In 1990, Geoff Ryman’s The Child Garden won both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. To be honest, it passed me by at the time. However, I read and enjoyed both Air (2005) and Was (1992) – which I read in that order – and so when this award winner popped up in the local library I grabbed it with eager anticipation. Boy was I in for a shock. I found the first few pages interesting yet not very readable, but enough was going on to keep me interested.
The story – briefly – sees Milena working as an actress in a semi-tropical London. She meets and falls in love with Rolfa, who is a genetically modified polar pear. Yep. That’s what I thought! In this world cancer has been cured, but as a result, life expectancy has been halved. Ryman explains why in one of the few passages of exposition, but not until we’re deep into the book. Genetic engineering is also responsible for housing, machines and more. The plot, such as it is, follows Milena’s attempts to stage the gifted Rolfa’s interpretation of an opera based on Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ using holograms. The world is ruled by a hive mind called The Consensus – made of millions of children. People are educated using viruses but Milena is immune. So, in the sense of a plot, there are the usual highs and lows, challenges and triumphs for Milena. The plot structure is very intricate and well thought out. The writing is gorgeous; lyrical, poetic. There are some amazing sentences. The imagination of the situations in this world Ryman has created is vast and it’s certainly an original idea – cancer being cured making everything worse, and viruses being the cure not the cause of people’s misfortune. But to me it felt like meaningless poetry. Paragraphs zing but then I soon drifted off as the narrative seemed to lose its way. I was interested in the relationship between Rolfa and Milena, but it soon came to an end. As did my interest. It was so dull. I struggled to buy into the world Ryman created; mostly based in England with mentions of Czechoslovakia and Antarctica . And why polar bears and bees? Read to find out. Not for me.
This isn’t the first time I’ve failed to love, or even like, supposed classics or award winners. M John Harrison’s Light and Nova Swing – I found these almost unreadable. I can’t relate to these works, and I just found A Canticle for Leibowitz tedious. Am I wrong?
I read and enjoy a wide verity of science fiction, award winners or no. Some might say that I’m not well read or bright enough to enjoy The Child Garden or Harrison’s works. You might think I wouldn’t like Oryx and Crake or the weird post-human tales of Charles Stross or the oeuvre of Jeff Noon. You’d be dead wrong.
So what makes a classic just that; a classic. And why would some people not like classics? And who says they are classics anyway. Surely just cos they’ve won an award or a publisher has decided to add them to a particular imprint doesn’t make them a classic? In fact, I can prove it so. How many of these award winners are classics?
- The Sea and Summer by George Turner
- Unquenchable Fire by Rachel Pollack
- Take Back Plenty by Colin Greenland
- Dreaming In Smoke by Tricia Sullivan (I like her a lot but this is her worst novel)
- A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski
- Brother to Dragons by Charles Sheffield
I’m therefore talking about opinion, not fact. I’m talking about why some people like stuff and why others don’t. If I don’t like a supposed genre classic, I’m not going to pretend otherwise to seem like I’m something I’m not. Why do I find the language of The Child Garden beautiful and poetic, but the actual story made me want to kill myself. To be fair, I should have given up, but I kept hoping it would improve and I wanted to know what Milena’s fate was. She died.
I found The Child Garden dull and I’m proud to say so.