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The Child Garden (1989)

by Geoff Ryman

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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7361731,461 (3.66)24
Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards. "An exuberant celebration of excess set in a resource-poor but defiantly energetic twenty-first century."--The New York Times "A richly absorbing tale--with a marvelous premise expertly carried out."--Kirkus Reviews "Excellent. . . . Dark and witty and full of love, closely observed, and sprinkled with astonishing ideas. Science fiction of a very high order."--Greg Bear "One of the most imaginative accounts of futuristic bioengineering since Greg Bear's Blood Music."--Locus In a future London, humans photosynthesize, organics have replaced electronics, viruses educate people, and very few live past forty. But Milena is resistant to the viruses. She's alone until she meets Rolfa, a huge, hirsute Genetically Engineered Polar Woman, and Milena realizes she might, just might, be able to find a place for herself after all. Geoff Ryman is the author of the novels The King's Last Song, Air (a Clarke and Tiptree Award winner), and The Unconquered Country (a World Fantasy Award winner), and the collection Paradise Tales. Canadian by birth, he has lived in Cambodia and Brazil and now teaches creative writing at the University of Manchester in England.… (more)

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This book demands much of the reader. It has taken me the better part of this year to complete it with many gaps, filled with not-reading. There is a massive imagination at work in here, exploring creation, all the realities we live in, proposing one outcome, ultimately undone. But it asked more of me, than I had to give. ( )
  TomMcGreevy | Dec 22, 2022 |
review of
Geoff Ryman's The Child Garden
by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - December 8, 2016

As is so often the case, I have more to say about & to quote from this bk than the review space has rm for so this review is cut-off in middle age. For the full review, go here: https://www.goodreads.com/story/show/517309-kindergarten

As someone who's read quite a few bks by Greg Bear it was hard not to notice his endorsement of this bk on its cover: "Science Fiction of a Very High Order!" Given that I think of Bear as one of most prominent of the 'hard science' SF writers I reckon I was somehow expecting this to be a similar ilk. Perhaps to some people it is. To me it's more atmospheric. I was vaguely reminded of Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl (my review of wch is here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7326427-the-windup-girl ) wch in turn reminded me of Jules Verne's The Demon of Cawnpore (my review of wch is here: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17618514-steam-house ). But the Verne & The Child Garden don't remind me of each other at all. So much for that.

For the 1st 50pp or so of this I was pretty excited to've 'discovered' such an interesting SF writer! After all, this bk was written in 1989 & I was just learning about it in 2016, 27 yrs later. That seemed remarkable. After those 1st 50pp I just started getting bored & wishing the bk was over. I won't exactly 'blame' that on The Child Garden, I was simultaneously in the midst of reading AG Davis's Báthory (wch I've since reviewed here: https://www.goodreads.com/story/show/515255-b-thorying ) & John Bealieu's Human Tuning - Sound Healing with Tuning Forks (wch I'm still reading & haven't reviewed yet - but I have made a related movie entitled "mm 71 presents: TUNING FORKS" wch is on my onesownthoughts YouTube channel here: https://youtu.be/TwYDwJnHRe8

I found that the introduction showed great promise:

"Viruses made people cheerful and helpful and honest. Their manners were impeccable, their conversation well-informed, their work speedy and accurate. They believed the same things.

"Some of the viruses had been derived from herpes and implanted DNA directly into nerve cells. Others were retroviruses and took over the DNA of the brain, importing information and imagery. Candy, they were called, because the nucleic acids of their genes were coated in sugar and phosphates. They were protected against genetic damage, mutation. People said that Candy was perfectly safe.

