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The Terraformers

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Dear readers, I have done myself a disservice by not reading Annalee Newitz’s work before now. I had picked up a copy of Autonomous from my library back in 2017, but I never managed to get around to it. Now, I know that I have to come back. Newitz is a phenomenal world builder, and in their latest book, The Terraformers, they do it literally.

The Terraformers tells the story of Destry, a sort of forest ranger of the future. Destry lives on the planet Sask-E (or Sasky, as most of the locals have taken to blending the name), and along with her partner, a moose named Whistle, she has spent centuries carefully guiding the ecosystems into an Earth-like state. Destry and Whistle are members of the Environmental Rescue Team, or ERT, and on Sasky, they work under the corporate authority of Verdance, a real-estate company that deals in planets.

Destry and Whistle are used to working on a slow scale, shaping a world in a way that maintains its harmony. Neither of them is expecting the sudden shift in Sasky politics when a city full of older ERT rangers is found, hidden away from Verdance’s knowledge. Soon, the two are caught up in a storm of corporate ideology, civil rights, and what it means to be a person on a planet that’s isolated from the rest of the universe. After all, terraforming is long series of violent actions, forcing a world into the condition you desire. The tools that are used can be deadly in the wrong hands.

The Terraformers is a deep dive into politics and relationships the likes of which I haven’t read since Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. It’s the story of a planet that spans centuries and generations. It’s dense, queer, sad, and beautiful. My utmost thanks to the folks over at NetGalley and Macmillan-Tor/Forge for providing me with an eARC in exchange for a fair review. It’s out today. Go check it out.

This review originally appeared here: https://swordsoftheancients.com/2023/01/31/the-terraformers-a-review/
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THE TERRAFORMERS by Annalee Newitz (Four Lost Cities) seemed to me as if it was two books in one. The first part featured Destry, an Environmental Rescue Team ranger with sensory powers who served as negotiator between her all powerful (and somewhat corrupt) employer and a previously hidden civilization. The world building was interesting and creative (she works with a sentient, communicating moose); plus, one felt empathy for the characters. The second part, however, shifted focus to the adventures of Misha, a protégé of Destry's, and Sulfur, an Archaean (related to Homo sapiens) civil engineer. Yes, they explored other habitats and cityscapes while raising key questions about "personhood," urban planning of public transit, and corporate goals, but there was too much gratuitous sex. While I would have given the first part 5 stars, the second was 3 stars at best and therefore, I did not read a third section which dealt with yet another generation. Please note that Booklist, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly all gave THE TERRAFORMERS a starred review.
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GALACTIC REAL ESTATE, REVOLUTIONS, AND AN UPLIFTED MOOSE: THE TERRAFORMERS BY ANNALEE NEWITZ

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 her 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.

Annalee Newitz is a science reporter turned novelist and there’s no question but that she 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 her create a very believable world for her characters.

In the end, though, she decided that all the actual terraforming should happen offstage so that she 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 her last (The Future of Another Timeline, 2019) and this, she 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 her research into terraforming. Highly recommended.
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Gentle read.  I think it would appeal to folks that like Becky Chambers books.  It’s got the same feel I think of these are just people trying to get through their lives even when some aren’t human.  Interesting far future setting too.  I would definitely read another book by this author.
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Who doesn’t like a little space talk with their science fiction novels? No, the deep dark void is not your bag? Can I interest you in planets then? Particularly barren planets that are repurposed with the intent to house human and animal life. If so, then maybe a book such as The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz is right for you. It has ecological processes, flying moose, talking beavers, and romantic relationships between people of varying species! It’s a fun, not quite light-hearted story about the people who make such a place their home, and their mission. Unfortunately for me, it felt a little too cozy in some places while being very good at diving deeper into the nature of ecologies. Still don’t know if it’s for you? Keep reading and you’ll find out!

Destry is a member of the Environmental Rescue Team (ERT). She’s helping to make sure that interlopers to the planet Sask-e don’t cause imbalances to the growing ecosystem that is currently transforming the planet to pleistocene-like conditions. The ERT is a long-standing organization developed not long after our time to help correct the course as climate change wreaked havoc on the systems we know today. 60,000 years in the future though, they are highly skilled park rangers that keep an eye on fledgling planets, nudging the feedback loops in the right directions when necessary. But Destry notices that there might be a hidden city where there shouldn’t be. Working with her team, she goes to visit the cave system hidden within a volcano that belongs to the very first terraformers. The members of her ERT debate about how to handle the situation and their decisions echo through the next several thousand years.

