July 26, 2022

A Half-Built Garden

By Ruthanna Emrys
Review by
In Ruthanna Emrys' philosophical and warmhearted novel, humanity must decide between whether to heal a ravaged Earth or abandon it for life among the stars.
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If the climate crisis continues its horrifying course, will what’s left of the land and ocean be salvageable? Or will we need to make the jump to an intergalactic existence? In Ruthanna Emrys’ philosophical, warmhearted and intriguing novel A Half-Built Garden, humanity has a chance to chart a new course.

On a warm night in 2083, Judy Wallach-Stevens and her wife, Carol, take a stroll in their neighborhood. A collaborative community tasked with monitoring and preserving a local watershed, their town represents a triumph. The old corporations and nation-states that destroyed the Earth’s environment have been banished from power, and communities like Judy’s are slowly, painstakingly resurrecting our planet. Hope is starting to return—that is, until the aliens arrive. A massive, sleek spacecraft lands in front of Judy, and out step the Ringers. These strange beings have been searching the universe for signs of life and hope they can convince humanity to join their symbiotic civilization before Earth becomes unlivable. Because Judy is the first person they see, she instantly becomes their ambassador. Will humanity decide to leave Earth? Or is the progress they’ve made too precious to let go?

Emrys roots her story in Judy’s reflective, empathetic perspective, and readers will waffle between courses of action right along with her. Humanity gets to know the Ringers, eventually coming to trust and collaborate with them, but Judy is fiercely loyal to the good work her community and similar groups are doing. Emrys takes her time building up arguments for both choices, letting her characters expound on the ethics involved in such decisions in thoughtful, somewhat sad passages.

Ruthanna Emrys wants more fraught Seders in literature.

When you think about aliens coming to Earth, you may picture a secret, paranoia-inducing invasion or open warfare a la Independence Day. But what Emrys does in A Half-Built Garden is far more interesting, creating a scenario in which aliens and humans delicately peel back each other’s layers. How the two groups greet each other, raise children and celebrate, how they view themselves and what they believe in—all become key moments of understanding. The Ringers are offering humanity a spot in their collective community, and Emrys circles this theme again and again with questions on the nature of family: what it is, what it isn’t, its boundaries, its rules, its flexibilities. 

Emrys ticks off all of the expected future-Earth details one would expect: wild technology, vast glittering cityscapes and cool spaceships. But such trappings are never the story’s main concern. Emrys cares far more about the conversations that occur between “us” and “them” and about examining the distance between those two entities. Deciding to leave our planet behind would be an incredibly painful thing to do. But if we do have to leave Earth one day, I hope it would look something like the chance offered here: together, hand in hand, rising into the stars.

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A Half-Built Garden

A Half-Built Garden

By Ruthanna Emrys
ISBN 9781250210982

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