"Milena did not believe them. Candy had nearly killed here. All through her childhood, she had been resistant to the viruses. There was something in her which fought them. Than, at ten years old, she had been given one final massive dose, and was so seared by fever that she had nearly died. She emerged with encyclopaedic knowledge and several useful calculating facilities. What other damage had the viruses done?" - p 1

I like the idea of viruses being calculatingly used to change people's lives to be an interesting one. Contrarily, I find that many or most people are wishfully thinking for the-thing-that-will-make-them-smarter/richer-more popular/whatever-without-any effort. Something like the drug in the movie Limtless (2011). Or the pill-that-you-can-take-to-keep-you-healthy-so-you-can-party-all-the-time. That, to me, is just. plain. stupid. I prefer people who envision what they want & then set about doing what seems the most practical way of getting it - preferably w/ ethics involved. But that's neither here nor there in relation to this bk. I found myself identifying w/ the protagonist, Milena, somewhat b/c she's "swimming up-dam" as I like to say, struggling against the main virus-accepting forced consensus of the society she's in. The intro continues to intrigue:

"People were purple. Their skins were flooded with a protein called Rhodopsin. It had once been found only in the eye. In light, Rhodopsin broke down into sodium, and combined carbon and water.

"People photosynthesized. It was a way of feeding them all." - p 3

Unfortunately, they shit shadows.

Just kidding. In 2000, I interviewed a guy in Melbvourne, Australia named Daniel Tonzig who talked about the idea of having human skin chloroplasts to help people process sunlight as food. In his scenario, people's skins wd be green. I found what he had to say very interesting & I incorporated it into my movie called Don't Walk Backwards wch has, unfortunately, never been screened b/c it's 8:24:43 long. It also doesn't have a single murder or heist in it (Am I insane?).

Perhaps most interestingly:

"It had once been normal for the human body to produce a cancer cell every ten minutes. Cancer, it turned 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." - p 4

"Cancer is a disruption of the process of growth. Some cancer cells produce their own growth hormone, giving themselves the signal to divide and multiply. Others increase the number of growth hormone receptors on the membrane of the cell, or duplicate the internal message bearers that carry the command to grow. They do not respond to messages of overcrowding from other cells. They need blood to feed and so they secrete proteins that induce the body to grow new blood vessels for them.

"They do not need to be firmly attached to the intercellular matrix, as normal cells do. They can split off from the main tumour, float freely in the bloodstream and find new sites to grow. Cancers are a dysfunction of what is called differentiation. They do not mature into fully functioning blood or bone or muscle or skin cells — they are not differentiated. When they find a new site, in different kinds of tissue, they can grow there too. They can spread. The word for that is metastasis. The word for that is malignant.

"And cancers are immortal. Normal cells stop dividing after between fifty and one hundred and fifty times. Normal cells senesce. Cancer cells go on growing." - p 323

When I was around 15 I became aware of the degree to wch some people inflict illnesses upon themselves psychosomatically. It seemed plausible to me that people have more control over their health than is generally assumed. It was probably around then that I stopped taking any medicines - even such common things as aspirin. Given that I've led a somewhat nihilistic life or, at least, reckless life, I've definitely been exposing myself to far greater toxicity than is likely to be good for longevity. Nonetheless, I've made it to 63, longer than I expected to live &, who knows?, maybe I'll make it a bit longer.

Along the way, I've developed an increasingly negative attitude toward 'Western' medicine. The extortionist prices in the USA, where I live, are so outrageous that they've gone beyond most if not all dystopic predictions. EG: The Pennsylvania Insurance Department actually approved over 30% increases for health insurance company fees for 2017. Words like "criminal" or "insane" fail to even remotely describe the heinousness of such a bad decision.

But it's not only the greed of the medical industry, & the insurance companies in particular, that's the problem. There's a whole culture of sickness that, like the culture of terror, keeps people in a constant state of fear. Just as the fear of terrorism suckers people into complacently accepting that their tax dollars make arms manufacturers & dealers, the real terrorists, filthy rich so does the fear of illness make people complacently accept their money being sucked out of them like blood by a vampire for completely unnecessary health expenses.

Think of the way it works: a person's in pain, they don't want to be, they seek relief, they take pain killers & it's like their body's alarm system is shut off but the fire's still burning. How can that possibly be good for them? A person coughs, it's uncomfortable, they take a cough suppressant, the cough stops but that doesn't take away the body's need to expel harmful bacteria now does it? Both examples show how 'medicine' works contrary to the body's attempts to heal itself.

