I don’t often pick up books without doing some proper research on them. Every now and again, I’ll find a good deal and make that grade school mistake of judging a book by its cover. Typically, that methodology would lead to a recent read that wasn’t worth even the few dollars I spent on the book. However, every once in a great while, a title, a cover, and the barest of synopsis leads to a discovery that can’t be easily duplicated. This is such a case. Entirely by happenstance, I came across a novel that has taken the place, very comfortably, as an all-time favorite of mine.
A little background before we get into it. I pick up a lot of my books off of discount book sites because I am typically strapped for cash and, instead, get more bang for my buck and stay behind trends instead of chasing this week’s newest best seller. This isn’t a great option because it makes discussing contemporary literature a bit of strain, but I digress. This novel was suggested to me off of some other purchase, and because it was a few bucks for a hardcover, I took the plunge without knowing the author or much beyond the synopsis. With that said, what sits between the covers of The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman is nothing short of a masterpiece.
As an extra bit of background, this book is under-discussed but was not a sleeper hit of its time. In 1990 Ryman won both the Arthur C. Clark Award and John W. Campbell Award for The Child Garden. It was the third novel for this Canadian author and, despite a lack of popularity in the modern is possibly his most successful story. The novel stresses quite a few themes that I feel may play better in the modern world against the society of thirty years ago, but that’s my opinion. I hope to read more of Ryman in the future as the description of his novel Was has quite the hook to it.
Now to cut the meat of it, let’s break apart the subtitle, my addition, not Ryman’s, for obvious reasons. This is a book you could easily market as LGBT associated with the main character being a lesbian as well as a member of the supporting cast. I don’t like books or people who try to sell on such vibes, I feel it cheapens things and makes the point, and people, seem far less sincere and dynamic, but that’s a personal gripe and not one I take with Ryman as it is hardly pushed as the primary draw. Now regarding Solarpunk. It’s for sure a slightly less common future “punk” aesthetic. Still, if you’re unfamiliar, in short, it’s a combination of tech and nature lending to more sustainable energy models and things of the like. It’s the Frutiger Aero of punk styles if you at all remember the sort of base splash screen for 2000s-era Windows computers. Wherein there would be a city but then in the foreground thriving ocean life and things of that nature. It’s underrated. However, there is a lot of minimal tech, if not more green-powered technology, in this novel. A good example is tailored genetics that have allowed humans to photosynthesize sunlight in the way of plants instead of requiring as much food. I’m no scientist, I don’t know how far or close that is to realism, but it’s an intriguing idea and lends to building the world all the better. Now we reach the final leg of the statement, anti-authoritarianism. I can thrust a finger at scenes and motivations and story arcs throughout that lend to this theme. I would say it’s the book’s most vital and prominent theme and, without spoiling it, the bulk of our main character’s arc. Giving little away, she is immediately classified within her culture as being an outsider because of her sexuality. This isn’t a biased society in the manner of hating gays but in a more simplistic way as to say that her genetic code is defective because of this tendency. Because of that, it’s easy to see why someone on the far side of orthodoxy would immediately tend towards anti-authoritarian motives.
So for a brief rundown of the plot, as spoiler free as I possibly can because I’m going to be honest, there is so much of significance here that a little too much in any direction is going to leech away some of the magic. We follow Milena, a stage actress living in a neo-tropical London in a future wherein the people of the world are conditioned and educated through strains of viruses administered to them in their youngest years at Child Gardens. The society of London is controlled by an overarching socio-governing body called the Consensus, which controls everything from law to genetics. Milena meets another woman who is outside of the majority, Rolfa, who turns out to be not only a beautiful singer but genuinely brilliant. Rolfa has privately worked on music to accompany a play of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which steps even further from the Consesus’ control as new things are atypical to the point that those in charge of culture are more content regurgitating the same things that have always been. The plot, at times, flits back to Milena’s youth in Czechoslovakia, the present we start at in the novel, and the future in which we invariably end.
The impression I got from this story was surreal and bizarre, if I can put any good words to them. It’s not to say there aren’t better terms to use, but the feeling of being at home in a place entirely foreign to you is a vibe that’s hard to pin down in a word or two. This ties into my opinion of it being a masterpiece, as I think Ryman gives vivid enough life to all the characters you’ll come across and need to recollect while still leaving a mystique to them. He seems very even-handed in most affairs with this novel making certain to not overload any theme to be so weighted that it draws away from the plot. I exclude the anti-authoritarian theme here because it’s baked in just so that unless it is requisite for the moment, it remains as the hum of a bug zapper hanging up on the porch through the heart of summer, there but not of note. It’s when the bugs hit that magnificent blue light, the heavy plot points regarding that theme, become once more apparent and relevant. As I said before, stories that shift from the actual development of plots, characters, and arcs to instead focus on specific features of identity usually irk me, but as I would say of Ryman’s moderation, Milena’s sexuality is discussed only in a bare essentials manner unless its plot related. This sounds like a very minor thing, I’m sure, but it strikes a chord with me to see someone handle such a thing with grace and not use it as an anchor for their work to gimmick people into liking it.
So, if you’re looking for an underrated science fiction novel that almost comes across as experimental rather than ordinary, consider The Child Garden. Ryman brings a lot to the table in themes and elements enough to keep almost anyone engaged. If nothing else, like so much fiction I’ve poured through only to hate by the end, you’ll walk away with some new ideas and concepts. I’m a big advocate for taking another look at the world through different eyes or looking at a completely alien world with your own. Below I’ve included a link to the site I got my copy. I hope you check it out.