wildly imaginative, revolutionary in so many ways. Reading it feels like the galaxy-brain meme; you can feel your mind expanding as all these new ideas and concepts come rushing in, redefining things you took for granted, making you really look at your own core beliefs, challenging precepts you thought were foundational.
Judy lives in a future in which climate collapse was just barely averted; a future in which people align themselves with watersheds rather than nations – instead of arbitrary lines drawn on a map, you belong to the eco-system you’re a part of. It’s a huge shift from how most of us think of ourselves today, but it’s also incredibly simple; the kind of thing that feels so obvious and correct once someone suggests it or points it out. Once I’d grasped the idea, I immediately wondered how is this not something we do already? It makes so much sense!
The watersheds honestly look pretty utopic from where I’m sitting, and that is in huge part due to the algorithms that govern their private network: ones that balance and moderate discussion, giving greater weight to people whose history and specialities are relevant, ‘downvoting’ those who don’t know what they’re talking about, collating information from different places and marking or even removing unsubstantiated facts and opinions. I mean. !!! Imagine if we had those now! Just the idea of them were enough to bring me to tears, but also seeing how they allow consensus to form, how everyone gets to weigh in on every decision made by the whole…gods. This. This. And how community grows out of this, the natural effect it has on those who live by it; there are no presidents or prime ministers, because they’re not needed. There’s no parliament, because everyone gets a say. When for whatever reason a spokesperson is needed, the watersheds send someone who specialises in the thing – but that person is still plugged into the network, and can convey the voice of their entire community. They’re not representing the group, they’re an avatar of the group, and that’s just. Mindblowing.
Which is one reason Judy is so uncomfortable when she becomes the de-facto representative of the watersheds – not just her own, but all of them! – to the aliens. Especially since it happens by accident. But the real problem is that due to her situation, she has to make decisions on her own, and try her best to figure out the right questions to ask, when typically she would be directed by the concensus of her whole community. From a reader’s perspective, this makes her incredibly interesting – someone who could usually expect to be somewhat passive in a task like this has to be active, even proactive instead, and we get to see how difficult that is for her, and the problems it causes for herself and those around her.
It doesn’t hurt that she’s surrounded by a marvelous cast: her wife Carol, and the co-parents who are the other half of their household, Dinar and Athëo, all of whom have very different backgrounds, interests, and specialisations, but all of whom come together as a non-traditional family that I really loved. (Speaking of which, I was delighted to see a future sci-fi with Judaism front-and-centre – there’s a Passover Seder that’s not just wonderful to read, but immensely plot-relevant!)
The concept of independent eco-socialist communities with local internet networks was interesting, but that's the only positive thing I can say about this novel. The writing is clunky. The human characters are all whiny and interchangeable. The aliens are neither original nor compelling (I thought Axiom's End had more interesting aliens, and I gave that book 2 stars). The conversation around gender and pronouns is preachy and infodumpy. The plot could be solved if one single person took the time to think about it for more than five minutes .
And worst of all, as a person who neither has nor wants children, this novel made me feel uncomfortable with all the self-congratulatory talk about parenting. It almost felt like propaganda at times. I actually felt so condescended to and preached at by the book that I didn't want to read any more. It felt like a story written by a parent for parents as a pat on the back for being better than everyone else.
I'm so disappointed. Who the hell thought this was comparable to Ursula K. Le Guin, and what were they smoking?
There were witty comments scattered throughout the story that I enjoyed. I appreciated that the author emphasized such natural things - breastfeeding, babies, the land - and then juxtaposed them with the aliens and their technology. I also liked that they were rebuilding the land they had destroyed. However, it was really heavy handed on the gender pronouns and the parenting, which ultimately became exhausting. I think I would have liked the book more had it been shorter.
Thank you to NetGalley and Macmillan Audio for the ARC.