A literary descendent of Ursula K. Le Guin, Ruthanna Emrys crafts a novel of extraterrestrial diplomacy and urgent climate repair bursting with quiet, tenuous hope and an underlying warmth. A Half-Built Garden depicts a world worth building towards, a humanity worth saving from itself, and an alien community worth entering with open arms. It's not the easiest future to build, but it's one that just might be in reach.
On a warm March night in 2083, Judy Wallach-Stevens wakes to a warning of unknown pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay. She heads out to check what she expects to be a false alarm—and stumbles upon the first alien visitors to Earth. These aliens have crossed the galaxy to save humanity, convinced that the people of Earth must leave their ecologically-ravaged planet behind and join them among the stars. And if humanity doesn't agree, they may need to be saved by force.
But the watershed networks that rose up to save the planet from corporate devastation aren't ready to give up on Earth. Decades ago, they reorganized humanity around the hope of keeping the world livable. By sharing the burden of decision-making, they've started to heal our wounded planet.
Now corporations, nation-states, and networks all vie to represent humanity to these powerful new beings, and if anyone accepts the aliens' offer, Earth may be lost. With everyone’s eyes turned skyward, the future hinges on Judy's effort to create understanding, both within and beyond her own species.
A Macmillan Audio production from Tor Books.
Release date: July 26, 2022
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Print pages: 336
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Listen to a sample
A Half-Built Garden
“Carol,” I said. “Weren’t you working on a radio transmitter for your sweater swarm? Could we mod that to send a response?”
“Yes, but I didn’t bring my sewing kit, I brought the diaper bag. Maybe Athëo and Dinar could drag it over? Or we could ask the network if someone nearby has one.”
Already in it, came a network response, while Carol was still trying to work out a plan with our co-parents.
“They don’t want to wake up Raven,” she said. “It’s one thing to come out here with Dori and find—” She waved at the palace.
“But another to wake up a toddler with a runny nose and bring them someplace you know might be dangerous, yeah.” Even if Raven, at almost two, was more likely to appreciate the experience. But Athëo and Dinar had only moved in a month before Dori was born, and Raven was just learning to call us Mom and Eema; it wasn’t our decision to make.
I bounced on my toes, jiggling Dori and shaking out my nervous excitement. I watched the network traffic as people arranged to bring in a radio transmitter, more sensors, a better sample kit than the one I’d packed for basic nutrient protocols. I tried to think of something to do in the meantime.
“Do you think they can see us?” I asked. I tried to imagine how we’d look to an observer who’d never met humans before. Two hairless primates standing side by side, one carrying an infant. Would they notice that Carol was taller and broader across the shoulders, or that my eyes were brown where hers were hazel? Would they even be able to separate us from our tools: understand that my denim and Carol’s cotton dress were clothes rather than skin, that Dori’s infant curls were part of her while the smartmail mesh helmeting our adult scalps came off at night?
“We don’t even know if they have eyes,” said Carol. She hugged me, and I realized that I was shivering in the clear winter night. Her touch brought the world beyond the palace back into focus: the bare-limbed maples and pawpaws, the dry whispering grass, the splash of the Potomac against the cliffs. Dori, head resting heavy and warm against my chest. I breathed the moment of miraculous stillness, about to break against the unknown.
Amid the shimmer of the alien construct, near the base of the closest peak, something moved. I flicked back to night vision, added a standoff chemical scan. We clung more closely.
“What are we doing here?” I whispered. “We’re not qualified for this. I’ve repped the Chesapeake in carbon negotiations one time.”
She shrugged against me. I marveled at the familiarity of human anatomy, that I could read her thoughts in that little shift of muscle. “More than I’ve got, unless you count dickering over yarn and circuits. But we’re here, and no one else is. We’d better not fuck it up.”
Against the spill of warmth—eighty-seven degrees Fahrenheit, a spectrum of steam and oxygen and nitrogen and remnant volatiles—a warmer figure scrabbled. I held my breath, squinted irrationally, and upped the light gain on my vision. The creature—alien—person, that had to be the right word, stepped lightly down the side of the palace and into the rock and scrub of our world.
