A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys and Goliath by Tochi Onyebuchi

I started both of these books near the end of last year, alternating between them at home and on my commute. I ended up leaving both half-finished, partly because other circumstances made me feel that I wasn't giving either one the attention it deserved. But also, because the resonances between them—the unexpected similarities, the profound differences, and the way one seems to fill the gaps left by the other—made both reading experiences more fraught than I think either one on its own would have been. I knew that I wanted to return to both books, and happily the looming Hugo deadline created the impetus to do so. These are both very good novels, but I think reading them together has not only helped shed light on their relative strengths and weaknesses, but on some of the trends currently running through science fiction.

A Half-Built Garden is a first contact novel. In the late 21st century, Judy Wallach-Stevens is a hydrologist in the Chesapeake watershed, one of a loose network of quasi-anarchist collectives that have dedicated themselves to restoring the Earth's damaged waterways and reversing the ravages of climate change. On call on an evening when an anomalous sensor reading shows up in her sector, Judy sets out, wife Carol and infant Dori in tow, to discover an alien spaceship. The aliens, who soon come to be known as Ringers, inform Judy that humanity is saved: they have come to take us away from our dying planet, to join in their multi-species alliance on a network of deep space habitats.

The novel thus quickly establishes a different sort of alien invasion, one driven by compassion rather than greed. Intelligence, Judy is informed, is incompatible with planetary living. "All species must leave their birth worlds, or give up their technological development, or die. You are very close." For someone who has dedicated her life to the dream of restoring the Earth—and more importantly, to the belief that humans are capable of changing in order to live in harmony and respect with their natural environment—this insistence shakes Judy to her core (all the more so when the Ringers reveal that they want to break down some of the solar system—perhaps even the Earth itself—for building materials for humanity's new habitats). It appears more congenial to the planet's other major political forces, the remnants of national governments and of megacorporations. Both have been reduced to fractions of their former power—the corps are mostly corralled on artificial islands and forced to abide by restrictive carbon budgets—and see in the Ringers' offer a chance to regain it.

Before long, the dilemma raised by the Ringers' presence—should humanity abandon its efforts to heal the Earth and leave for the stars—fractures into a thousand smaller but thornier issues. A corporate attack on the watersheds' networks—message boards governed by complex algorithms that give weight to opinions based on social credit and help shepherd consensus—foments distrust and paranoia, leaving individuals and groups to make decisions on their own, with results that are often disastrous. The Ringers' leader grows increasingly frustrated with the watersheds' to-her-irrational insistence on remaining on Earth, and begins to contemplate the forced removal of humanity for our own good. Both the US government and the corporations take advantage of the situation to press their advantage with the Ringers and, along the way, advance their core philosophies. Before long, Judy's task balloons from convincing the Ringers that Earth is still salvageable to dissuading them from allowing the corporations a foothold in their society.

In both her worldbuilding and character work, Emrys returns again and again to the idea that cherished values—often arrived at after painstaking trial and error—can seem rigid, insufficient, and even oppressive from another point of view. Ringer society is strongly matriarchal, centering birthing mothers in leadership roles—Judy earns her spot as ambassador due to the accident of having brought Dori to first contact, because Ringers believe the presence of children in negotiations promotes harmony and encourages good behavior. Judy recognizes the wisdom in this approach, but she's also shaken by the biological essentialism it implies. But then, Judy has trouble dealing with anything that challenges her cherished dogmas. Even when you agree with her about, say, the rudeness of asking whether she or Carol are Dori's "real" mother, or the nihilism of taking Earth apart for raw material, the constant stream of judgment in her internal monologue can come to seem priggish and overbearing. In this, she makes for a good counterpart for the Ringer leader Cytosine, who like Judy is driven to both anxiety and imperiousness by humans' refusal to follow the script in her head.

Nowhere is the clash of values—and the limitations of Judy's worldview—more apparent than when the Ringers and watershed representatives visit the corporate islands. Absent any real power, the corporations have turned inwards, playing elaborate, cutthroat games of hierarchy in which complex fashion and gender presentations play an integral role. When Judy expresses fatigue with this gamesmanship and suggests that a low-ranking corporate honcho might be happier in the watersheds, where there is no scrambling for position, she's told:

"I'll keep my salary, thanks. And my spot on the ladder. What you people don't get is that this stuff"—they gestured at the magenta velvet clinging to their torso, spreading into a skirt that flared as they stood and twirled for us—"is fun. Because of the challenge, not in spite of it. Challenges keep life interesting, even when we don't have visitors from other worlds."

It's a wrongfooting moment. We naturally share Judy's distrust of the corporations, and yet there's something a bit puritanical about her distaste for their games, and one wonders whether the watersheds can accommodate things like healthy competition and ambition. 

