The Ringers, the aliens that descend to Earth at the beginning of Ruthanna Emrys' A Half-Built Garden, are perhaps the best-case scenario as far as aliens go. They're a multicultural community made up of different interstellar life-forms, they value parenthood to the point that they show up to negotiations with children in tow, and they've come to Earth for the express purpose of airlifting humans off of our doomed planet. The only problem? Communities like the one protagonist Judy Wallach-Stevens belongs to have made enormous progress in healing the Earth, and they may not want to abandon it after all.
What interested you in a first-contact story that takes a more peaceful route than the murderous invader angle we see so often?
First contact has been my favorite subgenre of science fiction since I was a teenager. “Exposure Therapy”—my first professional publication, in Analog many years ago—was a first-contact story. The challenges of communication and cooperation are so interesting, and aliens let me turn the questions that humans face with one another up to 11.
I have trouble seeing how a propensity for murderous invasion is compatible with the level of internal cooperation needed for interstellar travel. I'm sure I could come up with reasons to justify it if I tried, but murderous invasion is banal and evil, and not a direction that I'm terribly excited to write about. There's metal and water spread throughout the universe. Why come all this way to kill people when the only resources that differ across star systems are the ones produced by thriving, living sapients? Interstellar invasion to kidnap artists and bring them back to Alpha Centauri . . . that I could get into. I think Catherynne Valente wrote that one!
I'm also an optimist who likes stories in which communication and cooperation are possible. During the process of writing the book, we brought an African grey parrot into our household, and next time I write a first contact, it will probably be influenced by the difficulties of communicating with an English-speaking nonhuman from Earth.
Were there any ideas about the way the Ringers look that you discarded or modified over time? What was the initial spark for their appearance?
In my first two books, Winter Tide and Deep Roots, I used aliens originally invented by H.P. Lovecraft, who, for all his faults, was very good at nonhumanoid body plans. So I didn't want bipeds with funny foreheads—but I did want forms that stemmed from recognizable ecological niches and that could, with some effort, be compatible with living in the same environments as humans. So, no visitors from gas giants.
The plains-folk were sparked by M.C. Escher's roly-polies, which have fascinated me from the time I was a little kid looking at my parents' Escher coffee-table book. I made them bigger and more reasonably biological, but still something that curls up in a ball for defense with (some of their) eyes sticking out. I added the extra limbs and eyes and skinsong later, because complicated sensoria are fun.
I don't recall the tree-folk origin as clearly, but playing with body plans that make humans nervous is always fun, and arboreal biology is also fun to play with. I wanted something that would look more aggressive than it is, so “sort of a giant spider if you don't look too closely” seemed like a promising direction. I added the extra eyes and mouths and manipulators later, because complicated sensoria and radial symmetry are fun.
The gender and parenting aspects of both species came out of themes that I wanted to play with as sources of friction and connection between species—in particular, that for the plains-folk, being a mother is an indication of dominance and leadership, and the way that shapes the whole culture of the Ringers.
“Why would you even make a Dyson sphere—and what would it take to make one and still be worth talking to?” was also a core question that shaped the Rings. Politically speaking, I think Dyson spheres are a bad idea; I wrote the Ringers to argue with me.
The choice of whether to stay on Earth or to abandon the planet lies at the heart of this book. Do you foresee humanity having to make a similar choice at some point in the future?
I'm not actually convinced that it's a feasible choice; that's another place where I wrote the book to argue with myself, as well as with the assumption threaded through so much science fiction that life in space is our inevitable destiny. The Ringers have made several technological advances that make this assumption viable, but it's not clear yet that those advances are feasible in the real world.
I have some serious side-eye for triumphalist predictions about terraforming from a species that so far seems very skilled at taking a habitable planet and making it less habitable. When we've proven that we can keep the air breathable and the temperature under control on the easy setting, I think we'll be ready to spread out!
Motherhood in all its forms is a key element of the story. Was it clear from the beginning that this story would circle around it, or did that element emerge in the drafting process? What about motherhood did you most want to convey or examine while writing?
Parenthood (not just motherhood) was one of my major starting points. In particular, I wanted to challenge the way that our current culture places parenting in conflict with accomplishing just about everything else, and with playing any other role. Modern American culture is worse about motherhood, but that's because fathers are expected to prioritize those other roles. Every culture in A Half-Built Garden, even the corporate one, has some way of better integrating parenting into the rest of life. Some of them have all-new problems, but that's where plot comes from!
What aspects of your version of Earth's future do you think are most likely to become reality?
Sea level rise and unpleasant weather, unfortunately. But 80% of the technology for the dandelion networks is out there and already being used by citizen scientists, and that—along with the algorithms that deliberately build in biases that we want—is ready to become reality if we work at it!
This book is full of different communities. (I loved the strangeness of the social games on the corporate island of Asterion!) Was one of these groups more fun to construct than another?
They were all fun in their own ways. The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Network builds on things I love about my own communities and want to see grow. Judy's neighborhood is, in fact, my neighborhood, with some additions that we've started (the food forest) or discussed putting in (the runoff mitigation garden with the frogs). The remnant U.S. government is a love letter to the nerdy wonks I've worked with inside the Beltway in Washington, D.C.
Asterion was definitely a lot of fun to write, and I wasn't planning them at the start of the story. At some point I got stuck figuring out the corporate reps, and I decided that what this book needed was really sexy villains. And people who, like me, are actually a lot more into gender presentation than gender per se. I wouldn't want to live on their island, but I would enjoy a vacation there a lot more than Judy does! As long as they've labeled the food.
The Ringer multiculture was also a lot of fun, both in figuring out how to build infrastructure for the two species' symbiosis and dropping hints of what things are like in other habitats. My secret favorites are the tech-obsessed group with the food pills, though, like Cytosine. I wouldn't be terribly excited about their potluck contributions.
When you think back to writing this book, do any sections stand out to you?
A Half-Built Garden is in many ways a novel of manners, and my favorite novel-of-manners trope is the fraught dinner party. So I knew early on that each group would get to host a fraught dinner party and that the Chesapeake party would be a Passover Seder. Since most novels-of-manners are British or pseudo-British, I really feel that literature doesn't contain enough fraught Seders. I loved writing a science fictional version of my family's weird progressive interfaith Seder and how well suited it was for forcing people to talk to one another at a time when some of them would rather have hidden from the consequences of previous events.
If aliens landed on Earth today, what do you think would happen? Could we exist peacefully, or perhaps even join their civilization?
It depends on where they land! Come to suburban Maryland, and like Dinar, my family will be eager to host the world's most high-stakes potluck on no notice and to invite friends at NASA to join us before anyone less friendly can get there. On the other hand, I can imagine landing sites where people would be a lot less welcoming. And plenty of companies, like Asterion, would push to build franchises on the nearest Dyson sphere. I hope that the aliens would be enough like us to accept us despite shared imperfections—and enough unlike us to accept us despite those imperfections!
I did cheat a bit by having the Ringers learn human languages from our broadcasts; I didn't want the whole plot to be about language learning, even if Judy's linguistics-nerd co-parent is annoyed about it. In practice, I think we'd have a long process of finding common communication methods, and if parrots are any indication, there would probably be a lot of reasonable-to-one-side biting along the way.
Photo of Ruthanna Emrys credit Jamie Anfenson-Comeau.