There's little doubt that modern living has elongated life expectancy - when people aren't dying off from the never-ending wars etc. The average lifespan of a man in France in 1885 might've been something like 45. It's something like 80 now. That's pretty remarkable. What might it be in another 130 yrs? Whatever it is, I'm not likely to be here to find out.

In the meantime, I have to live in the present. I've decided to live my life as much as I can in a way that I choose to live & to at least try to accept when my lifestyle finally leads to the fatal deterioration of my body. Such is life, such is death. I don't believe in heaven or hill or any typical wishful thinking afterlife. I do believe that the 'components' that make up 'me' will metamorphose & that my self-consciousness will cease to exist - as such, 'I' will cease to exist but some continuation of 'me' will reconfigure w/o any memory of its predecessor(s). So be it.

Meanwhile, my mom has had cancer at least twice, my dad had it at least twice - dying of brain cancer, my sister had it at least 3 times - dying of brain cancer at age 63. So what do I do if I have cancer? At least provisionally, I hope I never find out if I do. I can accept dying - I just don't want to spend the last decade or so of my life getting chemotherapy or irradiation & constantly stressing over the idea that I'm going to die.

How does this tangent relate to my review of this bk? I like the ideas that herpes might be repurposed to serve positive purposes & that cancer might be discovered to be something more than or other than what contemporary 'medicine' makes of it. I don't have to believe it, I don't have to cling to it like a life-raft, it can simply be added to my library of thinking-outside-the-box. 'Medicine' & science aren't infallible. When I was a child it was common for tonsils to be removed. Such operations are probably quite rare now. I had mine removed, I think doctors were experimenting on children for their own unnecessary research & profit. What might the contemporary equivalent be? What if the whole approach to 'cures for cancer' is wrong? What if it's just another manifestation of greed & sadism? It was partially my hope that The Child Garden, as "Science Fiction of a Very High Order!", might investigate this further.

"Many diseases had cured cancer. One of them sealed the proto-oncogenes in Candy. Others produced proteins that coaxed cancerous cells into maturity and stopped them dividing.

"But some of the cancers were new and viral and quick. The cures did not stop infected cells producing new copies of the cancer virus, and the virus spread with the flow of blood. A curious balance was struck in the bodies of some of the people who already had cancer. The cancer virus infected the body cell by cell in an orderly fashion. The cancers differentiated. They matured and ceased to proliferate in wild shapes.

"What was left was a systematised tumour in the form of a healthy human being, with its memories, its feelings. As long as it was feed and avoided accidents, it would live. It was immortal." - p 23

Perhaps The Child Garden did explore the notions that science & medicine can be wrong &/or wrong-headed, that drs can have motives other than healing-related, etc - but in the long run, even tho this is a fairly complex bk, it ultimately had a sortof Catholic-Church-Horror-Movie feel to it.. The main character even hands over her Christian cross necklace to her religious husband in her death throes. Yuk. But, again, in the 1st 50pp or so I found this bk fantastic:

"The fashion in everything was for history. People's minds were choked with it. Young people wore black and pretended to be the risen corpses of famous people. The Vampires of History they called themselves. Their virus-stuffed brains gave them the information they needed to avoid anachronisms. It was a kind of craze." - p 8

"'Good evening,' he said, looking sour, his accent American. 'We've managed to escape Virginia. She is busying herself listing all the ways in which Joyce is a bad writer. Her jealously is so nakedly evident, I was embarrassed.'

"The woman with him was trying to smile, under a low cloche hat. The smile wavered pathetically. 'Tom?' she said. His back was turned towards her. 'Speak to me. Can't you speak? Speak?'

"'T S Eliot and Vivien!' exclaimed Cilla, and complimented them." - p 9

For the literate, or, at least, the English literate, this passage will probably be fun. Two Vampires of History are imitating the famous modernist poet & playwright T. S. Eliot & the woman he married in 1915 Vivienne Haigh-Wood (Eliot). T. S. is referring to author Virginia Wolff's reputed animosity to author James Joyce. For people who don't get this, "Virginia" & "Joyce" cd both be taken to be female names.

