A Half-Built Garden — A Solarpunk First Contact Story

March 6th, 2024
Cover image of the post


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.

The watershed networks aren't ready to give up on Earth. Decades ago, they rose up to exile the last corporations to a few artificial islands, escape the dominance of nation-states, and reorganize humanity around the hope of keeping their world liveable. By sharing the burden of decision-making, they've started to heal the wounded planet.

But now corporations, nation-states, and networks all vie to represent humanity to these powerful new beings, and if any one accepts the aliens' offer, Earth may be lost. With everyone’s eyes turned skyward, everything hinges on the success of Judy's effort to create understanding, both within and beyond her own species.

The book cover below includes alt-text.

A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys. Earth in space, partially partially covered by a dandelion, some of its white floaties flying away. Caption: "A Half-Built Garned deserves to be the first contact novel that defines a generation." Seanan McGuire

World-building — a solarpunk utopia?

I'll start with discussing the world-building because it's a solarpunk book, and this aspect of it was very exciting for me. This isn't a typical first contact story, and I liked how different it was.

I enjoyed the solarpunk aspects. The main character Judy is a part of a decentralized network where people are responsible for specific tasks within their community and make decisions together with the help of online discussions and algorithms that prioritize their values. I think a lot of how this system is supposed to work has been thoroughly thought through by the author, and there are genuinely fascinating and inspiring ideas there.

However, there were a few things that seemed like they weren't thought through and could stand in the way of actually organizing such a network.

So, most people in this network don't work for money. Corporations still exist, but their reach and influence has been greatly reduced. The same is true about governments. There is no mention of any small businesses. Some people do a bit of freelance work for the corporations, but are looked down upon by their network for it and don't earn too much. Most people use their expertise in a way that helps the network function, do some rotational tasks like working in communal gardens, as well as some volunteer work. It has been mentioned, that if one contributes to the wellbeing of the network, they get their "basics", and from a later place in the story, I understood that the basics are a house or apartment, food, and everything they might need to function.

My questions are: how do they make sure they have enough houses and apartments for everyone? The main character lives in a house with her family, and it seems like everyone else in her neighborhood does too. When a couple of refugees from outside their community need housing, they immediately get an apartment. They also have communal houses that are used for meetings and guests. So, who builds the houses? How do they make sure they have all the necessary materials, equipment and enough competent workers to do that without money? If they just redistribute old houses, how do they do it? What happens with previous owners? And, again, how do they make sure they have enough? Also, what happens to those who don't contribute to the network?

It seemed like a utopia to me. Comparing this book to Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed, I feel that Le Guin presented a more realistic approach. People could get a room in a communal house, and it didn't belong to them anyway. It was temporary, and they had no personal belongings, while in Emrys's world it seems like they retained what they liked from capitalism (like ownership) while getting rid of the things they disliked. I don't necessarily mind this idea, I just want to understand how it works.

The other question is how they make sure they get enough specialists of every kind in each network. Again, I feel like Le Guin addressed it with more realism in her book, where people could always be sent anywhere in the world where their expertise was needed, and that resulted in families being separated for years on end. In A Half-Built Garden, it looks like everyone can live wherever they want and be useful right there, but I don't think it's realistic, as in any given territory, you could end up with too many specialists of one kind while lacking others.

And finally, food. There was a scene in the book, where Judy's family had some salmon left, and one family member told her to eat it. She said something like, 'No, I already had some yesterday', and her family member responded, 'You're nursing, eat your protein.'

This scene gave me an impression that food wasn't abundant, which made sense, taking into account that they mostly ate local food they could grow/produce themselves, plus had some from other networks.

However, soon after that Judy's family hosted and fed lots of people in their house for weeks, and there was never a mention of any food scarcity, or them asking their neighbors to pitch in or anything like that, which suddenly looked like they could have as much food as they wanted anytime. One family member just spent all the time in the kitchen, cooking. Feeding such an amount of people would be difficult for many families under capitalism, and in the context of Emrys's book, it seems like much more than "the basics".

Because the book is set in the real world and the near future, and, as far as I understand, is supposed to present an alternative way of living consistent with the solarpunk ideas, I'd appreciate seeing some imperfections, hardships, and/or solutions. It felt a bit too utopian, as if the author conveniently omitted the things that could actually make life difficult. I might be wrong, but it seems to me that converting to the solarpunk life would not only bring lots of equality and beauty, but also require real sacrifices, especially from privileged people like home-owners, or those who can have any food they like at any time. There might be reasonable solutions to those challenges, and I would be really curious to learn about them.