It's in these chapters that my issues with the novel finally crystalized. For all Emrys's careful worldbuilding, there's something very empty-seeming about the A Half-Built Garden's world. The anarchic, highly intentional, deeply idealistic society of the watersheds seems like something you could maintain with a population of thousands, not millions. The US is represented only by its government, with no sense of how its citizens live. And the corporations seem to consist entirely of executives and wannabe executives. It never feels believable that any of these groups are seeing to the needs of—are providing the ideological framework for—billions of humans. And that impression is only complicated when the same corporate representative explains to Judy why they think the corporations taking up the Ringers on their offer won't lead to another age of rampant, destructive growth.

"I think the problem with the corporate age was that we tried to have it here. It's obvious that our ideas were made for space. You could have mines the size of planets and skyscrapers the size of stars, and extract resources for centuries without breaking the systems you're extracting from. The networks can keep Earth—it'll be a backwater, but they can have it. We'll take the rest of the universe in trade."

But, well, who's going to work in those mines? Who's going to extract those resources or clean those skyscrapers? Judy despises the corporations for how they destroyed Earth's environment, but long before they did that, they exploited and abused workers. Capitalism has always presented itself as a game where anyone with brains and nerve can triumph and rise to the top, but that has always been a lie. The system requires the existence of an exploitable underclass. The fact that Judy never mentions this—even when it might offer a more persuasive justification for her hostility towards the corporations—makes her look like that caricature of an environmentalist, more worried about spotted owls than people. More importantly, it clarifies the core problem with A Half-Built Garden, and its attempt to talk about a sustainable future society. This is a world without an underclass—not, it seems to me, because such people have been brought up to everyone else's level, but because Emrys neglected to put them in her story.

The missing underclass is what Goliath concerns itself with, though in so many other respects it and A Half-Built Garden seem to be struggling with the same issues and deploying the same tools. Here, too, we have a world in the late 21st century groaning from the ravages of climate change. Here we also have humanity escaping the Earth for the stars, and invaders who want to dismantle what's left for their own purposes. But here, both the locals and the newcomers are human.

The world of Goliath is the nightmare scenario for someone like Half-Built Garden's Judy. Climate change has been allowed to run rampant, leading to natural disasters, infrastructure collapse, and the poisoning of much of the environment. High levels of radiation and air pollution cause organ damage and skyrocketing cancer rates, unless you happen to live under a dome—which are reserved for the affluent—or can afford cybernetic organs. Instead of groups like the watershed networks emerging to fix the problem and push back against the corporations exacerbating it, in this world the response of most people who are able—which is to say, most white people—is to leave, relocating to orbital colonies and leaving behind those with no options. Who are overwhelmingly poor, and, in the novel's setting of New Haven, Connecticut, nearly all black.

This new type of white flight elicits a range of reactions from those left behind. "Best thing that coulda happened to the planet was that all the white folks left it," one muses, but others observe the dwindling tax base, and the growing indifference and corruption of governments who have nobody but the poor and racialized to oversee. As the novel opens, a reversal is beginning, with people from the colonies—which are, after all, no less capitalistic than Earth, and have developed their own lower classes—returning to Earth for cheap real estate as well a fantasy of pioneering. This return, too, provokes different reactions. Some people are glad about the resumption of social services, hopeful that the presence of white people in their neighborhood will mean cleaner air and water. Others worry about over-policing, as when an entire building is put on lockdown because one resident traveled to a pandemic zone ("Ugh, this is what happens when your building's full of white people. All of a sudden, everyone cares about your health"). One character, however, sums up the novel's thesis when he observes a returner couple who have purchased a house in his neighborhood: "He saw those aliens and was terrified".

The aliens in question are David and Jonathan, a young couple whose courtship and decision to make a life on Earth give Goliath a loose framing story. But, despite segment headings that break up the novel by the seasons of the year, its narrative is unmoored in time. It moves from past to present and back again in a way that seems designed to force the reader to scramble to keep up. A long middle segment intercuts between two flashbacks whose relevance to the plot doesn't become clear until right at its end. Characters swim in and out of focus, their relationships shifting off-page. Some chapters are a transcription of one character or another shooting the shit, delivering long, meandering monologues of little significance (sometimes to a reporter who has been chronicling the lives of the left behind, trying not to come off like a visitor at the zoo, and mostly failing). A throughline in some chapters revolves around the discovery of horses living wild outside the city and the construction of a stable for them, a rare instance in which those left behind can reclaim both their neighborhood and their natural environment. But this is a thread that is dropped and returned to more than once.

What ties the novel together, instead, is the primary occupation of most of its characters. In an opening scene, a pair of city employees demolish an abandoned house in an impoverished neighborhood by dropping a gravity bomb on it that sucks its components into a wormhole.

Municipal engineers never figured out how to get the disc to swallow up the more unwieldy parts of the home, so the undigested bricks would be vomited in a pile of architectural effluvium on top of the disc that someone would then have to fish out. And just as his truck would leave or just as they would retrieve the disc, stackers would swarm over the site, harvesting the bricks for building residential units up in the space colonies.

