Authors: Geoff Ryman
Tags: #Romance, #Science Fiction, #SciFi-Masterwork, #Fantasy
Science Fiction Masterworks Volume 61
‘SF MASTERWORKS is a library of the greatest SF ever written, chosen with the help of today’s leading SF writers and editors. These books show that genuinely innovative SF is as exciting today as when it was first written.’
Literature for me . . . tries to heal the harm done by stories. (How much harm? Most of the atrocities of history have been created by stories, e.g., the Jews killed Jesus.) I follow Sartre that the freedom the author claims for herself must be shared with the reader. So that would mean that literature is stories that put themselves at the disposal of readers who want to heal themselves. Their healing power lies in their honesty, the freshness of their vision, the new and unexpected things they show, the increase in power and responsibility the give the reader.
—Geoff Ryman, “An Email Conversation with Geoff Ryman”
The difficulty with writing a foreword to Geoff Ryman’s>
The Child Garden
is knowing where to begin. There is simply so much honesty, such freshness of vision, such new and unexpected richnesses of the imagination and, indeed, so much generosity of spirit in this fabulous novel that it’s difficult to highlight one thing without losing sight of many others. Yet all are equally important to the complexity of Ryman’s vision of a future London that, unlike the simpler warnings of Aldous Huxley or George Orwell, is both utopian and dystopian at once. Ryman’s future-London is a place of hope and despair, beauty and ugliness, extraordinary wonders and unimaginable costs. It is, above all, a novel about healing—healing from disease, healing from the trauma of becoming human, healing from the ugliness and despair of the world.
The Child Garden,
originally published in 1989, is Ryman’s second novel, following
The Warrior who Carried Life
The Child Garden
won both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and brought Ryman to the notice of the wider science fiction community, those who were not already cognizant of his remarkable short fiction. Ryman was born in Canada, educated primarily in the USA and has lived most of his adult life in the United Kingdom. His fiction covers all of that territory, alongside a lifelong interest in Asia (Air is set in a fictional futuristic version of Kazakhistan, while The King’s Last Song re-tells, among other things, the story of Cambodia’s twelfth-century king, Jayavarman, VII in the context of Cambodia’s current history and immediate past). Ryman’s third novel, Was, interweaves three narratives, the ‘true’ story of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, the life of Judy Garland, and the story of Jonathan, a young Canadian actor who is dying of AIDS. What all of these novels have in common is a sense of the way in which the world hammers at and distorts us and the sometimes unlikely but urgent possibilities for healing—for using the stories that heal to undo the damage done by stories that harm.
The protagonist of
The Child Garden
is a young woman named Milena. Milena is an oddity in her world because, unlike all of the other children, she is resistant to the viruses which manipulate the individual’s genes and infect them, among other things, with language and the world’s knowledge. As a result, Milena is unique. And in Milena’s uniqueness, as it turns out, lies the great hope of the cure for the cure for cancer. And, no, that’s not a typographical error.
The Child Garden
thus starts with an irony. Cancer has been cured. The most feared disease of the 20th—and, thus far, of the 21st—century has been defeated. Cancer no longer exists. But curing cancer turns out not to be the miracle for which we have all hoped. Cancer, it turns out, “had been rather important. Cancer cells did not age. They secreted proteins that prevented senescence. They had allowed people to get old. Without cancer, people died in or around their 35th year.”
Ryman spells this conundrum out for the reader in the first four pages of the novel. We enter it knowing that the human lifespan has been halved, in part because the wealthy were able to buy (and accidentally release) the cure for cancer before it has been properly tested. Without needing to know if there is any validity to the assertion that cancer gives us the ability to age, we are already in familiar science fictional territory: a scientific thesis has been advanced. We will enter into the novel as part of Ryman’s thought experiment in what a world that has paid such a high cost for the elimination of cancer might look like. As readers we are prepared to do this because the novel is, after all, science fiction and such thought experiments are one of the standard modes by which science fiction operates. But we are also prepared because Ryman tropes on discourses we all already know—the greed of ‘Big Pharma’ (though Ryman never even mentions pharmaceutical companies), the shoddiness with which high-profit high-stakes drugs are sometimes tested, the extraordinary and sometimes extraordinarily unethical things people will do in order to prolong their lives at any cost. Really, is Ryman’s premise that far-fetched? And does it matter. Let’s take him at his word: Cancer has been cured and the human lifespan has been reduced by more than half. Where does that leave us?
In a technologically-advanced society, short of finding a cure for the cure for cancer, it leaves us with technological solutions. Like the cure for cancer itself, the solutions—perhaps one might best regard them as stop-gap measures—lie in further genetic technologies. So, at the end of page 4, our protagonist, Milena, terrified of the viruses which, if they succeed in infecting her, may also cure her of herself (more on this in a minute), sits on a bus and looks at the children around her: “They had been given viruses to educate them. From three weeks old they could speak and do basic arithmetic. By ten, they had been made adults, forced like flowers to bloom early. But they were not flowers of love. They were flowers of work, to be put to work. There was no time.”
On the one hand, this is a stunning feat of the imagination, a world in which children are forced, like prize flowers, to bloom early—and, like prize flowers, a world in which they die prematurely. On the other hand, this—like all good science fiction—is also about us. While we are educated by viruses and speaking at three weeks of age, what the novel does is to literalize the very contemporary sense of the compression of time. In the West, at least, our average life expectancies are higher than they have ever been—and yet our lives go past so quickly, seeming to rush by faster every day. Like Ryman’s children, we live at speed. We feel that there is no time. And this, too, is something where we may seek healing, perhaps even in seizing the time it takes to sit down and read a novel.
There are a couple of other things about Milena that are very important. Milena is not a full citizen of her world, because when the authorities finally succeed in getting the viruses to infect her, at the age of ten, she becomes too ill to be Read. ‘Reading’ is the process whereby a personality model of every citizen is created, mental disorders are discovered and cured, and the personality models become part of the Consensus, the government. Without going too much into Ryman’s vision of a government by Consensus that is still, like all governments, a hegemony with political and ideological principles—expressed primarily through the Party—that can override human needs, desires and talents, it is hard not to note the irony of this both in relation to the novel’s original publication in 1989, the year before Thatcher’s Conservatives went down to defeat in the UK and in relation to the current Conservative-Liberal alliance with its view of privatization and citizen ‘responsibility’ under the tendentious sobriquet of the ‘Big Society.’
Conservative politics are not entirely by the by here, however, particularly in relation to Milena’s fear of being Read. Milena has very good reasons to fear being Read, even though she is now as infected by the viruses of common knowledge as any other citizen in her world. And here is another reason Milena is unique: Milena is a lesbian. According to the Party, same-sex love is a “semiological product of late period capitalism.” Milena suffers from Bad Grammar. If you want to get academic about it, there is something both deeply Derridean here (in the sense of Jacques Derrida’s arguments about the functioning of language in, for example,
) and deeply Foucauldian (in the sense of Michel Foucault’s argument, in
The Order of Things,
about the way in which languages structure and are structured by social order, so that re-ordering things in ways that appear to make so sense, within our particular epistemologies, also appears to fracture language itself). Life in London where she has no hope of finding a partner and must boil her cutlery to avoid infection makes Milena angry. But Milena is also scared, not just of viruses but because she is “certain that one day soon the Party will try to cure her . . . of anger, of being herself.”