The Child Garden was one of the texts set for the SFF Masterclass; one of the texts set by Wendy Pearson, to be specific, and when the time came to discuss it, she set us off with an exercise. Pick a scene that feels to you to be central to the novel, she said, and then we’ll discuss your choices. So we did; but inevitably, within the confines of the classroom we only got through a few peoples’ choices. I thought it would be interesting to gather up some of the others, and present a sort of fractal portrait of Geoff Ryman’s novel. (See Jakob Schmidt’s take for a regular review.) So:
One of the most important and interesting scenes in The Child Garden is, for me, the meeting between Milena and Rolfa, especially the paragraph starting: “The next she went to the Graveyard [….]” and ending: “The GE was a woman.” (pp. 11-14 in Voyager edition, 1999) There are a few things worth discussing here. First, we have Milena presented for what she really is, insecure and very lonely, “hugging the unwanted boots”. We can say she is like those boots, a misfit in society for various reasons. Secondly, we have the first glimpse of Rolfa as a Polar Bear, a GE, and then, in the end, a woman (but also, or maybe first of all, a musician). I actually think there are three main characters in the novel — Milena, Rolfa and Music — and as they are shown in this scene, the three are inseparable. In the end, it is hard to decide who is whose lover; I am pretty sure there is a threesome of some kind. Music is what drives Rolfa through life; her love for music is what makes her to go through the Reading process. Why on earth would she do that? She and Milena could live together somehow, probably as outcasts, but still together; however, the desire to sing, to be able to perform (or at least compose) music is stronger. Milena, on the other hand, becomes an involuntary musician when she is left without Rolfa. Her love for Rolfa is transferred to her efforts to make the performance of the Opera of the Divine Comedy possible. There is a sense that this music cannot be lost, that it is too beautiful to be forgotten, too precious to be left unperformed. Milena believes that this music belongs to the people. When Rolfa disappears as a character, her incarnation as Music appears, like a translation into an acceptable form understood by society. Which means I have changed my mind: there are two characters, Milena and Rolfa. Rolfa is Music.
When asked to think of a key scene in The Child Garden, the first that leapt into my mind was the beginning of chapter 5 (p. 52 in the 2005 SF Masterworks edition). Milena is waking up the morning after a disastrous visit to Rolfa’s family. A strange woman enters her room in the Shell building on the South Bank (one of the delights of the novel is the way in which it is rooted in a very real and realized geography of London). Only when she speaks does Milena realize that the visitor is Rolfa.
Why I think this is a key scene is less apparent to me. I would hazard that it is because this is a transformative scene. Up to this point, the reader has seen Rolfa as what she is introduced as, a ‘polar bear’. The reader understands that she is female, but it is harder to accept her as a woman. Shaving her fur off changes Rolfa’s whole identity, certainly in Milena’s eyes, and arguably in Rolfa’s head as well. (There’s a touching moment a few pages later when a topless Rolfa covers her breasts, something that she never bothered to do when coated in fur.) At this point the notion that identity is an important theme in the novel comes to the fore. The identities of the main characters are always in flux. This is particularly the case for Milena, and who she sees herself as, and what she wants to be (which never coincide with what the Consensus thinks she is, or what they want her to be). Rolfa’s situation is similar. This scene marks the point at which she attempts to break away from her old identity and become somebody new. It also marks the beginning of a process by which Milena will help Rolfa change, but not in the way she meant; the result of this process is that Rolfa will become someone different from the person Milena wants, or that Rolfa wanted to be, and that person, who Milena is trying to preserve, is lost to her forever.
I picked the same scene as Tony Keen for similar reasons. Rolfa appearing at Milena’s door shaved bare is by far the most mundane transformation in a book filled with transformative moments, and the most poignant. There are some personal associations with why I found this moment so touching: a friend at school shaved her head when she came out. Unlike Rolfa, her skin was ‘not stripped, cut, outraged,’ but the metaphorical connotations were similar. She had a rough time, dropped out of school and ran away from home. The parallel stops there. Unlike my friend, who came to terms with her sexuality, Rolfa’s symbolic shaving ultimately ends in the destruction of her personality. In contrast to Milena’s many transformations, which culminate in the permanent liberation of humanity from its physical shackles, Rolfa’s shaven nudity is a transitional thing. From being an outsider in one society she tries to hide in another. This sanctuary turns out to be anything but, and by presenting her the opportunity to live out her wildest dreams it betrays her and restores her to her socially pre-ordained role. Her transformation is, like the many Milena undergoes, transgressive, but while Milena’s transgressions change society, Rolfa’s are recuperated by it. Her grand achievements become dwarfed by Milena’s own and seem to have most significance (to the Consensus at least) as a part of Milena’s development. Thus the moment is at once tragic and liberating, romantic and destructive, an act of rebellion and of conformity. It encapsulates so many of the paradoxes that make Rolfa a convincing character. While Milena may make the final change in the world, Rolfa is the artist and in this book it is art and originality that make positive transformations possible.
For me, one of the most significant scenes comes at the end of Book One, when, after Rolfa has left, Milena discovers that Rolfa has set Dante’s Divina Commedia to music. The rest of the novel is very much determined by this discovery, foreshadowed by Milena’s vision of staging The Divine Comedy as “a great abstract opera” (Gollancz Masterwork edition, p. 95). Her ambition to stage the opera, and constantly dealing with Rolfa’s music, becomes “a way to talk to herself” (p. 107). The music “fill[s] her life” (ibid.), gives her something to do and provides her with the feeling that she “ha[s] done something with her life” (p.207). Also, Milena’s initial misunderstanding of the inscription “FOR AN AUDIENCE OF VIRUSES” gives rise to a conflict that is only resolved towards the end of The Child Garden.