I don’t really know how to describe my feelings towards The Terraformers. On one hand, the story is a little too cozy for my taste, with easily resolved plot lines mixed with nice slice of life moments. On the other hand, there were moments of serious questioning that arose from the specific ways Newitz wrote about certain ideas. Questions that felt organic to the story, and spurred on by Newitz. For me the experience was a mixed bag, swinging wildly between romance and mass death in jarring ways. To be fair, I think this dissonance is a matter of taste and I was expecting something a bit heavier and more gritty with the details, even if the overall tone was not such. So it leaves me with a little less than I was expecting while weirdly fulfilling some cravings I did not know about.

Part of me can’t move on with this review without bringing up some of the ‘technical aspects’ of the book. With the three hundred pages split between three separate timelines, it felt too condensed. It made the characters feel a bit flat, their traits emphasized by their job and a few quirky likes. Some of the dialogue was wooden, but some of it had the perfect amount of cheekiness. I appreciated the effort Newitz put into making curses more ecologically focused, even if they became silly at times. I greatly admired the attention to detail Newitz paid to ecological processes and the time that goes into them. But also just how easily balances within systems can be upset. The relationships, though they were fun and exciting as Newitz pushed the boundaries on who was capable and worthy of relationships, also didn’t feel very deep.

Part of my frustration stems from liking big stories like the ones The Terraformers draws upon, but this novel didn’t scratch the same itch. It delves into some of the scientific nuance while skirting away from the social and political aspects. Don’t get me wrong, some of the more interesting ideas come from the political conversations, I just didn’t feel a lot of tension due to politicking. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, sometimes you have to let your brain rest in one area, while digesting new ideas. It makes for a more accessible novel about terraforming, but it leaves someone like me yearning for more. I don’t want to dive too deep into what I expected, lest it feels like my whining is an objective statement, but I felt that some larger questions were left unexplored. I wanted to dive into the ethics and the process of the Grand Bargain, whereby animals are given ways to communicate their thoughts to humans. I wanted a nuanced exploration of the Environmental Rescue Team’s role within terraforming, especially when it occurred on privately owned planets. Some of these questions felt like they were just lying there, waiting to be picked up but never were. Again, this is more of a taste and preference argument, not a ding against Newitz and the story they told.

It’s hard not to read and review a book like this without immediately comparing it to some of the books I’ve read that deal with a similar topic. The Terraformers has its strengths. Newitz does an amazing job of highlighting time as an issue, and ecology as a system, regardless of conscious human activity. It doesn’t really fall short so much as it is not interested in the same questions I am. The characters, though they felt flat to me, do have some fun interactions. I particularly enjoyed the discussions about game making and historical accuracy in the latter section of the book. If you want something that feels like a good introduction to terraforming on a conceptual level, without feeling overwhelmed, The Terraformers is a very strong start.

Rating: The Terraformers – 6.5/10
-Alex

An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.
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After exploring humanities past in Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age, Annalee Newitz shares a possibility of the human future in The Terraformers. It's a new world adapted for humans and trans-humans by humans and trans-humans over the course of centuries.

The planet Sask-E (AKA Sasky) is owned by the company Verdance and is being developed to resemble a Pleistocene Earth by the Environmental Rescue Team (ERT). Technologies have advanced sufficiently that humanity is no longer restricted to a single lifespan, with bodies able to be generated as needed or desired, at least for those with sufficient resources. The bodies can be human, humanoid or based on animals. The rangers and other humanoids work with assistant animals or drones, some created with built-in limitations. These "assistants" are given numeric ratings known as "intelligence assessments" typically referred to as "InAss" ratings that have been codified by law.

And even though we are far in the future, resources are the fulcrum at which the plot pivots. The book is divided into three sections that are fueled by important moments in the development of Sasky. The first and longest section is the journey of ERT ranger Destry as she and her fellow rangers investigate a mysterious door where none should exists. Section two has rangers researching the possibilities of transit between cities and settlements. The last section looks to the problems that arise from a planet built for tourists when those wealthy individuals arrive.

