In The Child Garden, Ryman brings a welcome quirkiness to the usually bleak genre of the post-apocalyptic dystopia. The novel has a dreamlike quality, and it’s heavy on metaphor. I hate to sound like a literary lightweight, buy I do generally prefer a more narrative-oriented approach; ambiguity can get old for me. But, this novel was effective nonetheless.
In the future, humanity discovers a cure for cancer and spreads it through viruses that prevent the disease among all people. Unfortunately, they later realize that they have shortened everyone’s lives by half or more as an unintended consequence, so that few people live past the age of 35. This is the sort of irony that Ryman builds the entire novel around.
Viruses are the great technology of Ryman’s future world. Viruses have been designed to convey different skills, information, and even opinions, and they propagate through the population, so that babies can be infected with a high school education. At adulthood (10 years), people’s personalities are integrated into a Consensus group mind, which rules their Communist society. Due to the side effects like the above mentioned shortened lifespan, and also apparently due to global warming, most technology has broken down. At the beginning of the novel, London is without electricity and messages are conveyed via runners.
In this world, we meet Milena, a girl who has a resistance to the viruses. She doesn’t have the knowledge or instant-learning skills of the others, but she is better equipped to learn things that are not part of the standard battery of virus-conveyed material. She also better appreciates things that are novel and different. She meets a musically talented, genetically engineered polar bear woman named Rolfa and begins to work on a massive artistic project – a holographic opera based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Society seems both fearful and hopeful of the new ideas that Milena plans to provide.
The book fails quite spectacularly as a dystopia. To do a humorous dystopia right, I think a writer would have to lean on wry satire, but Ryman prefers sincerity and quirk. In fact, it seems at times that he’s just thrown all of the quirkiness he can think of against the wall to see what sticks – some of it works, but far from all of it. The novel seems to contradict itself at a fundamental level: the horror of this society is that everyone knows and thinks the same things due to the viruses, and we’re often told how conformist this future world is. But, the characters are all so wildly idiosyncratic that we never see that conformity. The dullest character is Milena, even though she is the one resistant to the viruses.
So, as biting social satire, The Child Garden doesn’t cut it. But I still enjoyed it quite a bit. It is fun and, at times, quite beautiful. Ryman is a skilled writer, and there are wonderful, lyrical passages describing childhood , art, love, and death. Ryman repeatedly refers to the work as a comedy, in the dramatic sense, and the transcendent and hope-filled finale was quite poetic as well.