Geoff Ryman and The Child Garden

In this final introduction to science fiction literature, Ross Hetherington discusses one of the greatest recent works of the genre, Geoff Ryman’s “The Child Garden”.

Ross Hetherington

The worlds of science fiction never seem that far away. So it is for me. Now, when I say this, what kind of person do you imagine? If your mind presents you with an image of someone immersed in the pages of Wired magazine, or looking over the designs of an Apple, I’m afraid your mind (understandably, admittedly) has let you down. I had a new phone sent out to me recently – perfectly free. I sold it over a little kiosk at the Savoy centre. I was uninterested. To imagine the future strictly in terms of a march of consumer products may well be good futurology, but it’s a narrow horizon for Sci Fi. There are many ways which human beings – and life in general – could live, and our success in imagining these worlds is not measured in predictions, but circumnavigations – plottings of the possible (maybe even impossible!) shape of societies and worlds. Many of these will be far away. But as I said, never that far. Never so far as to say nothing about us, even as they depict something to us. Today, I’m extremely happy to bring to your attention a world neither too close nor too far from our own – a mid-range imagining; an Earth in a near century, in fact. I believe it paints as much of the human spirit onto a single canvas as we ever find in the 19th century greats, but does so whilst inflicting changes on our immediate future that maybe only could just be dreamed of.

The Child Garden (1989) is set, for the most part, in the London of the end of this century. Change is everywhere. Climate change and worldwide social and technological revolution has surrounded the city with paddy fields and levees of cultured coral-reef. Early in the last century, the cure for cancer was discovered, and accidently widely distributed by virus. And it was then subsequently discovered that the propensity for cancer was an essential part of human senescence. Unable to grow old, people began to die in their mid-thirties. “After that, there had been a Revolution.” Nearly one hundred years on, children are educated by viruses from the age of three weeks – given the best of human knowledge and culture. At the age of ten, their personalities are biologically “read”, and added to The Consensus – a vast organic store of the personas of the whole society at the time. The reading process is accompanied by viruses which make people superficially polite and non-violent. The Consensus makes the decisions for the whole of society, in one of the most direct democracies imaginable.

In the midst of all this is Milena. Milena was born in Czechoslovakia, but has barely any memory of her life there or in London until the age of ten. The memories were lost to her the final time the viruses were given to her. She was largely immune to them, and she had almost died. She was too ill to be read, and hence is not part of the consensus. Milena is also homosexual. Homosexuality is one of the things got rid of during the reading process. She is hence unbelievably lonely. As Ryman puts it “it seemed to Milena that nearly everything she saw around her was wrong.”

Milena now works as an actress (badly). But, beyond the countries of the Consensus, there is another group of humans. Genetically modified, the rugged, capitalistic “Bears” live in the Antarctic. One of them is a genius. They have written an operatic score for Dante’s The Divine Comedy. It is 50 hours long. Milena is fated to try to stage this work, using mile-long holograms high above the surface of the world.

I have a worry that this introduction to the novel may give you the wrong idea. Another totalitarian dystopia? Yes and no, and the most precise answer more subtle than either. Sketching the biological technology brought to bear on the residents of London might give the impression that throughout the novel Milena is against a faceless mob. The mob is not faceless. Ryman’s London abounds with characters and oddities, and not all of them are outside the Consensus. The technocratic democracy which has been installed wears a human face, warts and all. And Milena is not simply an antagonist to her society. Much of the time she is merely trying to live within it.

So what is so good about the novel? It’s a cliché, but really: so, so much! The language is perfectly poised, saying as much as is needed to bring this future London to vivid life. Beautiful strands, from the core of the thoughts of the great philosophers, frame this novel, but never overcrowd the (very!) human story. Often, as a philosopher myself, I found myself seeing whole ideas and traditions in a sparkingly-novel way.

But most important is what the novel says about us. Many might intuitively think that such a society, and such technology, constitutes our route to Utopia. The novel, if examined carefully, makes it clear that, even if better than our society now, Utopia is not achieved here. Ryman’s eye for the ways in which such a society would only partially cure our ills, and otherwise cover them up, is displayed, pervasively, throughout.

This is a book to both break your belief in humanity, and then rescue it (even you) again. It taught me things about love and sympathy, culture and living things, which I found nowhere else. If anyone were to ask me why I read science fiction – as much as I love the previous works I’ve covered in this short series – I could not think of a better argument than to press this book into their hands.