In The Terroformers Newitz offers a more optimistic world where individuals might be controlled by corporations, their labor and time locked into contracts like indentured servants, but they still have power in numbers. Much of the political decisions making on Sasky is reached by consensus, but with the faction who represent the dissenting view able to name a concession. As has often been the case in human history decisions made in the past shape our future in unintended ways. May all our futures be this hopeful.
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Destry is a environmental response team member on a planet that is being terraformed. Centuries later, Sulfur is living with the outcomes of Destry's actions, serving labor time for that same company. Centuries later Scrubjay, a sentient train, directly decendent from the actions of Sulfur, tries to save the planet and its people from corporate greed and total destruction.

I really liked this one. There is a lot going on in this book, but altogether it's an indictment of privatization and corporate greed and displacement of people. And the core of the story is an environmentally focused world and life. There was also come cool scifi elements like building bodies that a mind can move into and leave into another if desired, but it's not flippant, and comprehensive sensing capabilities.

The technology ages it possible for centuries to go by and still have a direct throughline between the individual generations without so much loss of knowledge. But there is definitely a sense of large swaths of time passing. I really liked Destry and Scrubjay in particular and I found Sulfurs section of the story to be a bit slow. But overall, really thoughtful interesting book!

Thank you Netgalley and TorBooks for the advanced copy!
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First I’d like to thank @torbooks for providing me with this review copy!

This was SUCH an interesting book. The book starts off following Destry, who works for the Environmental Rescue Team, devoted to protect a collapsing ecosystem. Her series of choices leads to changes on the planet that we follow for thousands of years. 

I don’t read scifi too often (not for any particular reason, I’m working on it) but I’m very glad I read this one. The constant action, mix of AI, hominids, and animals makes the book so interesting. Full of lessons in ecosystems, environmentalism, and the effects of capitalism.
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An ambitious and masterful exploration of rights, ownership, sentience, personhood... there's a *lot* in this book, and I haven't even mentioned the incredible span of time of the book, which looks at a terraformed planet over something of a more geological age. This felt like a lost Ursula K Le Guin book, with its impressive heart and an unwillingness to scrimp on the hard philosophical / socio-political stuff. If anything, I wish it had been longer -- the book takes place over about a thousand years and honestly I would've enjoyed an even larger view on top of what we got!
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This book blew my mind! Seriously. The world building is spectacular and being able to follow this planet over thousands of years was an extra special treat. 
The Terraformers is sci-fi with a cozy aspect I haven’t experienced before. The complexity of the science of planet forming was beyond what I could ever explain in a concise way. 
The book brings up critical issues we are facing on our own planet as well as relevant political and social quandaries. 
I loved everything about it and I will be singing it’s praises for a while to come!
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A book of ideas and people; the future is weird and also now...

I remember once I was in a book club that read The Snow Child and The Light Between Oceans back to back. While these are very different books, both are about finding a child, and as a result meant for deeper, better conversations about both books. I feel like reading this book so close to A Half-Build Garden made my brain light up. The books have so many commonalities and differences, but if I were running an SFF book club, guess what would be on my list this year?

This was my first Newitz book and I found the writing style to be a bit of a struggle at first–when reading it aloud to my roommate, she said, "It paints a picture, but it does give a sense that it was translated from another language." There's a combination of a spareness of words along with a need for description that made me feel a little lost on what I was seeing sometimes. 

Fortunately, this book doesn't need me, notoriously bad at imagining spaces anyway, to know every aspect of the location to enjoy the book. Broken into three very connected parts, this book tells the story of a terraformed planet and the workers there who struggle with and against the corporations who employ–and sometimes own–them. By the time the book is over, it's a bit sad to leave this odd world where trains and cats are people, but I'm ready to move on to something a little more contemporary. 

Also, whoever it was on Goodreads who said there was too much sex in the book...there really isn't much sex at all. That was such a strange review! But maybe they didn't expect the characters to have sex at all? I don't know. But in case anyone needs to know, yes, some characters in this book have sex, some don't. Wild stuff. 🙄

Recommended for sci-fi people who really like to talk about the ideas in books as much as the books themselves.
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There were some definite positives, but also some stuff I struggled with. So let's get to it!

What I Loved:

►The planet and the overarching universe were incredibly intriguing and well developed. I mean, the whole concept is pretty cool, right? These people are, quite literally, terraforming new planets. But then you get into all the political reasons behind that, and it becomes quite a bit more complicated than that. Add to it, you have many different species trying to live and work together, with different intentions, and that becomes complex as well.

