(For your edification, here is an interview with Ryman from March 2001.)
It is the year 2075.
In the early 21st century, American biotechnologists manage to cure cancer with a simple infectious virus. Only after this virus is released in the Earth's atmosphere is it found that cancer in fact plays a vital role in extending life: Cancer cells, being immortal, secrete proteins that prevent cell death, allowing people to get old. Without cancer people die at the age of 35. The halving of human life expectancy--to say nothing of the mass death suffered by everyone unfortunate enough to be more than 35 years old--is enough to precipitate the Second Revolution.
The global epidemic of premature mortality forces human civilization to adapt as best as it can. Viruses are used extensively, not only for health reasons, but to provide a ready store of knowledge and memory through the transmission of viruses' genetic information. At birth, children are inocculated with viruses in order to bypass lengthy formal education, to try to make the most of humanity's brief tenure on Earth. Humanity's genetic makeup is also tinkered with by the new, wiser professional of biotechnology, as human subspecies capable of enduring difficult environments like the Arctic are produced, while even normal humans are genetically engineered to be able to photosynthesize sugars (via rhodopsin implanted in the human epidermis) in order to help make up for food shortages at the minor cost of an unnatural purple cast to their skins. The new world order, vaguely Maoist in tone, is Communist, thanks to China's success in leading the Second Revolution. The world is actually overseen by the Consensus, a kind of collective vegetable mind made up of democratic viral readings of peoples' thoughts and minds. Somehow, even in the middle of a greenhouse effect that has made England a bamboo-growing subtropical area, humanity has survived.
It hasn't done very well, though. Although human civilization has survived, it has done so at the cost of being impoverished. For instance, the viruses begin to mutate and become contagious, making some people communicate in song while others are forced to become excessively empathetic by their genetic reprogramming. Worse for humanity's prospects, it turns out that humans perfectly educated by viruses aren't creative; the temptation to do things by rote is so much stronger when one has been doing just that since one was a toddler. With the accumulated intellects of hundreds or thousands of millions of people, the Consensus is well aware that human civilization is stagnant, but it is at a loss to know what to do.
"Sounds like the viruses," said Milena. "Just like the viruses. Plato would have hated the [knowledge] viruses, too."
The School Nurse laughed. "Very good, Milena, yes, yes he would have hated the viruses. As we all know, he and Aristotle founded the Axis of Materialist and Idealistic thinking, both of which the Golden Stream swept away. Plato believed in dictators. He certainly would have hated the Consensus, our democracy... Are you an idealist, then Milena? Do you think you are just a shadow on the wall of a cave? Perhaps you disagree with Plato and are a materialist" (178)
This is where Milena Shibush fits in. A Czechoslovak immigrant, Milena is allergic to the knowledge viruses. Treated by her pears as if she is mentally retarded, shemust make her own way in the world. Nominally an actress, and frustrated by her difficult relationship with her love Rolfa, her true talents come out when she discovers that her lack of viral inoculations gives her an excellent reputation as a director of artistic holographic visions.
As one person wrote five years ago, The Child Garden manages to be "lyrical, hopeful, and spiritually profound, even in the midst of a sometimes horrific culture," To say nothing of being wonderfully and subtly funny:
"Do you think," Rolfa asked, 'that you could possibly call me Pooh?"
The word Pooh meant something very specific and unpleasant to Milena. It certainly did not mean teddy bear.
"Why on earth would you want me to call you that?" Milena asked.
"Pooh," repeated Rolfa. "Pooh. You must have heard of Pooh. He's a bear. He's in a book?"
A GE novel? Milena had sudden visions of an entire Polar literature. 'Is it new?' she asked.
"No, no," said Rolfa and stood up. "Here." She showed Milena a drawing of Pooh.
"He's not part of the culture," said Milena, meaning there was no virus of him. She reads, thought Milena in admiration, unheard-of-books.
"You could call me Pooh. And I could call you Christopher Robin."
"Why?" said Milena warily (54).
It's difficult for me to communicate my experience of The Child Garden, since so much of its effect is cumulative. One thing that I particularly liked in Ryman's writing was its contextualization, the rooting of his protagonist's experience in a vast universe, and the implications that Ryman draws from this character from the rooting.
For instance, The Child Garden's subtitle is "A Low Comedy." Milena gains the full support of the Consensus for her plan to stage the Divine Comedy of Dante from Earth orbit for the entire world to see. This incidentally sets the stage for new adventures, as the Consensus desperately seeks out other intelligences/civilizations like itself and Milena puts herself in the right position to truly revivify her society. Even at its grandest and most space-operatic, though, Ryman's never loses touch with Milena. He pays attention to the little things about her, carefully and honestly.
Milena picked up the next book in the stack. It was huge, bound in dirty grey cloth, anonymous and slumped sideways on its over-used binding. The first page was an engraving of Dante. Divina Commedia said words printed in red. Underneath, in pencil, Rolfa had written, 'FOR AN AUDIENCE OF VIRUSES'.
All three books of the comedy -- Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso -- had been bound together in one volume. Underneath all the words, all the way through, there were musical notes [. . .] Then Dante meets the best. The words were set to the music that Rolfa had sung in the dark the first night Milena had heard her, hidden in the graveyard. Milena read The Divine Comedy bouyed up by music. (95).
The Child Garden was the first proper science fiction book that I'd read, at the age of 10. Perhaps even now, 14 years later, I can't get enough critical distance from Ryman's book to properly analyze it. In the end, all that I can say is that Ryman's sensitive writing style, his meticulously detailed and plausible universes, and his profound moral sense--all helped make The Child Garden a fantastic reading experience. I'd like to read it again, but unfortunately my copy's on PEI.
Incidentally, Ryman has a nice hypertext novel 253 online. Go, read.
Now, if only I can find an E-mail address so I can compliment him properly.
UPDATE (12:34 PM) : This posting on rec.arts.sf.written provides a useful annotated bibliography to Ryman's published works.