Ruthanna Emrys’ 2022 A Half-Built Garden is a first-contact novel.
Judy Wallach-Stevens is alerted to soaring phosphate levels near Bear Island. Judy, wife Carol, and their infant Dori dutifully trundle off to see what is polluting the local watershed. The source could be some pre-Dandelion-Revolution industrial relic or perhaps someone who should know better is dumping chemicals improperly. The real reason? Aliens.
Judy and her family are now hip-wader deep in a first-contact situation.
Thanks to our radio broadcasts, the aliens are quite familiar with human culture and language, at least those versions that made it on-air. This is not the first time the aliens, the so-called Ringers, have detected a technological civilization in the centuries that they have been actively searching other star systems. It is the first time they arrived in another solar system before that technological civilization destroyed itself.
As far as the Ringers are concerned, the problem is planets. Planets are too fragile to survive early industrial exuberance; there’s always some crucial feedback loop whose criticality is not understood until too late. The only solution of which the Ringers are aware, the only one they are willing to consider, is to relocate the intelligent species to habitats in space, like the ones that comprise the Ringers’ Dyson sphere. Until now, every highly technological species that did not migrate into space perished from its own ingenuity.
It’s no lucky accident of timing that the aliens arrived to find a still functioning civilization on Earth. Forty years earlier, the Dandelion Revolution reduced late capitalism to a few isolated holdouts and greatly weakened nation-states in favour of watershed-based polities. Since then, the watersheds have been busily repairing the damage done to the world’s ecology. While the process is not near its end, it is well past the end of the beginning. Having worked so hard to end the Sixth Extinction, Judy and those like her do not want to be rescued by kindly, matronizing aliens1.
However, avoiding this fate is not merely a matter of one particular watershed saying no. Remnants of nation-states still exist and manifest in the form of NASA envoys. Similarly, corporate relic Asterion (based on their wholly owned Zealand Artificial Island) wastes no time shouldering their way into the negotiations. First contact may offer the old regimes2 a path back into power. They might then decide to let the aliens evacuate the planet.
All of which may be irrelevant. While the Ringers have never found a living civilization outside their home system, the original Ringers — the Plains-folk — did find one on another planet in their home system. The pill-bug-like Plains-folk forcibly integrated the primitive spider-like Tree-folk into the Ringer civilization for their own good. Ringer history is quite firm that this was a right and proper thing to do.
While humans are more technologically sophisticated than were the Tree-folk, the Ringers are far more numerous, far more advanced, and much much wealthier than all of humanity together, let alone any given faction. Only a very skillful negotiation can save humans from annexation … if the Ringers will even listen.
This is another example of what I think of as a growing Tor specialty, a flawed utopia in the near future, on the other side of a seemingly unbridgeable gap between where we are now and where society is in the story. I doubt I’d find the bridge especially plausible, so it’s just as well Emrys treats the transition and many aspects of the setting as John M. Ford would have, as something all the characters are familiar with and rarely dwell on, much as Canadians rarely muse about the impact of the Statute of Westminster, 1931, on the price of baby formula.
Any first-contact novel raises Fermi-paradox questions: why are the aliens stumbling over us now and not a billion years ago? The answer here seems to be that the same technology that allows interstellar contact almost always kills off its creators before it is used for interstellar contact. This has the depressing implication that the Ringers are kidding themselves about their own survival; the fact their space-based phase is only a thousand years old doesn’t exactly prove that they’ve got the right answer. They may just have not gone extinct yet3.
The manner in which the Ringers make themselves known is a strong hint about the low esteem in which they hold natural environments. They treat Earth as a shirt-sleeve environment not because they are idiots4 but because their technology is sufficient to protect them from local dangers. They don’t care about any invasive species they are spreading on Earth because Earth is doomed.
Traditional utopias tend to present the author’s preferred system as the One True Way in Which All Reasonable People Believe and all others as errors, heresies, and outright fraud. In this case, each faction is convinced they are in the right and that it is the others who are being blinkered fools5. While the corporate case is somewhat undermined by the whole “nearly killed the planet with climate change” thing, the watersheds turn out to be dab hands at internal disagreement, not to mention occasional moments of destructive idealistic dumb-assery. A pleasant change from books like Ecotopia, Alongside Night, and the Culture, where there is generally little ambiguity about which point of view is more correct.
Much of the above might seem a bit negative, but at least the novel presented me with interesting subjects on which to muse. As well, Emrys’ prose is skillful and the characters are such that readers will enjoy spending 400 pages with them.
1: Not a typo: the dominant Ringer method of choosing leaders favours females.
2: Zealand’s proximity to Australia aside, there is only a little evidence the world exists outside of the former United States of America, which places this in the snow-globe subgenre of utopias.
3: Do I need to explain this? On the scale of the universe, a thousand years is nothing. Why are the Ringers only a thousand years old and not, say, a hundred million? One explanation is that the Ringers have to be close enough to us to hear our radio and get here before we self-destruct but young enough that they did not turn every planetary system in our shared neighbourhood into Dyson Spheres long before we evolved. Another is that the Great Filter also kills off Kardashev II civilizations but it has not killed off this one … yet. What is more plausible, that there is in the Milky Way a single exception to technology = death, or that there are no exceptions, only occasional examples still in the process of killing themselves off?
It’s not great that we see a number of instances in which the gloriously planned and controlled Ringer systems malfunction, in some cases for reasons that baffle the Ringers.
4: That said, there has to be a better way for a civilization with the industrial output of a Dyson Sphere and faster-than-light travel to look for mayfly civilizations than listening for the burst of radio that comes just before they vanish. For example, if they kept a close eye on atmospheric composition (and a KII civilization can have very good telescopes and an ample supply of probes) they might have noticed an odd spike in atmospheric lead on Earth during the heyday of the Roman Empire.
5: Each group also has idiosyncratic practices concerning sex and gender about which I could comment were I not so convinced that for me to do so would be to step into a minefield, particularly where Zealand’s treatment of gender and pronouns as mere matters of fad and fashion is concerned. I am at a loss as the author’s intent.