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The Child Garden
Geoff Ryman
Gollancz, 388 pages

The Child Garden
Geoff Ryman
Geoff Ryman is the author of several novels including The Unconquered Country (1984) which won both the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Award and the World Fantasy Award. The Child Garden (1989) won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the John W Campbell Memorial Award (First Place). An extract of it, published in Interzone, also won a BSFA Award.

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A review by Jakob Schmidt

In a future world where the cure for cancer had the unfortunate side-effect of increasing the speed of ageing rapidly, children must become adults within a few years after birth. Genetically engineered viruses that transfer knowledge are used to cut childhood as short as possible. But Milena Shibush turns out to be immune. Learning things the hard way, she's also not bound by the social conformity spread by the omnipresent viruses. When Milena meets the outsider master-singer Rolfa, she falls in love with the strange, genetically engineered creature. Since homosexuality is regarded as "bad grammar" and therefore something to be cured by virus, Milena keeps her affection a secret -- even from Rolfa. However, as she's found out, it turns out that Milena's unique immunity to most viruses may be just the thing the ruling "Consensus" has been looking for to make another step in its evolution...

The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman is one of the most important SF novels dealing with the transformation of human existence, and it does so on a global and a very personal scale at the same time. I was kind of afraid to read this book, and, as it turned out, rightfully so: it surely provokes strong intellectual and emotional responses. It also requires attentive reading, since most of the plot is narrated in a non-linear fashion, and in the end, not all the pieces fall into place without effort.

A few weeks after reading Ryman's novel for the first time, I had a second look at some chapters, trying to structure my reading experience, to break it down and find out what makes this book unique. The first thing any dedicated reader of any of Ryman's fiction will probably point out is his grip of character. The Child Garden is narrated from the perspective of only one character, Milena, and Ryman uses this focus to reflect upon how vivid and how ambivalent we tend to experience the people around us. Rolfa, the good-natured Mike Stone and vicious would-be-artist Thrawn are perfect examples of a most conscientious novelist developing his characters. Just like most real people, they are quite idiosyncratic and extremely difficult to figure out at the same time. Ryman writes with an eye for the everyday-type extravagance of his characters that is typical of the most accomplished mainstream novels. While much SF tends to put either obviously normal or obviously extraordinary people into extraordinary environments, Ryman shows that normal people, looked at as individuals, are fundamentally extraordinary, regardless of their environment. The development of personality-altering viruses may be a fundamental change in human nature, but it's only one tiny piece in the incredibly complex puzzle of the human mind. Ryman understands this puzzle better than most writers and presents it with both true affection for his characters and a wry, wicked sense of humour.

The second dominant feature of The Child Garden is its poetic language and composition. This is probably the element of the novel I'm least qualified to write about (I know virtually nothing about the theory of music, which plays an important role in the novel), and also the one which leaves me most torn about its implications. The most permeating concept of the novel is probably that of loss: most prominently the loss of childhood, which comes with the knowledge of death, an even more fundamental loss. In this context, cancer is turned into a metaphor for social change: death (cancer) is a part of change that prolongs life. Preventing the possibility of fatal mutations (by curing cancer, or by creating viruses that tell people how to live and thereby stabilise society) results in cutting short life itself. Consequently, cancer in this novel sometimes appears to be a creative force. There's a kind of poetic outlook at work here that strikes me as almost cynical: Ryman has deadly cancer produce a beautiful rose; Swarm people sing in childlike joy at the return of this terrible ill. Sickness and death are permeated with beauty, even kitsch at times. This is a pretty daring approach, since many of Ryman's readers will probably have gone through the ordeal of losing a friend or a relative to cancer. Nevertheless, Ryman's far from producing euphemisms or romanticising: his depiction of dying is not at all soothing, but quite shattering in all it's poetic beauty. He doesn't shy away from any of the emotions involved, including utter terror. At the very least, Ryman's use of the cancer-metaphor arouses some very interesting questions about how we conceive of individual and social pathology.

The Child Garden is quite literally a stunning book -- finishing it, I felt a kind of exhausted numbness, even relief. This is undoubtedly a classic and one of the best novels ever written within the genre -- in terms of concept, it's still pretty unique SF today. (It's interesting that it was published only a year or two after Greg Bear's Blood Music, which presents a very different take on very similar questions.) However, it can be a pretty unsettling experience, best to be digested slowly.

Copyright © 2006 Jakob Schmidt

Jakob writes and translates reviews, essays and short stories, most of them for the German magazine Alien Contact ( and its publishing house Shayol. That's in his spare time, which luckily still makes up the bulk of his days.

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