►Obviously, diversity is a big narrative point. Not only among the various species (and the issues that inevitably creep up between them), but the world is very accepting of various gender identities and pretty much any and all orientations and relationship formations.

►I genuinely appreciated a lot of the ideas and concepts throughout the story. While the execution didn't always wow me, I did really appreciate what the author was trying to do. I liked the characters, and I was certainly curious about the story enough to continue reading.

What I Struggled With:

►This was just longer than it needed to be. This is truly my biggest qualm, because I honestly got kind of bored at times? I feel bad saying that, but it's true, I found myself zoning out and not being super excited to, you know, stop zoning out.

►In the same vein, just too many infodumps. Like I didn't need to know the texture of the grass in a field or the exact red shade of every random hallway, you know? Plus, I wanted more of the "meatier" questions answered, yet I felt that the info-dumping was almost wasted on smaller details when I was looking for more of the "how did this whole society happen" stuff.

►For as much as some things were overly described, some aspects just weren't fleshed out enough for me to suspend my disbelief. Like, okay, naked mole-rats and trains are sentient, cool. But... more details on how and why, mayhaps? And how are folks living for many centuries on end? Is the time the same as Earth time? These are just a fraction of the questions I had that I never had a real answer for.

►I felt like just as I was starting to become somewhat invested in a character, we moved onto the next. And this wasn't like, a simple POV change, this was a time jump, upwards of close to a millennium in cases, so it wasn't like we were going to catch up with the last POV on the regular.

Bottom Line: Loved the concept, enjoyed the world, struggled with the slower pace and extra descriptive bits.
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Analee Newitz is one of my favorite writers and commenters on the SFF scene, but I’m sorry to say that The Terraformers just didn’t work for me. Set about 60,000 years in the future, homo sapiens survives but in a reconstructed form, and individuals can live for thousands of years by getting new bodies, if they wish. The planet Sask-e is being terraformed over thousands of years to imitate Pleistocene Earth, and the major characters we meet early on are rangers of the Environmental Rescue Team. These are humans, but this world is peopled with a vast number of other sentient creatures, many of whom qualify as persons because of their intelligence level. One is a flying moose who has to advance from his limited vocabulary to achieve personhood, and another is a sentient train that can fit itself into remote bodies of various types.

This world, promising as it seems as an environmental paradise, is wholly owned by the Verdance corporation, and most of the staff are extremely limited in their freedom. The basic conflict is between the corporate owners and the various groups of persons who eventually decide to break free of their commercial past and transform private property into a public planet.

That is all interesting, but I found this too much a book written to illustrate ideas rather than one that gets its narrative drive from its characters. There’s a lot of wooden dialogue, predictable situations and  too little tension to produce a satisfying story. Too bad because there is so much to like about it, with all the quirky and interesting characters of multiple uplifted and mashed-up species. The trouble is that none of it comes fully to life for me.
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This story has three parts, all of which take place several hundred years from each other on a planet named Sask-E. Throughout the book, you can see the changes happening over a long period of time. Destry is a top network analyst with the Environmental Rescue Team, an ancient organization devoted to preventing ecosystem collapse. when she discovers an entire city inside a volcano. A few 100 years later, her protege, Misha, is building a planetwide transit system when his worldview is turned upside-down by Sulfur, a brilliant engineer from the volcano city.  They uncover a dark secret about the real estate company that's buying up huge swaths of the planet
This showed detailed processes to an incredibly eco-friendly world. It also showed the politics that take place surrounding the company owning this world, and then, creation of government for these people. This was way more sci-fi than I usually read, but I did enjoy it. 

