Miquita is the eldest unwed daughter of Commander Hritrar, the military leader of the inhabitants of an unnamed desert world. (At least, readers never learn the name of this world, for reasons discussed below.) Miquita’s father recently commanded a final, devastating attack on the world of Rubrar, which vanquished the Rubruii and ended a war between the two planets.
The war began because the intensely xenophobic inhabitants of Miquita’s planet learned of a Rubruii ability called transference and feared this would be used as a weapon against them. Transference allows the Rubruii to share their emotional state with others—causing a receiver to experience intense anger or fear, for example. Anticipating such usage, Miquita’s father decides to attack first. In the brief war that follows, transference ironically becomes the Rubruii’s greatest weakness. Commander Hritrar’s forces are able to “reverse” the “mind bubble” of transference protecting the cities of Rubrar. This creates agonizing pain for the Rubruii, effectively ending all military resistance. In the process, it also critically wounds the biotech intelligence network that sustains Rubruii society.
All of this is in the novel’s past as the background for the work’s focus, which is Miquita’s experience on Rubrar. As part of the peace agreement, Miquita and the son of the Rubruii Prime Minister exchange places. The novella revolves around Miquita’s tentative navigation of etiquette and social norms as embassy from her homeworld to vanquished Rubrar. She sees firsthand the effects of her father’s assault on the planet and wants to understand the damage and to help if possible. And here’s where Miquita’s personal conflict begins. Because, despite her best intentions, everything Miquita does is perceived as arrogant and assuming by her hosts. Their complaint is a fair one, despite Miquita’s good intentions, and it resonates more strongly the longer one reflects on this work’s ambiguous conclusion.
As far as the novella’s construction goes, Wagner handles the backgrounding and foregrounding artfully by means of an alternating series of flashbacks and narrative that bring the two cultures vividly to life. The harsh heat of Miquita’s homeworld and the importance of water there, for instance, contrast strongly with the strained politeness of the Rubruii and their lush, failing forests. It is these forests that hold the key, Miquita believes, to repairing Rubruii society. The orchards surrounding the cities are an organic AI network, having been given a type of limited sentience at some point in the past soon after the planet was settled. It is these forests that Miquita believes she needs to repair.
Wagner is a master of effective dialogue. The book is filled with characters in conversation, and this is interwoven so beautifully with description and alien gesture that the conversations are the most enjoyable parts of the work. One example of this is when Miquita questions the Rubruii ambassador about using the term “common intelligence” to describe the orchards instead of “artificial intelligence.” Miquita claims that the organic cannot be artificial. The ambassador disagrees and, after explaining the process of making the trees sentient, concludes:
“… So perhaps this intelligence you call artificial is simply the act of uncovering what is already there.”
“How may you argue this [Miquita asks] for your houses, for your ships?”
The first moon was rising, washing out the silver of the ships and the white of the city until the entire horizon glowed with light.
“They are extensions of ourselves [the ambassador responds], of our instincts to find shelter and to seek outside resources. It is we who are uncovered.” (p. 16)
This is a striking idea: that technologies are less about us creating new things and more about ways to uncover and reveal connections or biases already present in ourselves. Here, rather than a central plot point, this idea serves as a compelling example among many of the differences in worldview between the two cultures, offered in the course of one of the flowing conversations with which this book is richly filled.
The Green and Growing was published as Volume 65 in Aqueduct Press’s Conversation Pieces small paperback series. The goal of this series, the series editor explains in the introduction, is to celebrate “the speculations and visions of the grand conversation of feminist SF.” In this context, Wagner’s book is a powerful contribution to ongoing conversations regarding post-colonialism and the response of colonizing powers in the wake of ecological and cultural devastation.
For me, Miquita was a genuinely sympathetic character. Like Miquita, I come from a line of dispossessors and colonizers. John Case, my earliest ancestor in the United States, almost certainly participated in the Pequot War, one of the first wars of aggression against Native Americans living in what is now New England. He was probably on hand during the Mystic River massacre. (His service during this conflict seems to have earned him the land in Connecticut that was the Case homestead for generations.) When my wife and I purchased our current home in Illinois, built almost 120 years ago, the previous owners gave us the original title documents, which include references to the treaty by which the Potawatomi Indians ceded the land on which much of our town now stands. As a reader, I saw myself in Miquita as she finds herself in a situation in which her people (and in particular her father) have devastated a culture connected with and dependent upon a collapsing ecological framework.
