The Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (1989)
Review by Ian Sales
Nuclear war has destroyed the Earth, except for several communities around the globe, which found themselves protected by alien force-fields. One such community is the small US town of Gwynwood. Unfortunately, things aren’t going so well now. Outside the force-field, everything is dead as far as the eye can see, the ozone layer has been completely destroyed, and there is little or no hope of rescue. Inside the force-field, the water-table has been contaminated by radiation, the number of children born with disabilities is increasing, and deaths outnumber births. This is the despite the assistance being rendered to Gwynwood by the city of Sydney in Australia.
At the centre of the dome over Gwynwood is the Pylon, an alien construction itself protected by a force-field. The Pylon allows the inhabitants of Gwynwood and Sydney to send supplies to each other. The Pylon is also the source of “angelbees”, which are spherical alien surveillance devices, albeit not especially smart ones. Some people think the mysterious aliens who planted the Pylon and created the force-field were responsible for the destruction of the Earth; others suspect they may be working to repair its damage.
Isabel is a teenager in Gwynwood. Her mother is the town’s only doctor, and Isabel usually assists her. But Isabel is also fascinated by the Pylon, and wants to understand what it is, what it does and what it’s for. When she accidentally discovers a means of penetrating the force-field surrounding it, she learns something about the aliens who built it.
Gwynwood, of course, is no Eden, though it is a protected garden. Through the Pylon, Isabel finds a place much closer to the description of the biblical garden, and while trapped there she learns how to communicate with the aliens and makes a number of – later proven – accurate guesses at their nature.
Despite all this, The Wall Around Eden is neither a first contact novel, nor puzzle-type sf. It is chiefly about Gwynwood and the people in it, and how they react to their situation. For one thing, the community is religious – but it is a mixture of religions, with Quakerism predominating. They have a Meeting House – not a church – where they worship and hold town councils. Gwynwood is a rural agrarian community whose members can remember the industrialised society prior to the destruction of the Earth outside the dome. And while they rue their loss, they are determined to build something sustainable and fair with what they have.
It is Isabel who carries the story of The Wall Around Eden. Unfortunately, because she is a teenager, with a teenager’s preoccupations, it makes the book read somewhat like YA. A superior YA, it must be said; and certainly one that deserves to be republished as such in today’s buoyant YA market. The Wall Around Eden is an intelligent novel, and remarkably optimistic given its set-up. Isabel is an engaging protagonist, her best friend Peace Hope is equally engaging, and the community of Gwynwood feels like a real living small community. The later appearance of a group of Australian rebels loose in the Pylons can do little to dispel the general good-feeling the novel inspires.
Perhaps that’s another reason why The Wall Around Eden seems like a YA novel – the fact that it is a happy book. It does not describe a happy situation – the Earth has been pretty much destroyed by nuclear war, for one thing – and its cast have no good reason to be especially cheerful… but there is a strong current of hope throughout the narrative, and that gives the story a notable sense of good feeling. It is a story that works through the character of its cast, through the ingenuity of its protagonists, and through their exploration of their situation.
The Wall Around Eden also feels partly like a masterclass in writing a science fiction novel. Here is the opening situation, here are the core characters… now tell a story using them. Here are a list of topics you must incorporate in your narrative. Yet the end result is far from cookie-cutter science fiction, or a novel written by the numbers. I would happily give copies of The Wall Around Eden to people who would like to understand what science fiction is. I would happily give copies of The Wall Around Eden to teenagers who would like to try a book that isn’t about special snowflakes or post-apocalyptic warlordism or middle-class wizardry at secret boarding schools.
It’s certainly past time someone brought out a new edition of The Wall Around Eden. There is a new audience waiting for it.