They were long where we were tall: a dozen narrow limbs supported a body scaled like a pangolin’s. More limbs, flared or pointed at the ends, spread from the sides of their torso back toward a broad, flat tail. There wasn’t enough light to tell color, but the shade of their scales varied, mottled dark and pale. Two large eyestalks bulged from the sides of what I decided to assume was a head; smaller sensory organs dotted the head in complex patterns and diffused down their back.
I swallowed. The realization that I was still recording, that my next sentence would be remembered for as long as humans kept records, froze my thoughts and my tongue.
The alien tucked their tail under themselves and rolled back so that they lay rocking on the curve of their own body—limbs scrabbled to sweep pebbles from beneath—and they tapped their dark belly. Small antennae or cilia covered the glistening skin there revealed. I caught my breath: clinging to those cilia were two miniature versions of the alien. One bent its head back, twisting sideways to point an eye at me. It let out a whistling warble, which the other echoed at lower pitch.
Dori twisted her own head around, lips parted in delight. “Bah!”
“That’s for history,” I told her. I knelt down to match the alien’s new height, and Carol joined me. “Welcome to Earth. What’s yourname?”
The alien brought two pairs of limbs together, drawing one across the other like a bow. Pitched oddly, but clearly comprehensible, I heard: “These are Diamond and Chlorophyll. I am Cytosine. What’s your name?”
Kids first, apparently. “This is Dori. I’m Judy Wallach-Stevens, and this is my wife, Carol.”
Music spilled from Cytosine’s limbs, that same five-note series from the initial transmission. “We understand each other!”
“Yes. You’ve been listening to us?” But of course they had: watching our movies, picking up our broadcasts, well over a century’s worth of stories and school videos and documentaries and news. What were they like, to follow all that and still want to meet us?
“Yes. That’s how we learn. You haven’t heard our songs yet, but you are far advanced and we didn’t dare wait. It’s reassuring to know you’re civilized like us.”
Wait, what? Beside me, Carol stiffened. But whatever cue had made them call us civilized, I didn’t want to admit confusion. If they were anything like humans, the other side of that line could be unpleasant—maybe even fatal.
I heard a ride door slam, and someone walking down the path. This discussion was about to get a lot less controllable.
“We’re glad to have you here,” I said at last. I hesitated, not wanting to claim unfounded authority. “I’m present for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Network. May I ask who you’re present for?”
Simulated human laughter, drawn from Cytosine’s bowstring limbs, somehow eerier than words produced the same way. “Yes, of course. I’m first mother of the Solar Flare”—limbs pointed at the palace behind them—“here on behalf of all the families of the Rings. We can help you escape this world.”
I pulled Dori close. “Escape it? Why?” Scenarios tumbled through my mind: an incoming comet missed by our scant satellites, methane reservoirs breaching their tenuous tissue of permafrost and geoengineered shields—or Cytosine’s people teleporting nine billion people to “safety” before appropriating Earth for their own purposes.
“Hallo,” called a voice behind me. “Radio Free Terra is in the—oh, shit.” The newcomer, bearded and thickly built and wearing a they/them badge, set down a box of equipment and gaped.
“You’re late,” Carol told them. “We’re past exchanging radio signals, and on to…” She trailed off, and I wasn’t sure how she should finish that sentence either. “Cytosine, this is Redbug. They build old-style radios, like you used to send those songs.”
Probably the Solar Flare had simulated the radio electronics with some sort of advanced computer—then again, maybe they had a geek in the depths of their ship who enjoyed tinkering with circuits as much as Carol did. I pictured a beaver-pangolin hunched over a workbench, swearing at uncooperative pliers. Whether Cytosine intended threat or apocalyptic warning, their people must be as weird and varied as us. The thought kept me from spinning off into flights of panicked speculation.
But the distraction served another purpose: I posted the question to the network. If there was a comet someone could redirect telescopes; high methane readings would trigger a cobweb of dispersed sensors.
Query sent, I steadied myself. “Why do you think we need to escape?”
