*A Half-Built Garden* (published today) is Ruthanna Emrys's new novel, a spectacular first-contact novel about complicated utopias and networked conflict - it's a *wild* ride, and a perfect example of one of the smartest structural analyses of science fiction I ever heard:


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I got this analysis from my editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden, nearly 20 years ago, when he was giving me his editorial notes on my debut novel *Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom*, and it's shaped everything I've written since. Patrick explained to me that an sf novel is like a piece of clockwork with two gears: there's a small, quickly spinning, high-torque gear (the protagonist), and a huge, slow-moving gear that it propels (the world).


The protagonist is a microcosm for the world, and their job is to spin around and around, until they propel the world through a single full revolution, giving us a complete, 360° view of the social speculation embodied by the world.


One of the ways that an sf novel can go wrong is to have a mismatch between the protagonist and the world: if the protagonist gear isn't a good microcosm for the world, the teeth on that gear won't mesh with the huge world-gear, and the world's turning will be jittery and incomplete.


This is an incredibly useful critical insight for planning or improving sf novels: if something doesn't seem to be gelling, ask yourself whether the world and the protagonist are sufficiently self-similar - and ask yourself whether a different character, one who is a better microcosm of the world, should be promoted to protagonist.


This is a uniquely stfnal literary convention, subtly and importantly different from other conceptions of what makes a good protagonist, like "a protagonist is the character with the most to lose" or "the protagonist is the character who is changed the most by the story."


As noted, *Half-Built* has a *perfect* match between the protagonist and the world. The world of *Half-Built* is a complicated utopia, one in which a century of incredibly hard, smart work has carried us through the climate emergency, to the point where it's possible to believe that, over time, we will stabilize our relationship with the only planet in the known universe capable of sustaining our species.


This stabilization came about as the result of a radical restructuring of society around networked "watershed" societies, organized around the watersheds of the world's mighty rivers. These watershed societies are as transnational as their rivers, and each society is a semiautonomous part of a global federation that allocates carbon, shares intelligence, and deliberates among one another.


The deliberative technology in *Half-Built* is marvellous to read about, a beautiful stfnal dramatization of some of the most interesting ideas about ecological decision-making. The watersheds use "dandelion networks" to decide how to govern themselves: these are huge, democratically accountable, transparent, machine-learning-filtered message boards.


Users open threads on the subjects of the day, post comments on them, argue, learn, and vote, but with the volume managed by algorithms that (unlike, say, Facebook's) are trusted by and accountable to the people who use them.

Among the entities in these threads are machine-learning systems who post on behalf of ecosystems, speaking for trees and bacteria and soil and rivers, turning sensor data and historical trends into narratives and points of view that are part of the debate.


It's an idea that's been posited for real-world ecosystem management, and that has appeared in other sf, like Karl Schroeder's *Stealing Worlds*:

The people of the dandelion networks use neural interfaces to sense their environments, literally *feeling it* when an ecological process is running smoothly - or going off the rails - and these same sensory augmentations are used to understand the tenor of their networked debates, as well.


The protagonist who is the microcosm for this world is Judy Wallach-Stevens, a member of the Chesapeake Bay network whose life is dedicated to living with and caring for the Potomac. Judy and her partner and their newborn are part of a big, blended, queer family that includes another couple and their child, all organized around the Chesapeake and the Potomac.


One night, Judy is summoned to check out an anomalous sensor reading in the bay - and finds herself making first contact with an alien spaceship that has touched down just around the corner from her home. She wakes up the network and starts posting threads looking for advice - and is pressed into service as humanity's first diplomatic envoy to the Ringers, an interspecies federation of two alien races that has come to Earth to save us.


The Ringer civilization was formed when the "plains people" found the "tree people" and saved them from the seemingly inevitable fate of technological species: to poison their planets with badly understood, badly managed industrial processes, driving themselves to extinction.


The Ringers have solved this problem by transcending the need for planets - whose complexity makes them intrinsically unsuitable for stable civilizations - deconstructing whole solar systems and turning them into vast, star-girding rings. Determined to save other races from extinction, they've embarked pon faster-than-light voyages that have always arrived too late, happening upon planets whose intelligent races have all died, drowned in their own waste.


For the Ringers, finding the Earth - which they learned about in advance by studying our leaky radio and TV broadcasts - is the vindication of that long-run project. Finally, they've arrived in time to save another species from slow suicide, and they can't wait to yank all humanity off the planet and relocate us to one of their Rings, joining their interspecies federation and taking our place in the stars.


For the watershed networks - and Judy, especially - this is abhorrent idea. It echoes the ideology of the networks' sworn enemies, the corporations who lost the great power-struggle that birthed the networks and were exiled to "aislands" - AI-powered, artificial islands run by corporate ideology.


What's more, the corporations are eager to cut a deal with the Ringers, and bring their doctrine of limitless expansion to the infinite universe. Between the networks and the corporations are the world's creaking old national governments, embodied by envoys from NASA, form whom the Ringers' arrival is the culmination of their life's work.


The action that unfolds - skullduggery, espionage, interstellar travel, cyberwar, interspecies coupling, betrayal, nobility and all the rest - is set against the backdrop of the badly damaged, slowly recovering planet, whose unpredictable and violent climate can be spun to vindicate the Ringers, the corporations, *or* the networks.


Judy makes such a good microcosm for this scenario. The healing, sickened Earth is a complicated utopia: it's both terrifyingly fragile and beautifully hopeful. This Earth isn't a utopia because we've solved its problems - it's a utopia because we've *recognized* those problems and committed ourselves to addressing them:


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@pluralistic "Down and Out" was the first actually-open book I read (while commuting, mostly on a hacked PalmPilot), and cemented my nascent commitment to free/open software.
I'm lucky now to be able to do free-software full time, for money.
Also, was a great read ...

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