Maureen Kincaid Speller:
I never actually fastened on one big scene as being emblematic of the book, but my attention was specifically caught by a couple of scenes which I seem to have yoked together.
The main section I’m thinking about is in Chapter 10 (pp.178-80 if you have the UK Unwin hardback) where Milena recalls her first meeting with Rose Ella. It’s not so much the meeting itself that interests me as Milena’s recollections of the class. The line I focused most on is:
‘You always use that word “remember”,’ said Milena. ‘You say, “remember, team”. You never tell us to think.
What strikes me here is the way in which the School Nurse seems to suggest that the Lumps are having to make an effort to recall, whereas if I understand the function of the viruses correctly, they cannot help but recall because the viruses do it for them. Thus, there is no actual effort involved in recalling what they’ve been given by the viruses. What they seem unable to do is to separate out chunks of what the virus has given them and respond to it critically. Milena may not carry all that knowledge, or have access to it in the way they do, but she can recall things that are significant and construct arguments around them, as in remembering that Plato doesn’t use the word “Pharmakolicon” for writing.
As I think we noticed in our discussion during the class, writing becomes like a virus, “artificial knowledge that people could lay claim to without really having experienced or learned anything.”
I link this to Milena’s first meeting with Rolfa, when the latter comments that while Milena can, like everyone else, read music, she hasn’t learned how to read music. “If you haven’t learned it, it isn’t yours.”
I’d like to tie that in, somehow, to everyone being Read into the Consensus, but I also had this lingering thought in the back of my mind about Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and the people who become books in order to preserve them. I suppose, in part, I’m thinking about the dreary performances of Love’s Labours Lost “preserved” in The Child Garden. Is this what the “books” of Fahrenheit 451 will become?
And all this interests me, I suppose, because of the masterclass itself, as a gathering of people who read and write about their reading, and attempt to draw conclusions from what they read. What are we doing?
I have to pick the scene which brought The Child Garden fully into focus for me. It’s a conversation between Milena and Bob the Angel that takes place relatively late in the book (pp 290-3 in my 1994 Orb edition), and it struck me quite forcefully because it’s the first time we get a clear indication of what one of the key players in the novel — Consensus — actually wants; indeed arguably the first time we can be certain that Consensus is as active in shaping the events of the novel as any of the traditionally human characters. What it wants is not something obscure or willfully strange; it is a simple human desire, and Bob states it simply: “The Consensus is tired of being alone. It wants to reach out” (290). But it’s a want that draws together many of the novel’s key themes, and the conversation in this scene starts to suggest how. Reaching out is, of course, exactly what Milena is trying to do with Rolfa’s music; both gestures reflect the novel’s concern with the tension between individuals and their community (Milena’s search for a true sense of self is only meaningfully defined once we know how the alternative is defined); Milena is only suitable because of her biological individuality, which contrasts with the more common use (in the novel) of biology as a vehicle for cultural memory; and even the ways in which Milena and Consensus are planning reach out are parallel, being both performative, and both concerned with transcending rehearsal (“They need to rehearse me,” Milena thinks) to achieve something new. And reading the scene again, it seems to gesture towards the novel’s ending (and the apotheosis of its sfnal conceits); there are images of reaching out, and a reminder of the way in which Milena grew up and left the first Garden. In a novel that sometimes gets lost in its own rapturousness, this scene is a relatively understated lynchpin.
Mostly, I agree that the scene where Milena finds out from the angel Bob what is actually going on is the key scene of the novel. However, at the time when Wendy posed the question, one of the scenes I jotted down was when Milena was rejected by the Restorers.
Remember she had been virus-less through her childhood, but one of her teachers had taken her under her wing. She’d taken Milena home, and Milena had come to love her guild/family. After a disaster, Milena was sleeping close to the instructor and started to act on her nascent lesbian impulses, which caused the teacher to reject her harshly. It was then that Milena decided to try to accept the viruses, so that she would be able to be part of society, instead of a perpetual outcast. It comes late in the series of flashbacks, it was something that Milena had tried to hold back from the reading, and it answers a few questions. Given that she couldn’t accept the viruses as a child, why was she able to later? Why accept them at all? And what motivates her? Fear of rejection (which is pretty darn universal, I’d imagine).
The scene that immediately came to my mind when we were asked is the moment when Milena discovers that Rolfa has written other works “for an audience of viruses” (p350-1 in the SF Masterworks edition)
This is very late in the book. Milena has accepted that her love for Rolfa is never going to be realised, that the Rolfa she loved doesn’t exist any more. She realises that the Opera is as much her own work as Rolfa’s, but she still considers it a monument to that love, to the fabulous woman she destroyed (through getting her Read) by trying to save her. Through all the trials of getting the Opera staged, Milena has believed herself true to Rolfa’s desire to sing, to perform, to create and present – but now there is the sudden realisation that the Divine Comedy was intended, literally, for an audience of viruses. Milena has built upon the wrong foundation, pushed the creation into the external, physical world when it was wholly meant to be inside the heads of the readers. How deeply Milena misunderstood Rolfa’s intent! And yet the seed of that revelation has been with Milena almost as long as her work – the Holy Bible “for an audience of viruses” is inside Piglet, the toy which Rolfa left behind, and from which it is birthed.
Like so many points in the book, this moment forces a reassessment of the relationship between Rolfa and Milena. Did Rolfa write this later work in Milena’s flat, trapped inside and dependent on Milena to keep her family away? Was this truly important to Rolfa, or just idle doodling? Are there other works for an audience of viruses? Can reading the books with Rolfa’s accompaniments shine a new light on the works when the received wisdom of the viruses only allows one interpretation?
Being so late in the book, these are questions that aren’t answered in the text — lending them some extra piquancy, for me at least.