The Importance of Imagined Futures: Review of Annalee Newitz’s The Terraformers
The Terraformers. Annalee Newitz. Tor Books, January 2023.
The Terraformers is a new novel by journalist and SFF writer Annalee Newitz. It tracks the progress of fictional planet Sask-E and its inhabitants. Six thousand years in the future, the concept of personhood has shifted thanks to an event known as the Great Bargain, during which humanity learned how to endow other creatures — from robots to animals — with human-level intelligence. With the Great Bargain came the founding of the Environmental Rescue Team, an organization with the objective of keeping every ecosystem in balance. Sask-E is a private planet terraformed by a corporation called Verdance to be a replica of pleistocene Earth. It’s intended for the wealthy to live out the halcyon days of human civilization before the Great Bargain came to pass, when Homo sapiens reigned supreme. The three sections of the novel chronicle a constant tug-of-war over the centuries between the corporate giant and the ERT.
For me, The Terraformers was a refreshing reminder of why science-fiction is so important. In order to progress as a society, it’s imperative that we are able to imagine hopeful futures. And throughout the course of this novel I always found myself thinking, “Wow, wouldn’t that be nice?” Is there a future that awaits us where communities can work in harmony, democracy functions as it’s meant to, gender is something you can opt into, and there are talking cats just hanging out? This isn’t to say that the world of The Terraformers is a paradise — that would make it a pretty boring book. Instead, Newitz does a fantastic job of crafting a world where some human ills (homophobia, short life spans, disease) are a thing of the past, whereas others (namely, capitalism) still continue to perpetuate harm. It’s a hopeful vision of the future tempered with what feels to me to be a realistic forecast.
At the core of Newitz’s future is the debate over personhood. We talk a lot in sci-fi about “what it means to be human,” but, in a world where we recognize personhood in many forms of beings, humans are no longer centered as the pinnacle of sentient life. We meet a whole variety of characters: some hominin, some mammal, some robot, and some — well, I’ll let you read the book to discover what other creatures have entered into the Great Bargain. Still, governments try to limit the definition of personhood with “Intelligence Assessment” ratings (cheekily dubbed InAss by the ERT rangers) so as to exclude labor animals from personhood, even if they’re fully sentient. Destry’s partner, Whistle, is a talking moose, but in order to deny him personhood, his brain has been altered with a speech limiter so that he can only communicate in one-syllable words. The tragedy of those creatures denied personhood is one that the novel tracks over thousands of years on Sask-E, causing the characters to question who should be included in the Great Bargain.
One way The Terraformers really stands out in the SFF world is that the main drama comes from controversy over resource allocation. Each section sees the characters fighting to answer a different environmental justice question: Who gets access to clean water? Who gets access to transportation? Who has a right to live on the land? Sask-E’s “virgin land” is fetishized by the wealthy buyers, but, to the people who have been stewards of the land for thousands of years keeping the ecosystem in balance, the land is not something to be bought. The land is something to live in harmony with.
The first connection I drew from this was to indigenous peoples of the Americas, but the ERT’s philosophies and practices also hearken to anarchist, communist, and Quaker beliefs. Each chapter of the first section begins with the epigraph from the ERT Handbook, treated almost like a holy book. My favorite, and I think the one that encapsulates the story the best, is: “People will always find new ways to oppress each other.” Each section of the novel centers on new characters working with their community to find ways to circumvent that oppression, often through means of collaboration and compromise, and only rarely in messy battles. As one of the characters points out, “Revolution is actually happening in the boring details, like how you manage housing and water, or who is allowed to speak.” And yet, Newitz managed to make those “boring details” pretty damn interesting.
The description of this novel pitches it as similar to Kim Stanley Robinson—in fact, Newitz even named a character Kim as an homage to him. I understand the comparison insofar as both The Terraformers and the Mars Trilogy are hard sci-fi glimpses at interstellar colonization with a healthy dose of political commentary, but for me there’s one key aspect of Newitz’s work that Robinson’s simply lacks: warmth. In my mind, the most important aspect of The Terraformers is the fact that the core of each section is not the conflict, but the relationships between characters. Even though I’d only spent a few chapters with each cohort, at the end of each section, I was sad to let those characters go. More prevalent than the evils of capitalism are the joys of caring for one another. I found myself crying over a talking moose. The novel put me in mind of Becky Chambers — it painted a solarpunk future where many (but not all) of our contemporary struggles are a thing of the past. It’s a celebration of life, and what life may become.
When I talk to people about anarchism and communism, many people say things akin to, “But it’s not practical! It could never work!” I think these people are losing sight of the fact that change takes time. We’re imagining what society could be, if we work for it. In Newitz’s own words, “revolutions don’t happen overnight.” But if we want a revolution to happen, we need to know what we’re working towards. I like to imagine that we’re working towards a future like the one Newitz paints: we see a world of communities that care for each other, people who are free to express themselves, and democracies functioning as they were meant to. Even though the yoke of capitalism is not completely thrown, we still see the characters continually working to fight for justice — and for each other. And at the end of the day, isn’t that really what science fiction is all about? What is science fiction for if not to ask: what else is possible? What might await us, if we learn how to care for each other? What will the world look like when we learn to keep the balance?
Alex Kingsley is a writer and game designer currently based in Madrid. They are a cofounder of the new media company Strong Branch Productions, and the creator of sci-fi comedy podcast The Stench of Adventure. Their fiction has appeared in Radon Journal, Sci-Fi Lampoon, Strangely Funny, and more. Their SFF-related non-fiction has appeared in Interstellar Flight Magazine and ASPEC Journal. Their games can be downloaded pay-what-you-will at alexyquest.itch.io. You can find them on Twitter.
This review was commissioned by an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. The author and editors were acquainted through previous ARB work. It was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Chad A. Hines. ARB did not arrange a review copy for this title.
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