So Far Away, So Close

In Annalee Newitz’s sci-fi novel ‘The Terraformers,’ familiar problems emerge on a distant rock in the far distant future

It’s a measure of the optimism and ambition of The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz that a cat and a train enjoy quite a lovely intimate romance towards the end of the final section.

Set more than 50,000 years into the future, on a world that would make the pronoun-averse shudder, a couple of megacorporations are transforming a world on the galactic rim into one habitable by OG Homo Sapiens. Using a variety of genetically engineered humans, plants, and animals, the Verdance corporation has cracked, shaped, and seeded Sask-E (known to most as Sasky) to shape it as fast as possible into a pristine, sellable, Pliocene-era planet.

Though surprisingly fast for a planet, the pace of real estate development is somewhere between geologic and historical, which means Newitz struggles to keep narrative continuity across the final hundreds of years of the terraforming project. As well as long-lived inorganic life-forms like sentient robots and AI systems that survive the long expanse of the novel’s duration, there is a supporting cast of privileged corporate characters who are functionally immortal and who shed bodies like outfits.

The Terraformers

To allow both the terraforming project and The Terraformers’ plot to unfold, the author divides the book into three sections covering different periods of history. Sadly, she never adequately replaces Destry Thomas–the complex and sympathetic protagonist from the engaging opening section—in the narrative.

Thomas is an Environmental Rescue Team (ERT) Ranger. Eons before part one—so the story goes—the ERT set up the Great Bargain to “manage the land more democratically.” By including other life forms in discussions about the development of the environmen,t humans were able to avoid ecological disaster. Almost 60 millennia later, the Great Bargain still just about holds, though human elitism and corporate greed have corrupted it.

The ERT rangers, sort of ecological UN peacekeepers, try to balance out rapacious corporate greed and maintain the Great Bargain. They do this through the ERT which works like a vast cosmic NGO, entering into partnerships with corporations (including with Verdance on Sasky) and building networks of support for its own aspirational and inclusive ideology.

Newitz, as they declaim in every episode of their excellent SF podcast Our Opinions are Correct (co-hosted with author Charlie Jane Anders), is a science journalist who writes science fiction. But neither their LA Times Book Prize-nominated Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction nor their journalism, nor their previous novels have been this expansive.

The Terraformers is set on a planet far enough away from civilization, and being terraformed on a slow enough time frame, that people not on the planet ignore it for millennia. Indeed, it remains galactically overlooked until some transgressions of the Great Bargain lead locals into conflict with the corporations.

Given the vast distance between Sasky and our own world, Newitz can explore the bounds of genetic modifications from a safe distance. But, despite the bewildering variety of beings who have joined the Great Bargain through genetic modification or artificial intelligence, the world seems surprisingly familiar. In the book, governments, NGOs and the people (however broad that term has become) can, using the law and a form of cosmic Twitter, overcome massive megacorporations.

Of course, the pun is in the title. However unpromising a piece of space rock, whatever the era of history, and however unlikely a set of characters (as well as trains, cats and synthetic homo species, the novel features sentient mooses, drones, and mole rats), humans always transform their surroundings into the same familiar arguments.

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Dan Friedman

Dan Friedman is the former executive editor of the Forward and the author of an ebook about Tears for Fears, the 80s rock band. He has a PhD from Yale and writes about books, whisky and the dangers of online hate. Subscribe to his newsletter.

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