THE CHILD GARDEN by Geoff Ryman

The British Isles are buffeted by tropical storms due to a changed climate; natural resources are stretched so thin that a few scraps of paper denote great wealth; electricity is a long-lost luxury; and food shortages require a genetically altered humanity to devote hours of each day to photosynthesizing in the sun.

Life has never been better.

The British Isles are buffeted by tropical storms due to a changed climate; natural resources are stretched so thin that a few scraps of paper denote great wealth; electricity is a long-lost luxury; and food shortages require a genetically altered humanity to devote hours of each day to photosynthesizing in the sun.

Life has never been better. At least that’s the consensus — the Consensus being a semi-conscious amalgam of every single citizen’s uploaded mind. Democracy has never been so precise nor so neat, and education never so complete nor so effective. A host of designer viruses rewrite neural networks, improving individuals and providing them with detailed knowledge of both an academic and practical nature.

This is the picture of future London Geoff Ryman paints in The Child Garden. The city in which most of the narrative takes place is bleak and grey; life in this future society is, from our perspective, deprived and cold. Yet people are largely happy, or at least think they are.

Yes, there are shades of 1984 here. But the Ministry of Truth only wishes it could have been so effective. According to Orwell’s Party member, O’Brien, controlling the mind means controlling physical reality. But think of the lengths they went to in order to influence, or even break, those minds. In Ryman’s future, contagious viruses quickly ensure that each and every citizen has the right sort of opinions, the correct attitude towards life.

This is a problem for our hero Milena, however. Her immune response simply will not acquiesce to these viruses; her programming will not take. She lacks the ability to walk in lockstep with everyone else. She is deathly afraid of being read by the Consensus, because this great equalizer does not take each personality whole, but smooths them out, forcing a homogeneity that could not exist in the real world.

Milena, for example, would be cured of being gay. And just when she’s found someone she may possibly love.

This novel won Ryman an Arthur C. Clarke Award along with the John W. Campbell in 1990, and it’s not hard to see why. Despite the tight first-person perspective, secondary characters are easy to empathize with. This isn’t a world of cardboard cut-out villains, but plausibly drawn individuals at crossways with each other, all with their own side of the story, even if we don’t see all of it.

Even the oppressive viruses are necessary. In the fictional past of the book (still in our future) someone discovered a cure for cancer, but as a side effect, the aging process was so altered as to halve the human lifespan. In a society where people drop dead in their mid-thirties, the time had to be made up somewhere.

So it was taken from childhood.

Viral programming has infants discussing Shakespeare, toddlers running storefronts or repairing sewage lines. But knowledge which is downloaded from a standard package rather than built up from individual experience creates a uniform way of thinking and being that is particularly frightening for outliers. Milena treasures who she is, even when she’s miserable about it, yet it seems a foregone conclusion that the “Bad Grammar” of her personality will be wiped out by the Consensus, if the attempt doesn’t kill her.

By and large, the higher-ups in this new society are neither evil nor conspiratorial. In many ways, it’s a society that works. The cost is a process of homogenization that grinds down anyone who doesn’t quite fit. The nightmare is in being that misshapen cog that doesn’t match societal norms.

Is this a book about being oppressed by heteronormative expectations? To some extent. But I think the theme is broader. I take from it an appeal against losing what makes us all special. Even the most unremarkable amongst us have our own unique slant on things. Any force with the aim or result of stifling that — be it political or social; intentional or incidental — is something to fight against.

Failure to do so could well lead to the sort of society Ryman describes: one lacking innovation, artistry, or science. And that is a poor world indeed.


J.J.S. Boyce is a writer, educator, and semi-pro omelette chef. He can frequently be found writing at the Green Man Review, Library Journal, and Care2. He also maintains a meta-narrative at his blog, The Back of the Envelope.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.