Sci-fi Novel Review: A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys

The month before the Hugo Award nomination deadline always involves a mad scramble to read as much off the award-eligible section of my TBR as I can. This year, I was able to squeeze in three 2022 novels before the end of April, and my first priority was a first contact novel that seemed exactly up my alley: A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys. 

A Half-Built Garden takes place decades after climate disaster has rearranged terrestrial powers into three groups: nation-states, corporations, and the deeply environmentally-conscious watershed networks. It’s the third who finds themselves making first contact with a pair of matriarchal alien races who have been searching the galaxy for intelligent species who haven’t yet died off. They hope to convince humanity to abandon Earth and take to the stars. But the watershed networks—who have finally managed a semblance of terrestrial sustainability—are not convinced. 

A Half-Built Garden joins Sarah Zettel’s tremendous The Quiet Invasion on my mental list of first contact novels where the alien encounter provides the inciting incident for a whole lot of infighting among various human factions. The corporations are ready to abandon Earth as soon as they can, the nation-states are intrigued, and the watershed networks are wildly skeptical. It’s clear from the beginning that the climax will deeply involve the extraterrestrials, but before that, there’s a whole lot of Earth politics to sort out. 

Unfortunately, I find the Earth politics to be perhaps the weakest element of the book. The internal discussions within the watershed network are rich and fascinating, but the other two powers feel too shallow to offer a robust counterpoint. There’s an extended visit to corporate territory, complete with learning an elaborate social dance of gender-signaling, but the reader doesn’t get to see much depth in the corporate society; instead, it serves mostly as a foil to the watershed networks. The nation-states get an even shallower sketch, providing a third voice when necessary but not really driving decisions for good or for ill. 

Where the book shines, on the other hand, is in depicting the culture of the watershed networks and their grappling with the well-intentioned colonialism of the extraterrestrial visitors. We see the watershed networks struggle for sustainability and inclusivity, and we see the internal disagreements as to how best to respond to anything from network failures to first contact. It’s a culture that feels real and a world that feels lived-in. Somewhat unusually for sci-fi, that grounded portrayal of culture extends all the way to religious ritual, with a Passover Seder becoming one of the best scenes in the entire book, both advancing the plot and providing a window into the lives of the lead and her family. 

The alien culture is not quite so deeply expressed, but they still walk an interesting line between hostile invasion and a benevolent people seeking only alliance. They want an alliance with the people of Earth, but their deep-seated belief that survival requires abandoning terrestrial homes sees them behaving as colonists, for all their good intentions. And while the ultimate resolution to the puzzle of how to engage with friendly colonizers may come a little too quickly, there’s plenty of fascinating and thoughtful engagement as the watershed networks seek extraterrestrial alliance without abandoning their own values. 

On the whole, A Half-Built Garden combines a fascinating first contact story with a stunningly rich portrayal of a society trying to find a sustainable way forward after climate disaster, and the result is an excellent read. Lack of depth in the competing political factions make for a story that sags a bit in the middle third, and an ending that comes on a hair too quickly. But even with those imperfections, it’s a novel that’s well worth the read. 

Recommended if you like: diplomatic first contact, deep building of inclusive cultures. 

Can I use it for Bingo? It features Mundane Jobs and a Queernorm Setting. 

Overall rating: 16 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads. 

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