It's among these "stackers"—people who dismantle New Haven's red brick homes and the halls of Yale university so that the bricks can be sent into space—that most of the novel is set, a loose group of people working a hard, contingent job. (Nor is this the only way in which characters in the novel make their living by taking apart their world. One of the stackers, Sydney, is introduced to us in the desert alongside her father, poaching endangered cactuses and auctioning them to customers in space looking for a bit of Earth exotica.) They are young and old, men and women, New Haven natives and newcomers from other parts of the US with complex and often tragic backstories. They go about their task with a matter-of-factness born out of necessity. It's not that they're not cognizant of the significance of their work—one of the demolition men in the opening scene thinks, of the houses he tears down, that they "were like the Pyramids in Egypt. It made sense that humans had built them, but without the stuff that they had now, such things seemed an impossibility." But, as that thought suggests, nothing in his life has encouraged him to think about the future. 

To an extent, this is true of the novel as well. At its most schematic, Goliath feels like a litany of real-world injustices—gentrification, overpolicing, environmental racism, mass incarceration—ported into a future setting. But at its best, the novel persuasively argues that these are things that would continue, and worsen, in a world ravaged by climate change and its attendant political upheaval. William Gibson wrote that the future isn't evenly distributed. In Goliath, the boundaries of that distribution follow racial lines: who gets a protective dome over their neighborhood; who gets surveilled by robot cops. And whatever the have-nots manage to cobble together when the eye of the state is turned away from them, is destroyed when it's deemed of no value, or taken away from them when it is.

Towards the end of the novel, a multi-racial, queer alliance of well-intended activists, something similar to A Half-Built Garden's watersheds, arrive in New Haven promising "Green jobs, not jails." But in Onyebuchi's telling, unlike Emrys's, the logic of this influx runs from paternalism towards oppression. David and Jonathan promise each other to be good neighbors, benevolent gentrifiers. But when push comes to shove, they can't help but deploy their privilege to destructive ends. The biblical reference in their names and the novel's title seems designed to answer a question that people ask when overt violence erupts in a place where it has long existed unobserved. This is what happens, the novel seems to be saying, when you tell people they have no future.

A Half-Built Garden ends with Judy arguing for humanity's right to make its own decisions against a Ringer tribunal who insist that we are too childish and immature to make our own choices. This makes it an interesting riposte to the ongoing fashion for "cozy", "optimistic", "kind" science fiction, which often seems to fail on its own terms. Too often, what these novels call kindness is actually the flattening of all difference, and what they call coziness is a refusal to acknowledge cruelty. This novel recognizes that kindness is hard, that well-intended people can have wildly diverging points of view that can lead them to abuse and dehumanize others, and that conflicts are not won by "destroying" your opponent with a killer argument, but by getting them to see you as someone worth compromising with—even if that means sitting across a table from someone who thinks you shouldn't be allowed to make your own decisions.

Goliath, on the other hand, is a novel about living in a world where the person at the other end of the table can't be convinced of your humanity, even as they tell you that they're one of the good ones. As such, it is a bleak story, one that insists that racism, and the underclass, will always be with us in one form or another. Which I suppose makes the choice between the two novels a bit revealing. Do you prefer science fiction that imagines new solutions, even if to do so it has to simplify the problems? Or does it feel more important to have stories that acknowledge the scope of what we're dealing with, without giving the reader the out of a hopeful ending? Or maybe the question is, which elision—of the ugliness of the now or the possibilities of the future—bothers you more? 

Personally, I think Goliath is the more necessary of the two novels, if only because science fiction doesn't tend to tell its sort of story. I also think it's the better book, more gripping and effective in its emotional argument. But then, that question of affect can't be disconnected from the two works' goals, and a novel like A Half-Built Garden, so focused on compromise and conversation, is simply not reaching for the same visceral emotion that Onyebuchi's writing is. And I also worry that in preferring the darker, more hopeless novel, I'm falling into the opposite trap of those who crow about "optimistic" fiction, wallowing in a misery that is not even my own. I suppose what I really want is a book that does both things—look the present in the eye, and then reach past it into the future.


Standback said…
"Do you prefer science fiction that imagines new solutions, even if to do so it has to simplify the problems? Or does it feel more important to have stories that acknowledge the scope of what we're dealing with, without giving the reader the out of a hopeful ending? Or maybe the question is, which elision—of the ugliness of the now or the possibilities of the future—bothers you more? "

Oh my. This is such a perfect distillation of where genre is right now.
(And maybe this isn't new — I still flip back to Judith Berman's "Science Fiction Without The Future", from 2001— but I sure do feel like modern genre is leaning hard into the question of how we face our looming social problems, and landing on these same two results again and again.)

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