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Geoff Ryman’s "The Child Garden" - A Review

By Emma Mulligan

October 21, 2015

My name is Emma. I’m a teaching assistant and graduate student in SFU’s English department. I’m working with a novella called “Love Sickness” that was serialized in Interzone, a science fiction magazine. Geoff Ryman, the author, eventually expanded it into a novel called The Child Garden. The novella was published in 1988, the height of the AIDS crisis. The story follows a young woman named Milena, who is living in future London. Everyone in her society is educated via man-made viruses, but Milena is immune and therefore an outcast. She was never cured of her “Bad Grammar,” a euphemism for queerness. Milena lives in fear, both of being discovered as a deviant and of being cured of her Bad Grammar. Heterosexuality and heteronormativity are learned via viruses, which I interpret as a play on AIDS, known then as “the gay plague.” Ryman defies the stigma associated with this illness by claiming that intolerance is a virus, one that figuratively kill its victims. The infected are changed forever as they lose their abilities to produce novel ideas. Such a society is depicted by Ryman as utterly dull and repetitive, emphasizing the need for different ways of being to create dynamic social networks.

Perhaps the greatest gift Ryman gave other queer people was encouraging rage. As you may have gathered, Milena lives in a terribly repressive state. She doesn’t accept repression -- she’s far too angry. Anger, she claims, killed her father when they tried to infect/educate him. Milena must masquerade as a pleasant hetero to avoid discovery and infection by the state. Upon re-reading the novella and novel, I have come to understand the novel as a critique of assimilation. Ryman anticipates and counters the “gay best friend” stereotype by writing an abrasive and unfriendly protagonist that the reader nonetheless admires for her strength and integrity. Queer youth today were born in or just after the AIDS epidemic and therefore have no memory of it, myself included. Many of us do not realize how pivotal this moment was in the gay rights movement. We are bombarded by messages like “It Gets Better” that encourage us to endure queerphobia with the promise that one day we can move to a gaybourhood and live apart from prejudice. Despite this promise, queers are often traumatized by queerphobia before reaching a so-called “safe space.” Given the high rates of suicide among queer youth, Ryman’s license to be angry is a valuable survival tool that carried queers through Stonewall and AIDS. Ryman tapped into the fear of cultural extinction caused by AIDS, and it’s still relevant. Mass queer death is no longer due to AIDS, but suicide, and the threatened cultural extinction that we face comes also in the form of assimilation. I believe Ryman’s call to fury is still the way forward and away from a benign, palatable queerness.

Emma Mulligan is a Master of Arts student and teaching assistant in the English department at Simon Fraser University. Their research focuses on science fiction, queer studies, and print culture. They intend to complete their degree in December 2015 and their goals for the future include writing a queer science fiction novel and smashing the kyriarchy.