The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz (Tor Books, January 31, 2023)
On the one hand, The Terraformers is full of great characters, solid science, and socio-political conflict, with enough action to move things along and keep you turning pages to the end. On the other, it’s not actually about terraforming and it’s told in 3 novellas set hundreds of years apart with only a few characters able to provide links between them.
The Terraformers opens when Environmental Rescue Team Ranger Destry is out in the terraformed forest with her faithful steed, the uplifted moose named Whistle. Destry and Whistle come across a human doing all sorts of disgusting paleolithic things, burning wood, killing small game, defecating on the land, and generally upsetting the ecological balance of Sask-E. It’s taken 10,000 years for Sask-E to be made habitable, and it’s Destry’s job to make sure it stays that way.
The squatter isn’t supposed to be there, is harming the environment, and giving her lip besides, so Destry shoots him and spreads reducing goo over the body and his site to return it all to the soil and keep things in balance. Don’t feel bad about it, he was a jerk, and only a remotely operated body besides. Why was he even there? Because the planet is now ready for real estate to be sold off, the sales pitch is that it’s a pristine early Earth environment where humans can be human just like they used to be before animals got turned into people and we all had to eat tofu.
Sask-E is owned by the Verdance corporation, a galactic real estate developer that turns lifeless rocks into habitable worlds, and Ronnie, the head of the project, who is nominally Destry’s boss, has little use for maintaining “the great balance,” but just wants Destry to keep the ecosystem from collapsing long enough for Verdance to make its killing.
Things get more complicated for Verdance when Destry, Whistle, and some of their ERT friends go to investigate the sighting of an abandoned machine near a doorway set into the base of an inactive volcano… and discover not just a hidden city, but the descendants of the first generation of terraformers, humans tweaked to survive in a low oxygen atmosphere and other early conditions. They were supposed to die off of natural causes to let newer generations take over in the now Earth-normal conditions, but shredded the memo, going underground instead.
Not only are they not supposed to be there, but they’ve also decided that they’re a free city, and while their ancestors may have been owned by the corporation (oh, yes, there’s lots of corporate slavery here) they’re an independent city on the otherwise corporation owned planet.
Open conflict follows, with Destry siding with the hidden City dwellers, and Ronnie turns out to have no compunctions against mass murder. Somebody should have told her never to go up against terraformers.
But that’s only the first novella and the next two open 700 and 1000 years down the road. The characters are all very long-lived, but the second begins during the citification of Sask-E, and just after Destry has died, leaving her protégé Misha to carry on. He’s on a scouting mission to come up with an intercity transit system that nobody seems to want and which Ronnie’s preferred solution pays mere lip service to both transport and terraforming.
The final part takes up 300 years after that, and now it’s Misha that is fondly remembered by the few continuing characters. The new main character is a sentient member of the transit system they created, and the conflict is about the gentrification of the cities, which are keen to rid themselves of the non-homo-sapiens types that built the cities and decided to call them home. There’s a revolution coming down the tracks for sure.
I didn’t mind the second time jump, but there’s a lot of story between the first two parts, where Destry and Whistle have been separated and Misha is still in training that begs to be explored. If the author wants, I can send them the outline of my imagined tie-in short story, “Destry Rides Again.” which rejoins Destry and Whistle as they join forces to save Misha, lost in the woods.
The Future of Another Timeline (Tor Books, September 2019) and
Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age (W. W. Norton, February 2021)
Annalee Newitz is a science reporter turned novelist and there’s no question but that they scienced the hell out of the terraforming process, getting input from planetary geologists, biologists, and the grand master of fictional terraforming himself, Kim Stanley Robinson. All that work clearly informs the novel and lets them create a very believable world for their characters.
In the end, though, they decided that all the actual terraforming should happen offstage so that they could frame the story around the following human consequences. The result is insightful, entertaining, and ultimately hopeful, though the most believable parts are all about corporate greed and the limitation of human rights on workers.
The Terraformers is Newitz’s third sf novel, but in between their last (The Future of Another Timeline, 2019) and this, they wrote the equally brilliant non-fiction Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age (2021), which is just as influential in the new book as their research into terraforming. Highly recommended.