Characters — LGBTQ+ cast, interesting baddies and boring leads

I've seen many reviewers saying that they liked the "baddies" more than the main characters, and I can see why.

The thing about our main character and her family, is that they have no flaws, no significant conflicts, and no personal arcs. They are basically good people with good morals, who live their good lives with no need to change. Unfortunately, that makes them pretty boring.

The "baddies" — particularly the corporate types — are much more interesting because they have flaws. We see what they want to achieve and what stands in the way. We can understand their motivations, even if we don't agree with them, and their flaws and needs set up a potential for arcs — growth, corruption, redemption.

Plus, they have weird and interesting norms, where they have several genders, that are more like characters they play in public. Each gender/character has their own unique style of clothing and behavior/ways to act. Every social interaction is a game for them, where they choose a character to play, while never revealing their real gender or personality. Each person changes these genders/characters at will. That made them even more alien than the aliens, and therefore interesting to watch.

However, there is a variety of LGBTQ+ characters, including two trance people in the main character's family unit, consisting of four adults and two kids, which I liked.

There are also aliens, who are different in appearance, but too similar to humans and easy to understand for my taste.


The plot was linear and easy to follow, but the book felt very slow, especially in the beginning. It got more interesting sometime in the second half, however, it wasn't gripping at any point.

Sex with a spider? O_o

To be more precise, it was actually an alien who looked like a giant furry spider with 10 extremely long legs, eyes on those legs and no head. It's very hard for me to imagine that anyone, except people with very specific kinks and fantasies, would be attracted to such a creature. It's equally hard to imagine that "the spider" would want to have sex with hairless monkeys (humans), who are so unlike the species he is used to being around. It didn't make sense to me that two people from the same family unit approached the alien to offer sex, or that he immediately agreed.

What they liked about him (how open-minded and curious he was, the way he thought about things, the questions he asked, etc.) would have made a great foundation for a friendship, but not romance. I mean, I understand being attracted to someone for those reasons if they belong to the same species, but not an alien who looks like most people's nightmares.

Also, the way everyone reacted to the romance was unrealistic and boring. There was not a single raised eyebrow, no mocking, disgust, disbelief, surprise — just no reaction at all. Everyone, including the parents of one of the women who had a giant spider as a lover, just acted as if it were the most mundane thing. To be clear, they were the first people to do that, and not too long after the aliens arrived. Introducing even a human lover to your parents and friends can sometimes be awkward. It makes sense that the most open-minded people would try to be supportive and understanding, but why not let them struggle with it even a little?

We're circling back to the reason the main characters seemed boring. Even when there was potential for conflict in their lives, there was none. Everyone was just good and understanding. One of the trans characters had a bigoted, religious family who didn't accept him, but we didn't get to meet them, and the potential consequences of such experiences that might have created tension were nonexistent. For example, his aversion to religion could have resulted in him not wanting to participate in his family unit's celebration of Jewish holidays, while it was important to them as their heritage. But even though he seemingly couldn't stand religion, he just took part in all the rituals with them and had a great time.


I was pretty bored in the beginning and couldn't connect to the main characters. I considered giving up on the novel several times, but was slightly interested in what would happen next. I became a bit more invested in the second half of the book, but the blandness of the main characters, as well as the lack of any kind of a flaw or arc for any of them made full immersion difficult.

I enjoyed the solarpunk aspects of the world-building, as well as corporate traditions and the alien world, but I was a bit disappointed by how utopian the vision of the future was. It seemed like what could actually be a challenge or a problem was just omitted. As someone curious about how we could build a better future, I think that answering those questions is important, and pretending like if we just get rid of something (e.g. corporations), we will live in a paradise doesn't help to make this future real.

You might enjoy the book if you like solarpunk settings and first contact stories that aren't rooted in destruction, and don't mind a lot of nursing and diaper changes (Judy is a mother of an infant).

You can get A Half-Built Garden at Kobo, Barnes&Noble, Apple, Amazon and other bookstores.

The author

Ruthanna Emrys lives in a mysterious manor house on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., with her wife and their large, strange family. Her stories have appeared in a number of venues, including Strange Horizons, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and Tor.com. She is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, which began with Winter Tide. She makes homemade vanilla, obsesses about game design, gives unsolicited advice, and occasionally attempts to save the world.

Check out her website, Twitter and Mastodon.

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