The important thing to know about Annalee Newitz’s fiction is that they are, first and foremost, a science writer. Thus what you get from them is old fashioned science fiction: speculative ideas explored for their potential, and spiced up for the reader by an adventure plot. We don’t see enough of that these days, so I’m glad that Newtiz is out there making books like this.
The Terraformers is, as the title suggests, about the conversion of an inhospitable planet into one that can support a large population. But that isn’t really what the book is about. This is not a book like Plutoshine which worries about the ethics of doing any terraforming at all. If anything it has more in common with the song, “The Last Resort”, from the Eagles album, Hotel California. Because making a planet inhabitable is only the start. Someone has to pay for the terraforming, after all. And the people charged with making that money will be real estate developers.
The result is something more like a Cory Doctorow novel than anything else. But it is a political science fiction novel that is set so far in the future that the author can have a lot of fun with what is now possible. The cast of characters includes a flying moose who communicates by text message, a robot cow, a flying train, and a cat who works as an investigative journalist. Who counts as a person is a key issue in the book. And that, of course, all serves to shine a light on issues of racism and white supremacy, not to mention animal rights.
The book is divided into three main parts, each one illustrating a key episode in the life of the planet, Sask-E. The first section takes place in the early history of the planet. The environmentalists tasked with building an earthlike ecosystem discover that their employers, the Verdance corporation, will be selling parts of the planet off to human settlers. This brings them into conflict with some of the more ancient inhabitants of the planet. The book uses the term, “land use treaty”, which should tell you all you need to know about what is going on.
Part two takes us far into the future. A corporation called Emerald has purchased large tracts of Sask-E and is building cities. The environmental workers, some of whom are survivors from part one, are trying to design a sensible transit system for the planet. However, their boss at Verdance, and the corresponding executive at Emerald, are only interested in extracting money from the planet’s inhabitants.
Finally we get to part three, in which Emerald, having built many large cities, is now looking to increase their value as real estate by removing all of the undesirables currently living there, and selling only to pure-blood humans.
The villains of the book are primarily corporate executives: in particular Ronnie at Verdance, and Cylindra who starts with Verdance and ends up at Emerald. Newitz clearly has a lot of experience of dealing with people whose only interest in life is clawing their way up the corporate ladder by whatever means possible. In contrast the good guys are a wild mix of sexualities, genders, species, and chemical bases for life. Theirs is a world in which genetically modified members of different species can elect to become parents to an artificially intelligent train and be responsible for raising it to become a good citizen. Goodness only knows what the “god made men and women” crowd will make of it.
Overall, this is a highly entertaining book with a lot of interesting political messages. I warmly recommend it, and would not be surprised to see it on award ballots next year. I also suspect that we will see a lot of academic papers written about the book, because it is that full of interesting ideas.
Title: The Terraformers
By: Annalee Newitz
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