The Child Garden is rich in imaginative details such as the above & well-worth reading for those alone. Milena, the main character, is alienated b/c she hasn't been controlled by the viruses &, therefore, isn't going to ever be a Vampire of History, is asked by the Vampires who she's imitating:

"'Who am I?' Milena responded with deadpan hostility. She did not take his hand. 'Oh. In life, I was a textile factory worker in nineteenth century Sheffield. I died at twelve years old. I'm a rather bad Vampire because I have no teeth. But I do have eczema and rickets.'

"The Vampires made excuses and left. 'Well. That sent them packing,' said Cilla." - p 10

In other words, Milena chooses to focus on the life of a person who wasn't rich & glamorous, a person who the original vampires, the rich & glamorous of the industrial age, created a devastatingly deprived life for so that the shit cd rise to the top. Good onya meatey! Milena's lover is a polar bear, a genetically modified human given polar bear characteristics so that she can survive to work in the Antarctic. Rolfa has childhood memories wch Milena is mysteriously lacking:

"'There's no musk oxen in the Antarctic.'

"'No, no indeed, no we lived in Canada for a while, you see? Papa thought we should go there to make our fortune. North instead of South. Didn't work. He kept trying to save the musk ox. Herd them north, where there still some tundra. Strange thing to do really. It makes me think my father might not be so bad after all. He taught them how to play football. They're terribly intelligent, you see. They played in teams. I used to play with them.[']" - p 38

Yet another interesting idea, the bk's brimming w/ them. Nonetheless.. there's a feeling to it.. it's strange for me to appraise a bk based on a 'feeling'.. the feeling of the Catholic Church Horror Movie, the feeling that everything is 'sinful' or 'dirty' or 'sick'. I can't really even claim that I'm being fair here, it's a gut reaction. I'm reminded of the utterly repulsive series of films by the Polish Krzysztof Kieslowski, The Dekalog, even tho in almost every respect they have nothing in common w/ The Child Garden. But Kieslowski manages to drench everything in 'sin', it's subtle but incredibly disgusting. It's as if his purpose is to make everyone either kill themselves or turn to the church for 'salvation'. The Child Garden seems similarly debased, all relationships are doomed, there are no happy endings. Maybe this is 'realism' but I prefer to think otherwise.

Milena meets Rolfa's polar bear family & receives the all-too-familiar prejudice-against-anyone-who-isn't-'one-of-us':

"'Shut the door!' the Polar girl shouted. There was angry thumping, the girl stalked past Milena and flung the door shut. 'It makes our hair fall out, you little Squidge,' she snarled. 'Rolfa! Slump your fat tush down here!'" - p 44

"'Don't eat the toenails, Zoe,' said Angela. 'What will Ms Shitbush think of us?'

"'You seem to be having some trouble with my name,' said Milena, giving up trying to cut her seal. She had to hold her hands up almost over her head to reach it. 'My last name is Shibush. My family are from Eastern Europe, but the name itself is Lebanese. I believe your name is originally Asian, too, isn't it.'"


"'So you actually work in Toy Town, do you, Squidge?'

"'Were you talking to me?' Milena demanded.

"'I wasn't talking to the seal.'"

"'My name is Milena. Perhaps no one told you that.'

"'OK. Milly. You work at that place.'" - p 48

Milena finds her mind partially occupied by someone named "Heather". This proves useful when she's being pursued by a mind-reader called a "Snide":

"'Are you Milena?' a girl, a stranger, asked. Green-blonde hair and Vampire make-up. With a kind of heave, Milena hauled the virus to the front of her mind. Heather, I am Heather. She didn't get around to answering aloud." - p 70


"What, Milena wondered, have I called up in my mind? Viruses were supposed to be a passive reservoir of information, like your own memory. They were not supposed to drag you through the minutiae of experience. Das Kapital was over three thousand pages long, and Heather was determined to read it all, exploring every last dreary, undeniable nuance. She had no intention of ever finishing, she would go on and on, determined to control, without a shred of self-doubt or pity. God, the woman must have been a pain. When she was alive.

