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The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman

We're all hurt. But not hurt by the fall.
If art has taught me nothing else, then in all the world, in every situation, it feels like every single person is conflicted by the need for stability and the inescapable contradictions of the mutable self. We're idiosyncratic. We're unpredictable. We vacillate. We waver and flip-flop. We believe we hold deep-seated philosophies and morals, profound ethical positions and beliefs, and yet these can be unseated at any given moment. We want things we know are bad, and we desire things we probably know will make us miserable, or at least definitely not ameliorate our misery, no matter how shiny or expensive. In the Buddhist sense, it is our desire which leads to suffering. That's a hard thing with which to come to terms. And yet many significant advancements in science and technology come not out of actual necessity, but out of desire; a desire to help, a desire to heal, a desire, ironically, to stop suffering; a desire to murder as many of our enemies with little cost to our allies. Arguably, these desires go against our nature. We evolved to the beasts we are, and now we desire to artificially develop further, quicker, smarter, with no long view of the consequences. 

Personally, I'm ambivalent, as I imagine most people are, to this artifice. I desire more comfort at home; year-round tropical fruit on the shelves; a cure for all fatal diseases. And yet I know food should be seasonal, that we evolved eating only those things we could grow or kill ourselves. I know a larger more comfortable sofa might mean facilitating sweatshop textile manufacture in a third world archipelago. But what of disease? What if disease serves a purpose?

The Child Garden posits a future London, nay, world, where cancer is cured, by the coating of proteins with sugar, or 'candy' which prohibits the spread of corrupted genetic information. The population is cancer-free! Unfortunately, it appears that cancer served an essential function and without it, the lifespan of a human is halved to approximately thirty-five years. Although now able to photosynthesise for energy, humans can no longer afford the luxury of a childhood, so learning is advanced exponentially, utilising viruses which share knowledge like implanted tech, so that children can contribute to the workforce. And each mind is 'read' by The Consensus, which is a repository of all human knowledge, and which makes decisions for the good of all, in place of a government; to quote The Orb, 'A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld'. An ultimate socialist dystopia. 

Quite science fiction-y so far, eh? That's not all! The world is depleted of natural resources, particularly metal, so the Consensus is mining the galaxy and beyond through the use of 'angels', gravitational beings capable of riding the strings of interdimensional webbing that stretch across the universe, joining everything together.

Wow!

Remarkably, for such a huge concept, this is not even the main strand of this quite amazing narrative. For our protagonist is Milena Shibush, a Czech immigrant who is immune to the viruses. She, of all people, shunned and ostracised as a child, lacking implanted social conformity, fearful of the discovery that she has never been 'read', is the key to the survival of the human race. She learns, the hard way, to live like everyone else, tries to accept the viruses, to no avail. She falls in love with a genetically engineered woman but can't articulate this for fear of her 'bad grammar' coming to light. But in her love she discovers purpose, and works towards the production of the most ambitious musical project the world has ever seen, and in the process comes to the attention of the Consensus, which, having become self-aware, realises that she is the one thing it lacks, the one thing that could put an end to its gargantuan loneliness, and the one thing that can bring back cancer. That's right–by the end of the book, the people of London are cheering the return of cancer.

That's some synopsis let me tell you. AND, so you're conscious of the enormity and excellence if this novel, it barely does it justice, if at all. While I've concentrated on the literal aspects, the practical narrative of the book, it develops themes of love and loss, of music and poetry; it challenges the reader to consider his or her own sense of self-worth; it reaches far and wide across the panoply of human experiences and flips them like cards on a table. It's sad, moving, (I didn't get the Dickensian humour the cover touts, but you might), and thoughtful. It's also damning. We don't know what we're doing.

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