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Review: A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys

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In my private goodreads notes for this book, I had apparently written “Ada Palmer rec’d it to me cause I like Terra Ignota’s worldbuilding.” I have no idea when or how this happened (twitter? An AMA?) but oh, was it correct. It’s, in some ways, an old-style first contact story, very reminiscent of Le Guin, with plenty of human/alien cultural worldbuilding. But in other ways, it’s very much modern, with some very interesting takes on gender and a post-capitalist world struggling to repair the damage done to Earth. It did not truly hook me until about 60% in, but the worldbuilding indeed intrigued me right from the start.

When checking for pollution in the water, Judy finds an alien spaceship – with aliens. Having crossed the universe in their conviction that technologically advanced societies must leave planets behind before they drive themselves into extinction and join them in space, they found humans. But humans, especially the watershed networks Judy and her household belong to, finally feel like they might be doing things right, slowly fixing Earth, and might not be as grateful and instantly willing to leave their lives here behind as the aliens think.

First off, I loved how genuinely optimistic it was. Yes, the world is not perfect, but the entire premise is that it can get better and it’s worth working on. In time of all-too-frequent online doomerism, it was a refreshing perspective. I also can’t ever remember reading a sci-fi novel where a large portion of humanity would refuse to leave their world behind for the stars and this wasn’t presented as a bad thing. Not a weird fringe belief or suicidal stubbornness, just plain understandable refusal to give up on their home they spent so much time working on.

(Though it certainly doesn’t help that the aliens don’t understand consent, or see humans as a mature species capable of making their own decisions.)

Another big theme of the book is gender. Among the three different factions of humanity and two species of aliens, each has their own take on gender. Watershed network humans for example see it very similar as we might in an ideal world – transition easily available if desired (though one character had traumatically hateful parents) and the use of pronoun pins for politeness. Corporate humans, however, see their internal sense of gender, hormones, and body fully private and taboo to ask about, but use a variety of pronouns and modes of external presentation to “play” as it suits them. And so on.

The third theme, I’d say, is motherhood. Those looking for books featuring mothers who go on adventures, look no further. Both Judy and her partner Carol are nursing mothers and motherhood is also one of the aliens’ central values – they even expect children to be present at negotiations because it calms everyone down.

It is, also, thoroughly Jewish. Most of Judy’s household is practicing and keeps kosher, which can be a challenge given another culture’s habit of making strange-looking food and refusing to explain what’s in it. They’re all very understandably extra touchy about the possibility of being forcefully exiled into space. And the Passover Seder scene was one of my favourites.

If there’s one complaint I have, it’s that it just didn’t pull me in until fairly late. I was intrigued by the world, sure, and especially by the question of what’s up with the aliens, but as in a lot of big idea sci-fi, the characters weren’t super compelling, the plot was initially very slow, and the flood of information relentless. Funnily enough, what hooked me was the hint of a romantic relationship developing between two humans and one of the (very much non-humanoid) aliens. Because apparently, the idea of very gentle romance between humans and a spiderlike being with too many legs and eyes and mouths is now my thing. If cheering for a certain relationship to happen in Hench wasn’t enough of an indicator.

In short, I highly recommend. Though I am not responsible if it awakens anything in you.

Enjoyment: 3/5
Execution: 4.5/5

Recommended to: Le Guin fans, Chambers fans, those who like slow and thoughtful sci-fi, those looking for Jewish SFF, anyone who likes alien aliens and culture clash plots, fellow monsterfucking enthusiasts
Not recommended to: those looking for a light, fast-paced read

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