Ostensibly, the critical blow Miquita’s people struck against the Rubruii was preemptive and made out of fear—in particular the fear of a way of understanding and communicating (transference) that was alien to them. Miquita (and by extension Wagner) seems to accept this premise. There is no indication that this was simply a cover for more implicit forms of appropriation. Miquita’s people, during the time of the narrative, don’t begin colonization of the defeated planet or exploiting its resources. It’s unclear whether this is something Miquita simply hasn’t reflected upon, or whether Wagner is intentionally setting up a situation in this respect notably different from forms of Western colonialism.
In the context of dispossession, it seems significant that throughout the novella the planet Rubrar and its inhabitants, the Rubruii, are only referred to by the names Miquita’s world has given them (from the color their planet appears in Miquita’s planet’s sky). Meanwhile Miquita’s world and people are never named, keeping the perspective grounded firmly in Miquita’s framework alone and keeping the Rubrar othered. Wagner has, in essence, brought the reader along and made us complicit in Miquita’s conception of the Rubruii.
The futility and perceived arrogance of Miquita’s desire to help is painfully, powerfully woven throughout the entire story. For example, in the course of her work Miquita realizes she needs to fully understand the effect of the assault by reliving it, which she is able to do through the transference ability of her host and ward. But her act of receiving this knowledge from the Rubruii ambassador is itself a social taboo, a form of appropriation. The act also violates the terms of the treaty that ended the war and is potentially damaging to the fragile peace. Her attempt to understand simply causes more problems.
“No.” She [the Rubruii ambassador] cut me off. “No.” She grew more gentle in her manner, relaxed into her usual self. “Let us not pretend any longer that we are alike.”
I hardened my face and tried not to reveal how sharply her words had cut. “We must pretend something. There is no living with each other without it.”
“What can we pretend?” She had withdrawn from me. Her voice was monotone, unvarying. “Should I pretend that Wleri never died?” She used his name informally, without title, and there I saw a chance for some connection still.
“Let us pretend that I can help.” (pp. 59-60)
This is the difficult truth Wagner is sifting out in this lyrical, potent tale: that there is no way for Miquita to help, that even her best intentions will end in more damage.
Eventually Miquita learns that when the trees originally were gifted with sentience, they required a living host to graft onto. It is this original connection that has been ruptured. Yet once she determines what she must do—provide herself as a willing, sentient replacement host for the trees—she uses force against the Rubruii to do it when they try to stop her, ultimately utilizing the reversal of transference against her ambassador-ward that on a planetary scale caused so much devastation. The final scene has her knocking her ward unconscious and ignoring the shouted pleas of the Rubruii Prime Minister not to proceed.
The more I reflect on the ending of this story the more troubling it is. Other works with similar settings might depict the alien species as honored that one of their victorious enemies is willing to give her life to fix their planet; like the Na’vi, grateful to the hero in James Cameron’s Avatar. This is where Wagner’s book is a powerful, subtle critique:
“They want another seed. This is how they will repair themselves.”
The ambassador looked at me, her eyes wide and angry. “No. The trees speak with memories. And they are in pain. You cannot understand them in the way that you might speak with me.”
I stepped out of the shuttle.
“Do not presume to understand them,” she said, her voice rapid and urgent. “Ward Miquita, do not be arrogant.”
She sounded afraid to me. And in this way I interpreted and misconstrued her comments and her warnings. (pp. 82-83)
If memory and connection, a conduit with the sentient trees, is so important then certainly that conduit must be Rubruii, not an outsider. Wagner doesn’t spell this out, but by putting herself into this link Miquita hasn’t healed it, she’s subverted it. The link is now with Miquita’s species, not the Rubruii. Whatever Miquita’s intent, the action is still one of force and appropriation. Miquita is given no permission or blessing to return to the orchard and allow the trees to consume her, and she does it anyway because she decides, unilaterally, it’s the right thing to do.
As a white man, with a native language that dominates academic discourse and all the benefits of a society with a long history of cultural and ecological sins, I can’t help reading Wagner’s conclusion as a strong critique of all my best intentions. Attempts to “fix” what Western civilization has wrought so often involve offering solutions forcibly or at the very least arrogantly, encoded and embodied in my own language and understanding—which is often itself a form of violence against other ways of being and knowing. I wanted so much for Miquita to be able to fix the green and growing, restore those living cities, the ancient orchards with their long memories, but the trees offer their own conclusion:
We would never be whole. We did not want to be whole, for we were old. Very old … We had wandered far afield, spreading our roots past comfort and safety, to recall what we had lost. We had not found it. We were searching still. (pp. 94-95)
Maybe Miquita could have stayed on Rubruii a lifetime. Maybe she could have listened and done nothing but listen, successfully resisted the damning urge to do something. Maybe that’s the deeper reading of Wagner’s trees, that this isn’t simply a warning of what not to do but a description of how real healing and reconciliation might take place: slowly, with all the patience of green things.