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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is speculative fiction author Ruthanna Emrys! Her short fiction includes “The Deepest Rift,” “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land,” and “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” The Innsmouth Legacy series, her Mythopoeic Award–nominated spin on the Cthulhu mythos, begins with the novelette “The Litany of Earth” and continues in the novels Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her upcoming science fiction book, A Half-Built Garden, is described as “a novel of extraterrestrial diplomacy and urgent climate repair bursting with quiet, tenuous hope and an underlying warmth”—and is coming out on July 26!

Cover of A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys

As I write this, I’m crowded into a messy basement with two kids, five adults, two dogs, and two cats for a tornado warning. It’s well after the kids’ bedtime. Earlier I put in an ice cream order to cope with the state of the world. The delivery person, who lives a much more precarious life than any of my family, showed up in the middle of the warning but wouldn’t accept our offer to join us in the basement. The ice cream was a reaction to anxiety over distant wars that may at any minute draw closer, new transphobic and homophobic laws just across nearer borders, and an ongoing pandemic that might have been over by now if we were better at organizing collective societal responses to crisis.

No one needs to tell my children that the personal is political, but I tell them anyway.

Speculative fiction is full of starship crews and quest fellowships, found families pulled together by mission. Most of them are essentially single-generation, even if elves and humans may be centuries apart in technical age. When kids show up—How long a trek through space do you really want with no work-life balance?—they are most often a barrier to adventure, or else an impetus for it when they’re threatened. Other times the focus is on the younger generation, learning from mentors or dodging protective parents but ultimately bearing the weight of the world on their own.

When I had kids, the world didn’t stop dropping troubles in my lap, adventurous or otherwise. I just had to fit them into my lap with the kids also sitting there. And I had to bring my kids into the solving of those troubles, because problem-solving doesn’t actually pass neatly between generations.

When I set out to write A Half-Built Garden, I wanted a story that reflected my own experiences as a parent dealing with a troubled world. Maybe even a story that valued what parents in particular bring to world-saving (other than sleep deprivation). The opening scene includes both first contact with an alien starship, and a diaper change. I read it aloud at a get-out-the-vote event with Malka Older (author of the Centenal Cycle, and also a world-saving parent), and described the subgenre as “diaperpunk.” This resulted in months—a couple of years, in fact—of Malka asking me how “the diaperpunk book” was coming along.

But hard as it is to balance childrearing with everyday political activism, adding writing to the mix is even harder. So A Half-Built Garden was a slow, urgent creation. It grew: fed by the experiences of bringing my daughter to her first protest march, sitting down for “the talk”—multiple talks—about the injustices of bigotry, and working through pandemic safety and community response around the kitchen table. Like my characters, my own life has become a search for work/life/first contact balance.

This book has felt in some ways like an invocation. I set it just beyond the years I’m likely to live to see. I set it in my own neighborhood, envisioning how this beloved place might look in a world where we’ve grown just a bit as a species—where we’ve learned how to handle the existential challenges plaguing us now, and are not quite ready to be terrified by the next set. The neighborhood of 2083 includes trees I’ve already planted, mature technologies I’ve seen through their earliest stages, and watershed protection measures proposed a couple of years ago at our town’s environmental council meeting.

It’s far from a perfect world, but it’s a world I’d be glad to put in the hands of my grandchildren, when my grandchildren are old enough to juggle diaper changes with first contact.

Photo of Ruthanna Emrys Ruthanna Emrys is the author of A Half-Built Garden, Winter Tide, and Deep Roots. She writes radically hopeful short stories about religion and aliens and psycholinguistics. She lives in a mysterious manor house on the outskirts of Washington, DC with her wife and their large, strange family. There she creates real versions of imaginary foods, gives unsolicited advice, and occasionally attempts to save the world.