The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz Book Review


In his seminal study of the sci-fi genre, In Search of Wonder, critic Damon Knight remarks on the complexity and richness of Charles Harness’ Flight Into Yesterday: “Harness told me he spent two years to write the story and had thrown into it every fictional idea that had occurred to him during that time.”

The reader of Annalee Newitz’s third novel, The Terraformers, is sure to walk away stunned and dazzled with a similar impression. This generously overloaded story has enough ideas and incidents to fill half a dozen smaller sci-fi books. But the reading experience is never congested or tedious, never plagued with pointless detours. The story – which begins nearly 60,000 years in the future and unfolds over more than a millennium – rolls along at a brisk pace as Newitz gives space to delve into characters and settings, and to accumulate astonishing speculative elements.

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As Newitz noted in a recent interview in Locus magazine, a narrative so far in the future is almost tantamount to inventing a world entirely divorced from our familiar reality — as opposed to, say, the hypothetical acts of 2053 And indeed, this is weird, artful, partly post-human, totally post-scarcity wonderland, showing an atmosphere behind the looking-glass at times. But Newitz adds enough original human culture and behaviors to make the story relatable. Love is love, even in the year 60,000.

The entire action of the book – apart from a few brief interludes – takes place on the planet Sask-E or Sasky. Once a dead ball, the world was constructed over millennia with vast amounts of high-tech human, robotic, and organic labor — the title’s “terraforming.” At the beginning of the book, the planet, owned by a large galactic corporation called Verdance, is almost ready to take tenants. Sasky is advertised as a luxurious recreation of the Late Pleistocene, the geological period on our homeworld in which mankind thrived.

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However, humanity is hardly natural today, having fragmented into a hundred forms. Next homo sapiensthere they are Homo diversus (“a synthetic derivative of H. sapiens their forehead was pointed back, their chest broad… their limbs were long, multi-jointed”) and sublime beastmen: cats, dogs, naked mole rats with stronger minds. Some of the subhumans remain committed. Human, animal or not, nobody likes to be mistreated.

The first of three sections focuses on one H. juice named Destry, who belongs to the Environmental Rescue Team, an almost monastic organization tasked with maintaining the ecological balance of a given territory. Hired by Verdance, the ERT brings Sasky to market despite some conflicts with his employer’s unethical commercialism, personified by the company’s vice president. Ronnie Drake “loved to point out during one of her sudden, uncomfortable project oversight meetings that Verdance had paid to build this planet, including its biological workforce,” writes Newitz. “Everything here—except for the rocks, water, and the magnetic field—was part of Verdance’s proprietary ecosystem development kit. And that meant every life form was legally owned by the company, including Destry and Whistle.” (Whistle is a wise moose, by the way, who acts as Destry’s assistant and companion, allowing Newitz to weave “buddy film” elements into the story .)

However, the planned rollout goes haywire when life-or-death issues over water rights lead to a war.

Part 2 jumps ahead 700 years. Destry has passed away, but her protégé Misha survives (longevity is a hallmark of this future), and he is one of many working to solve the problem of inner-city mass transit by inventing intelligent flying trains. And in the final segment, another 900 years in the future, we inhabit the perspective of one of the airborne anti-gravity craft named Scrubjay, a happy cargo and passenger deliverer. Scrubjay and his partner, a journalist cat named Moose, become embroiled in a crisis caused by a worldwide housing shortage caused by corporate greed. This section, shorter than the others, feels more compressed and less lived.

Newitz’s use of hot 21st-century crises—water rights, mass transit, homelessness—along with the characters’ penchant for progressive social policies and a lifestyle that flies the freak flag seems to lend this book a patina of awakened righteousness. But Newitz is not so much biased as intent on conveying the grainy texture of life as it is lived. Her story is fueled by the reliable engine of countless melodramas: a thug rampages until the townsfolk get together and learn to fight back. But at times Newitz seems almost willing to forget the subject, instead reveling in depicting incidents like an innocent terraformer’s reaction to the delights of a multispecies strip club.

“I wrote this book because I wanted to envision a more hopeful world,” Newitz says in her acknowledgment. You have indeed given us a vivid, whimsical vision of endless potential earned through heroism, love, and wit.

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