Oct 12 2020

Greensmith by Aliya Whiteley

Bear with me for a moment while I serve up a relevant anecdote here.

When I was 8 years old, on a layover in London, I climbed the stairs of the narrow house of the auntie who was hosting my mother and me, and turned on the TV in the bedroom. I was fresh out of things to read and figured I could sample some of what England had to offer in terms of televised entertainment. There was an episode of Doctor Who on: I’d heard of it, and I was into sci-fi, so I was definitely interested. But after about ten minutes, I had to turn it off as being deathly boring. Some guy with wild hair in a coat and scarf was running around and away from robots while wielding a screwdriver, and I just didn’t care, an antipathy that has carried through the decades despite the appalled cries of “you don’t like Doctor Who?!” from other nerds in my various fandoms. If I had all the time in the world, I’d give it another go, but I can’t even find enough hours in the day for all the shows I want to watch, so soz everyone, it’s not you, it’s me.

Which leads to Greensmith, which, for all my relative ignorance of Dr Who (one can’t help absorbing quite a bit by cultural osmosis, ofc,) felt like what I imagine a grown-up version of the Doctor might be. Penelope Greensmith has inherited the task of cataloging the world’s flora, specifically its flowers, from her dad, using an unusual device called, ahem, the Vice. Now divorced and with a grown daughter she doesn’t see very often, she’s retired to a hilltop cottage to better focus on her work, tho she does think wistfully of the pleasures of adult companionship from time to time. But then a mysterious stranger called Doc– I mean, The Horticulturist, shows up on her doorstep, asking for her help. Turns out, there’s a terrible virus that’s turning the greenery of many worlds to sludge, and she and her Collection might be the only way to save the universe.

If you’re familiar with Aliya Whiteley’s superb The Arrival Of Missives then you’ll smile at the repeated motif here of the woman who finds greater reservoirs of strength in herself than she knew, who’s going to save the universe on her own terms (and if you’re not familiar, please do consider getting a copy of one of my favorite books of 2018.) Greensmith is also a wonderful update of the cosmic-savior-who-needs-a-sidekick story, centering the “sidekick” and giving her the agency to make the necessary choices. I especially loved Penelope’s complicated relationships, not just with Hort, as she calls him, but also with her daughter, whose own chapters are great, if wrenching.

I wonder if my enjoyment of Greensmith would have been enhanced were I a Whovian. Doesn’t really matter tho: this is another terrific work of speculative fiction from one of the most creative, genre-bending writers working today.

Greensmith by Aliya Whiteley comes out today from Unsung Press and is available from all good booksellers.

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3 comments

  1. I have missed out on being a Whovian, too! Tho I am interested in the current one, and I liked David Tennant enough in Good Omens that I might look at his run as well. On the other hand, who am I kidding? I haven’t finished Chernobyl, haven’t yet glanced at The Witcher or The Mandalorian, and my copy of His Dark Materials is still in its shrink wrap. And Kid One wants to watch a lot of Star Trek. Like, a lot a lot. So the chances of me and Doctor Who…

    1. Just started watching The Witcher. Three episodes in, and honestly, it’s not great. They’ve redone Yen’s back story, plus he meets Triss (who is barely a redhead!) before he meets Yen and I’m all, okay whatever. But the worst part is that Geralt spouts ethics for faux intellectual college students: the writing overall is nowhere close to either the books or video games, IMO.

      Was not a fan of Pullman’s HDM series either; in retrospect, I preferred The Subtle Knife to The Golden Compass tho TGC certainly gets points for world-building! As such, have little interest in watching adaptations. I am looking forward to The Mandalorian tho!

      1. That’s too bad about the writing for The Witcher. You can tell from what I wrote here that I found the books a little bit up and down; one he wrote as if there was no such thing as a middle-book problem, the next he got clobbered by that very same problem. I’ve never played the game, so I can’t speak to that at all. I’d be interested in some of it just for the songs and to hear how they pronounce the poet’s name.

        I haven’t read His Dark Materials in at least a decade, probably closer to two. I remember preferring The Golden Compass but maybe that’s just because it was a great introduction to the world. I remember liking the audacity of the third, but thinking that it wasn’t written as well as the other two and wound up seeming kinda clunky. I think seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda as a Texian would be a hoot.

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