Annalee Newitz’s new science fiction novel ‘The Terraformers’


The Terraformers

By Annalee Newitz
Tor: 352 pages, $29

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In 2021, Annalee Newitz, a science journalist and science fiction writer, published a remarkable book entitled Four Lost Cities. Newitz visited the sites and studied the histories of four ancient civilizations, realizing that “dead” isn’t quite the right word for what’s happening to once-powerful urban centers. Even Pompeii, famously decimated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, was not destroyed but rebuilt. Cities was an engaging, unconventional book on urbanism that looks deep into the past for the present. “Perhaps all of our cities are in perpetual cycles of centralization and dispersal,” Newitz wrote. “Or if we think with our galactic brains, they are transitory stops on the long road of mankind’s public history.”

The Terraformers, Newitz’s new novel, is a brilliant galactic brain book. Set in a very distant future – around 59,000 AD – it envisions human civilization evolving to the point where we can build new worlds and effectively process new types of creatures to manage them . Destry, a ranger who oversees an evolving planet early in the novel, is a “hominine,” a humanoid being who can live for hundreds of years, and her kin coexist peacefully with diverse species. (Her steed is a flying, talking, elk-like creature; naked mole rats abound.)

But the administration of Destry’s planet, Sask-E, is being handled by a distant corporation, Verdance, and corporations have not evolved at all. The Terraformers is full of space travel, supertechnology and radical reinterpretations of interspecies relationships, but Newitz’s concerns are earthbound. What bad compromises are being made between the populace and the leadership from above? How do tribal and caste systems undermine societies? What makes a society sustainable? And (there’s a lot of that) why can’t we have better public transport?

This is a much wider canvas than Newitz has previously worked with; Her previous two novels dealt with drugs and robots (2017 Autonomous) and time travel, gender and power (2019 The Future of Another Timeline). Here, Newitz is a thorough and meticulous world builder, almost to the point of failure — the narrative often delves deep into Sask-E’s weeds. But at the heart of the story is a direct Kulturkampf laid on top of a capitalist critique.

Destry and her fellow rangers are tasked with preparing the planet for future inhabitants and for Verdance, which promises a bespoke alien experience: “Sit on virgin Pleistocene land, with your pure H. sapiens Neighbors reliving Earth’s glory days.” Just as gentrification threatens ethnic enclaves in every major city, Verdance’s strategy threatens a very different group: Destry and her crew discover a tribe near a volcano that is destroying the infrastructure of the planets should build up and then die out. Instead, they found a way to survive underground. Quarrels over who has the right to live – and where – escalate into open fighting as the hominins try to find some relaxation with the old community.

Finally, a contract is concluded. One character muses that it “could be a model for how to balance in the future.” A good thirty millennia into the future, these are still famous last words.

Newitz has written an entertaining study of contested social forces, looking at how the lower echelons of any society are (mis)treated; “The Terraformers” owes as much to EP Thompson as it does to Isaac Asimov. On a smaller scale, Newitz invokes the casual bigotry that rejects the intellect of groups rejected by those in power – a point emphasized here by the “intelligence assessment” ratings used by Verdance, derisively dubbed “InAss”.

As an alternative, Newitz wishes to celebrate the fluidity of relationships that a more egalitarian society can offer. There are playful hikes to Sask-E’s rougher outposts and plenty of hybrid species cuddling. The Terraformers may be the best novel you’ll read this year about a tragic romance between two moose-like creatures.

But Newitz is generally more comfortable at the macro level — plate tectonics, river currents, and transit all play central roles in the book’s plot, and each is treated with intelligence and often a delightful weirdness. In Four Lost Cities, Newitz argued that the main threats to civilizations are aggressive top-down leadership and failure to protect the environment. The same dynamic is at play here, as Verdance’s dogged efforts to build a standard train line ignore the way communities evolve.

Newitz’ solution in The Terraformers – a flying worm-like train that can evolve with the needs of the dwellers – is a tad impractical. It will take us a few millennia to catch up. But the impossibility of real-world resolution doesn’t detract from a message that can be applied now: treat communities equally, acknowledge their changing natures, and make sure they’re not abused in the name of an outsider of “authenticity.”

These points may congeal in the book’s late edition as Verdance leadership becomes increasingly monotonous and authoritarian; Even the inevitable fight scenes can feel dispassionate compared to Newitz’s true passion, urban rhetoric. And because the book’s three-part structure introduces a new set of characters each time, it’s harder to feel invested in any of them, even when their homes are forgotten.

In a way, Newitz did the job too well. The Terraformers is so good at imagining humans subverting their own societies that it seems downright miraculous to imagine that we could make it to the year 3000, let alone 30,000. But Newitz’s optimism is well founded and charming.

“Four Lost Cities” listed some of the elements of a healthy city: “Good water reservoirs and roads, accessible public spaces, housing for all, social mobility, and leaders who treat the city’s workers with dignity.” We don’t need to build new creatures or find new worlds to create that, but even if we do, the same challenges remain. The solutions will require the kind of imagination Newitz believes we have. Our galaxy brains are busy.

Athitakis is a writer based in Phoenix and the author of The New Midwest. Annalee Newitz’s new science fiction novel ‘The Terraformers’

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