"Heather, Irish Heather, if only there were some softness about you, some hidden anguish or pain, then I could feel sorry for you, I could understand, sympathize, but there is something inhuman about you. You wanted to be a disease. The match between you and the virus was perfect. You and the virus both need minds to inhabit, DNA to remould. Like Helen Lane's tumour, you are immortal, undead, and you have hold of me." - pp 70-71

At age 10 all of the children are "read" - ie: their life experience is absorbed into a "Consensus", a collective mind that makes decisions & has great power. A few exceptions are unable to be read, Milena is one of them. That makes her both important & a misfit.

"The Public Reading Rooms — the rooms in which the public were Read — were underground in bunkers. The bunkers were under what had once been the Department of the Environment. The Department of the Environment had been torn down to plant a forest.

"The forest was the Consensus. The Consensus was a garden of purple, fleshy tress that reached up and fed on sunlight. The mind of the Consensus was below. A buttress in marble wall ran around the garden. In the wall, there was an old stone plaque that had been preserved. 'This is Marsham Street,' the plaque said, '1688.'

"Underneath there were corridors of brick. They wound their way through fleshy roots and a gathering of synapses called the Crown. Below, like tubers, there grew mindflesh, on which memories were imprinted, memories and the patterns of response. They were models made of children. Read at ten years of age." - p 83

The reader gradually reads more & more details of the mystery of Milena:

"Quiet, she thought, and followed Root.

"I thought I was free, Milena thought. Instead, I was being tolerated. Or used. They wouldn't leave me alone, if there was no reason for it.

"Of course the must know they haven't Read me." - p 84 ( )
  tENTATIVELY | Apr 3, 2022 |
What really stands out in my mind is the imaginative use of biology and photosynthesis with the people. The mind and memory aspects were also fascinating for both a story vehicle and character development. I thought it was a fun read, but more importantly, it was very full of great ideas and should be read for this, if not anything else. :) ( )
  bradleyhorner | Jun 1, 2020 |
This is a really, really strange piece of fiction. It puts all the other strange books I've read to shame.
But... I just couldn't get into it. It was just too weird, like a bad bad trip and I couldn't care less about the characters or the world (which is incredibly original). I wanted to go on just to see where the whole thing was going, but in the end I realized it is not worth my time. The story wasn't coming together, and the moment I started wanting to read the book just to finish it came way too early on.
1 vote ZeljanaMaricFerli | Feb 20, 2020 |
I gave this book 39 pages and then gave up. I felt like I was reading random words on a page. None of it made any sense to me or my wife. It's not like I'm new to sci-fi or reading. I really wanted to like this because it sounded really original and interesting. I'm just too old to spend my limited reading time reading books I'm not enjoying. ( )
1 vote ragwaine | May 20, 2019 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Geoff Rymanprimary authorall editionscalculated
Jennings, KathleenCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McKean, DaveCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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That the future is a faded song, a Royal Rose or a lavender spray
Of wistful regret for those who are not yet here to regret ...
(TS Eliot, Four Quartets)
dedicated to Jon Hosking, Johanna Firbank
and to my parents
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Milena boiled things.
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Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards. "An exuberant celebration of excess set in a resource-poor but defiantly energetic twenty-first century."--The New York Times "A richly absorbing tale--with a marvelous premise expertly carried out."--Kirkus Reviews "Excellent. . . . Dark and witty and full of love, closely observed, and sprinkled with astonishing ideas. Science fiction of a very high order."--Greg Bear "One of the most imaginative accounts of futuristic bioengineering since Greg Bear's Blood Music."--Locus In a future London, humans photosynthesize, organics have replaced electronics, viruses educate people, and very few live past forty. But Milena is resistant to the viruses. She's alone until she meets Rolfa, a huge, hirsute Genetically Engineered Polar Woman, and Milena realizes she might, just might, be able to find a place for herself after all. Geoff Ryman is the author of the novels The King's Last Song, Air (a Clarke and Tiptree Award winner), and The Unconquered Country (a World Fantasy Award winner), and the collection Paradise Tales. Canadian by birth, he has lived in Cambodia and Brazil and now teaches creative writing at the University of Manchester in England.

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