The Big Idea: Ruthanna Emrys
The way our world is going now, there might not be much of future to look forward to. For author Ruthanna Emrys, she tried to imagine what that future could possibly look like in her new novel, A Half-Built Garden. Follow along as she talks about how we all can get there.
“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”
Ursula Le Guin’s quote has become a touchstone for resistance, and a source of hope in seemingly inescapable circumstances. But how do you imagine something better than the circumstances that shape everything around you? What looks as different from modern global capitalism as capitalism looks from god-touched emperors? And what parts of modernity will stick around and cause trouble even after they’re supposedly relegated to the past?
A Half-Built Garden started as an effort to imagine that different, better, world – and to imagine what could crash into its assumptions as dramatically as climate change crashes into the market. Living in 2017 Washington DC, I saw how desperately agency workers worked to keep the basic functions of government going, even as other parts of that government were taking away their power to do good and prevent harm. The first seed of my future, then, was the idea that nation-states would continue to move towards authoritarianism and away from basic societal maintenance, leaving gaps where new forms of governance might step in.
That replacement was shaped by earlier, happier DC experiences, working with the Environmental Protection Agency on citizen science projects. The Dandelion Networks that dominate 2083 started as groups working on bioblitzes and personal air quality sensors and public pothole reporting – and who ultimately took on the responsibility of solving the problems they were measuring. They’re aided in this by algorithms to enforce the biases that they want to shape society, weighting decisions toward protecting ecosystems and human rights.
By 2083, Dandelion Networks built around watersheds control most of the planet, living in an uneasy truce with the remnant governments of nation-states. The descendants of billionaires and CEOs live in exile on artificial islands, playing power games and looking for some way to return to power. I had a lot of fun coming up with the little details of life in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Network, and the everyday problems that people still face. The nuclear family is a thing of the past, but sometimes you need matchmakers to find coparents. People argue about everything from carbon budgets to knitting patterns. And sensors regularly pick up water pollution, which might be just a fluke or might be corporations testing the boundaries of their fencelines.
Or it might be aliens. Aliens would change everything.
It was often hard, writing a hopeful future from within an inescapable present. Some days fascism and climate crisis and pandemic took up all my brain space. Others, they just made me question whether there was really a way to get from here to there. Another of my favorite quotes is Mariame Kaba’s “Hope is a discipline” – a better future isn’t something to have faith in, it’s something to work towards, regardless of how scary or frustrating or unlikely it feels. So on the days when I had brainspace, I opened my computer and tried to map out a way.