Details: (c) 1989 Geoff Ryman; Pub St Martin's Press 1990; ISBN 0006510884 (guessing from online tools; it's not marked on the book anywhere I can find)
Verdict: The child garden is profound with flashes of real originality.
Reasons for reading it / How it came into my hands: Birthday present from rysmiel
The Child Garden is an amazingly ambitious book, and one that comes very close to pulling off something mind-blowingly amazing. It's a dystopian future with lots of SF elements, and a coming of age / character novel of the protagonist, Milena, and a love story, and an SF reworking of Dante's Divine Comedy, and if all that wasn't enough, it also gets into mysticism and the meaning of life. None of these elements is badly done, either; it does a whole bunch of very difficult things well. If there's a flaw it's primarily that there's just too many disparate things going on, and for me, it just didn't quite hold together.
That said, tCG is a good SF novel with the complexity and sheer writing quality of a top-flight literary novel, and that's already quite something. It's pretty demanding of the reader too; there are so many ideas and subtleties and allusions and metaphors all over the place, and most of the underlying background is hinted at rather than explained. It also manages not to bury the story in all the cleverness. Milena is a really solid character, not too perfect, but really sympathetic. It's told out of chronological order, which is something that normally puts me off, but in this case the jumping around and flashbacks and witholding critical information about a scene until just the right moment is so well done, so beautifully controlled, that it enhances rather than spoiling the story.
The biggest weakness is the biology. There's a level of detail in the exposition which kills any suspension of disbelief, and which is full of completely misused jargon. I would be perfectly happy to accept for the sake of the story that in the future, humans have been genetically engineered so they can photosynthesize. But explanations of exactly how that genetic engineering is done, and of how photosynthesis works, explanations which make no biological sense, add nothing positive and annoy me a lot. That said, I like the exploration of the idea that medical technology hasn't suddenly become perfect just because it's the future; medical developments have unexpected consequences and sometimes fail altogether. In a similar way, the political explanations are dumb in specific detail, but the general idea that society, even dystopian future society, isn't perfectly stable, is very well explored. I very much appreciated the fact that society changes over time, and there is realistic variation among the characters in how much they go along with the prevailing social and legal norms, beyond the cliched extremes of either total mindless acceptance or outright heroic rebellion.
The theology is somewhat weird, but apart from the closing sequence it's pretty understated, and I suspect some of the weirdness may be a function of the Dante thread anyway. If it were slightly less over-complicated, (and if the biology were more scientific and less techno-babbly) The Child Garden would be comparable with Brave New World. It's certainly very impressive, and there is some really memorable stuff in it.