*Special thanks to NetGalley and Tor Books for this e-arc.*
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Annalee Newitz’s new far future novel The Terraformers is about worldbuilding in a more literal sense than is usually the case in science fiction. Newitz gives us a vivid setting, or imagined world, in the planet Sask-E, where all the action takes place. But the novel, as the title indicates, is literally about transforming an alien, lifeless planet into a world in which human beings and other earthly life forms can thrive. This is a wonky book (of the type formerly known as “hard science fiction”) because of how it goes into the technology of altering a planet, so that it has suitable oxygen levels, and a self-sustaining environment or food web; and then, at a later stage, how cities can be built, lived in, and flourish economically. There’s a lot more detail than I ever thought I would want to know about transportation planning, for instance, and the differences between public and private systems. But — in contrast to most (if not all) of the hard science fiction of half a century ago — The Terraformers insists on the social, political, and economic dimensions of technological development. Technologies are not autonomous forces; they always depend upon issues of power and control. Who plans them, and who pays for them in the first place? Who uses them? Who maintains them? Who (if anyone) draws a profit from them? And are they privately owned, and marketed as a scarce resource? Or are they available as a common good? These questions are ceotral to the novel; they do not just come up after a technology is instituted, but influence technological growth and invention in the first place. Such issues seem obvious and commonsensical to me, but it is surprising how often they are ignored, both by technological determinists on the one hand, and by people who underestimate the radicality of technological change on the other. Newitz writes excitingly of (extrapolated, futural) inventions, but she insists on alway placing these developments in a social, political, and economic matrix.

The novel starts by presupposing several big utopian changes from life as we know it and experience it today. The first, and most important, of these is called the Great Bargain; it is a backstory that explains how Earth itself was saved from ecological catastrophe. The Great Bargain was “a way to open communication with other lifeforms in order to manage the land more democratically.” As a result of the Great Bargain, mammals, birds, and other animals become able to think at human levels, and to communicate through spoken or written language. Beings like moose and cats and naked mole rats, and eventually even earthworms, who do not have human-style vocal organs, are nonetheless able to communicate with one another and with human beings via something like wireless, telepathic text messages. The novel presents this as an ethical and political development above all: lands and environments can only be managed for the common good if all the stakeholders are able to enunciate their needs and desires, and participate in decision making. The result is a society in which a large variety of sentient beings, including humans and other sorts of hominids, mammals and birds and other sorts of animals, and AIs and robots of the most varied sorts, are all considered people, and all exist (at least in principle) on an equal basis.

Several other technologies exist in order to back up the Great Bargain. People (of all species) no longer reproduce sexually. Instead, they are “decanted” from genetic blueprints with the help of something like 3D printers or matter synthesizers. People of whatever species are “born” with fully developed adult bodies, although they still need a certain amount of guidance or education before they can be fully functioning and autonomous. Every new entity — human, animal, or robot — therefore has one or several “parents”, those these need not be organically related to the new individuals under their initial care. In addition, sentient entities have greatly extended lifespans compared to what actually exists today. Human beings live for hundreds of years, and in some cases well over a thousand. (This is actually one aspect of the book that I found a bit disturbing. I have worked as an academic for nearly forty years; I look forward to retiring in the next several years. The idea of working for an obnoxious boss continually for seven hundred years straight, as some of the characters in this novel do, is deeply upsetting).

When sexuality is freed from the chains of reproduction, it can flourish in all sorts of new and different forms. Newitz wrote about robot sexuality in her 2017 novel Autonomous, and she writes about it more here. Also, when human and other beings are “decanted,” their bodies can be constructed in different ways, not reducible to traditional gender binaries. Some of the human characters in The Terraformers use “he” or “she” pronouns, but a number of them also use “they”. There actually is not very much explicit sexual description in the novel, but one humanoid character (not Homo sapiens, but a different genetically engineered human lineage) is described as hermaphroditic, with genetalia containing both stamens and pistils (as with flowers).

The Great Bargain has also solved environmental problems. Human and animal entities get their energy by consuming vegetal matter, and robots and AIs run on solar batteries. In either case, a planet’s sun is the ultimate source of energy, much more directly than is the case on Earth today (nearly all of our our energy comes ultimately from the Sun, but harmfully mediated in the forms of meat and fossll fuels). In Newtiz’s future world, there is only clean energy. There is also a technology called “gravity assist,” which allows both animals and robots to fly. I really enjoyed the flying moose (who save the day at one point in the narrative), as well as the sentient flying trains for mass transfortation.

