News from Gardenia is the first book in the News From book series by Robert Llewellyn, published by Unbound.
Gavin Meckler accidentally flies his battery-powered airplane into a sci-fi zappy cloud that propels him 200 years in the future where England has been renamed Gardenia because everybody there gardens their own food. They don’t have money, or careers, or family structures, or their own homes. Everyone is happy and healthy, as they’ve found a cure for almost every disease and most people only die by assisted suicide well over 100-years-old. As radical as this might sound, author Robert Llewellyn has taken great pains to make sure that this future is entirely possible based on the way the world is now, and to prove it, he drops in the future’s history of how everything we have today leads to this reality. The feasibility of this future will spook you, especially any youngsters who may be around long enough to get pretty close.
I don’t know that I’ve ever been able to relate to a character as well as to Gavin Meckler. I’m sure there are other characters out there like him, but I haven’t found them. Gavin is the sort of person who “recharges his batteries” by working on projects, often alone. He is clear and focused when he’s working. When it comes to people and relationships, it’s more fuzzy and he doesn’t have the right emotional tools handy. His wife accuses him of not being in tune with his or others’ emotions, which is true. There are several times during the book that Gavin just doesn’t know what he should be feeling, least of all how to react. Llewellyn handles this gracefully. This isn’t one of those soppy stories where the protagonist finally realizes his short-comings, if you can call them that, and adjusts his personality so that he can fit in with other people. Instead, he simply acknowledges the awkward situations in which he finds himself where understanding emotions would help him, or he identifies his rare emotions in intense moments. Most of Gavin’s feelings are communicated through thoughts, not emotive words or actions. For example, there are a few times where Gavin consciously misses his wife, Beth, but most of the time, it’s unconscious. We as readers know how much he misses her because of how often she crops up in his thoughts. These thoughts don’t have to be thoughts of longing or sadness, just something small that has reminded him of her, and the frequency at which this happens implies that he misses her more than he realizes.
Writing a utopia book is brave. A lot of people write dystopia-disguised-as-utopia books, which aren’t so brave because they usually have a traditional plot structure. That is, one central conflict dictates the protagonist’s moves, and every scene brings him/her either closer or farther from solving the conflict. Not so with News from Gardenia. You might think that, even though the future is wonderful, his central conflict is that he can’t get home, but Gavin doesn’t really give it much thought. He is propelled in different directions by the other characters, who send him around the world to visit the descendants of his wife. The world is a fascinating place and Gavin suffers from constant awe, which can grow a little tiring. However, there isn’t a single moment when the story gets boring. Gavin’s journey is made of moment-to-moment mini-conflicts, such as a budding relationship with a young woman named Grace, being made to cook a meal for everyone, and fixing an old digger that resembles the machinery of Gavin’s time. Gavin is our eyes and ears in exploring this world Llewellyn has assembled with staggering detail. Gavin has an engineer’s mind who’s always put a lot of stock into future technology–it was basically his career field–and so he asks all the right questions. Through the local historian, history book, electronic books that have Wikipedia, and interviewing people in Manhattan, Beijing, and Mumbai, we are given the pieces of a complicated, though not impossible, 200 year history of 2011-2211, including the collapse of government and economy, the installation of grid power and information, and the role of flooding. The United States, save for the east coast, has become an ultra-conservative nation, rooted in 21st century values like guns and government. Manhattan has been overgrown and is now peaceful, much like Gardenia. China’s population, though smaller than 2011 due to infertilization, has grown upward–into huge buildings the size of cities and hundreds of floors tall. India has grown unimaginably wealthy.
News from Gardenia is speckled with vivid characters like William (who I inexplicably imagined as a taller Bobby Ball), the lovely Grace, the knowledgeable Paula, the American Mike (who, again, my brain has sorted out the casting for: Stanley Townsend). Gavin struggles to understand his relationship to them and how he might fit into their community. The most heartbreaking moment is when Gavin confesses to Grace that he loves her. Earlier, he’d been up in the air in the new world’s space crafts, and he’d told every flight attendant that he loved them. The attendants were used to their passengers feeling euphoric from space flight and politely told him that was nice, but it meant nothing to either them or Gavin. But now that Gavin really is in love and tells Grace that he’d like to have a 21st-century-style family with her, she has the same reaction that the flight attendants had. She doesn’t mind that Gavin loves her, but it means very little to her. It isn’t her fault: she lives in a society where there just isn’t value in that sort of thing, so Gavin finds himself with a taste of his own medicine. It isn’t until now when Gavin realizes that there really is no place for him in 2211.
The book does not end like a book that is self-contained. Instead, we get a cliff-hanger to lead us into book 2, News from the Squares, which I shall be reading shortly.
News from Gardenia is available as a book, e-book, and audiobook. If you are interested in helping fund the third book in the series, News from the Clouds, visit unbound.co.uk. You don’t need to be in the UK to contribute. Visit the author Robert Llewellyn online and on Twitter.