Cytosine curled more tightly, stroking Diamond and Chlorophyll—mirroring my embrace of Dori? “All species must leave their birth worlds, or give up their technological development, or die. You are very close.”
“Is that a philosophical statement, or are we facing a specific danger?”
Redbug glanced between us, obviously fascinated but also obviously even more nervous than I was. “I’m just gonna be over here, setting up a base station, okay?” Carol waved them toward an open patch of moss-covered rock.
Cytosine had been rocking a little—thinking? “Philosophy. And empirical observation. Species breed out into vacuum, or die amid their own poisons at the level of technology you have now.”
“All of them?” Carol had that tone in her voice, the one that caused sensible people to back up and scurry for citations.
“This is the fourth world we’ve visited after picking up signals, and the first where we’ve arrived in time.”
“Maybe because we’re doing something right?” I suggested, more sharply than I’d meant to. We’ve never done this before. Don’t fuck it up.
“Because you’re closer. Your planet is a hundred and sixty light-years from the Rings; we could build the tunnel as soon as we found your signal and arrive within the survival window. Why won’t you believe me?” That rocking again—frustration, maybe, or anger. “Your world is pushing the edge of your species’ temperature range. Your seas are scarred by barren patches. Your atmosphere is out of balance. Have you not noticed?”
“Of course we’ve noticed,” I said. “We’ve been doing something about it!”
“Worlds aren’t meant to support technological species. They’re birthing burrows, not warrens.” Their voice rose in exasperation—how closely had they studied us, to catch the melody of our language as well as the words? And what should we make of that effort?
Chlorophyll let out a high, keening cry. They didn’t sound much like a human baby—more like a miserable cricket—but the distress was unmistakable. Diamond joined in at lower pitch.
Then Dori, of course. I busied myself trying to comfort her, grateful for the respite. Perhaps that was why Cytosine had brought their own kids out? The children had diffused a tense diplomatic parlay. A few arguments at those carbon negotiations would’ve benefited from the interruption.
“I think she’s hungry,” suggested Carol. “Them too.” I saw what she meant: Cytosine’s belly glistened more brightly, and two long triple-forked tongues licked out across it. Shrugging, I pulled down the side of my shirt and let Dori suckle as well. I shivered and pulled the wrap close. Aching warmth pulsed between us, pulling me back to practicalities.
“Look,” I said to Cytosine. “Leaving aside the, the philosophy, what are you actually asking us to do?”
Limbs scraped out speech. “Leave, and join us.”
“The hell!” said Carol. I put a hand on her.
“We will share everything we’ve learned,” continued Cytosine. “We will show you how to build tractable environments, make space around your star to grow and thrive. We will show you the secrets of tunneling. We’ll make new symbioses together amid the great cloud of worlds. We will be sisters.”
My sisters don’t usually come to my house and demand I move out.“That sounds pretty exciting. What are you going to do with the Earth after we move out?”
Cytosine rocked back, eliciting squeaks of complaint. “I told you. We’re a technological species too; we aren’t meant for life on worlds.”
I took a deep breath, held Dori tighter. “And what are you going to do if we say no?”
More rocking. “I don’t know. We thought you were like us.”
At this point, I want it in the record, I pinged the network telling them that this was beyond my skill set, that we needed to identify the most experienced negotiators from every network, and that I’d try to wind things down until we could get a proper team in the ground. And the network agreed. I tried not to get too distracted by the thread traffic, which hadn’t yet surfaced any useful suggestions about what I should say, but was neck-deep in critique of what I had said.
A few more people had joined us on the island, all tech experts—they’d tracked my feed, and joined Redbug in setting up an impromptu base camp. They were swearing in urgent whispers over tent pegs and screens, arguing over equipment requirements. It looked gloriously restful and easy. Coral light etched the river, and I’d gotten about two hours of sleep. Exhaustion muffled my reactions. Once I’d had a chance to nap, surreality would give way to awe, or terror, or the paralysis of fully understanding what I’d done. But by then, I hoped, it would be someone else’s job.
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