It has become a cliché (but one that remains true for all that) that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Although the technologies that I have described so far make a world of abundance rather than scarcity possible, it still takes a huge investment, including a huge amount of labor, to terraform a planet in the first place. And so the future society imagined in The Terraformers is still a capitalist one, despite all the broad bottom-up and more or less egalitarian social structures that the new technologies have made possible. One galactic-scale corporation initiates the terraforming of Sask-E, and another one comes in as a major landlord, building cities and tyrannically ruling large populations. Nothing would happen on Sask-E without the initiative of these corporations, but they are also the major impediments to human, animal, and robot flourishing throughout the novel. The protagonists of The Terraformers continually need to battle these corporations, which is something that they cannot do as individuals, but only as parts of communities, or as parts of something like what is often called ‘civil society’ (though this phrase is not used in the novel). There is no vision of total revolution here, but only one of continual struggle, of maneuverings to leverage the needs and wants of large numbers of people against the power of the corporations. Or to put it differently: the corporations have lasers from space that can wreak destruction, but the people on the ground (and in some cases, living in cities under the ground) are sufficiently numerous, and their organizations sufficiently robust, that the corporations have to negotiate and/or back down and/or be outmaneuvered in legal and procedural terms. (These three outcomes are what happens in the three main sections of the novel).

I have mostly described the presuppositions of the novel, rather than the characters and the overall narrative. This is because, in the grand science fictional tradition, the former really guides (and even determines) the latter. The novel is divided into three sections, hundreds of years apart (in order to convey the vast time scales involved in terraforming). The narration is in the third person, but the protagonists of the three parts are respectivly: 1) a Homo sapiens employed by one of the large corporations but whose basic loyalty is to the enivronmental action group of which he is a part; 2) a Homo archaea whose ancesters were supposed to have died after initiating terraforming, but who survived instead by living underground, inside a volcano; 3) a sentient flying train. All three central characters are quite empathetic; and all of them have to make alliances with others in order to accomplish anything.

In sum, I loved The Terraformers. It combines utopian speculation with a continued realistic sense of the impediments that movements towards liberation will still have to deal with. It’s knowledgably political, while at the same time it maintains a science-fictonal commitment to, well, scientific experiment and discovery rather than the magical transmutations of desire that are more explored in fantasy. (I like certain varieties of fantasy well enough, but my heart is still with science fiction, so Newitz’s focus was especially welcome)
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The underlying idea of “The Terraformers” was amazing.  I was really interested in how Newitz was going to pull it off.  Who gets to decide who or what is a person?  How far should we go in ‘making’ people?  What could be the consequences of personhood?  Unfortunately, I didn’t love this book.  It took me a while to read through it as I would pick it up and put it down; it just didn’t pull me into the story.  I couldn’t really connect with the characters in the time that Newitz allotted them as there are two major time shifts in the storyline.

This is one of the few books that I genuinely think should be a series, I think that each ‘chunk’ of story could absolutely be expanded into its own novel.  More time spent with the characters may have allowed me to connect with them.  It’s hard sci-fi, but with sociological/ecological underpinnings, so if that’s your jam, you should love this.  It was okay and I’ll be thinking about some of the themes for some time to come.
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Oh boy is this book SLOOOOOOW. The pacing is glacial, despite the centuries this book encompasses. I wasn’t sold on the idea of animals (cows, cats, naked mole rats?????) being categorized as humans. To my understanding, people aren’t “born” anymore—instead they’re decanted into a specific body/species type. And bodies are owned and licensed by companies? It’s so confusing, and to me this means that people don’t exist physically—instead, they’re just…masses of energy that can be moved around from a human body to a cow to a robot. 

Now, I never felt connected to the characters because we would be introduced to them (along with literally 30 other characters that I could never differentiate or keep track of), and then before we could really get a good sense of them, the story jumped forward hundreds and hundreds of years and introduced a million new characters. I never felt particularly invested in anyone. 

I also felt like certain parts were preachy. Making drinking milk a crime because the cows (classified as people??) didn’t consent to its distribution was just……stop 😭 SO stupid. And eating meat was also a “disgusting” thing, so obviously this is supposed to be a vegan universe or something. It all felt very dumb and nonsensical to me. 

Not to mention there was never any explanation on the names???? There were literally people named Angst and Alcohol and Rocket and Scrubjay….like but why?? Seriously, what is the point??? These types of things (that were included in the story with zero explanation) made me pretty annoyed. Not to mention that I was supposed to believe for the last third of the book that a TRAIN was considered a person …..um. No. 

The writing is very good, and to an extent this concept seems very cool, but I truly didn’t enjoy the majority of the book.
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The ideas presented here are interesting enough, I suppose, but the writing style is so barebones and basic that I just couldn't get immersed in the story. Too much "What if things were like this?" and not enough "Who are these characters and why should you care about them?"  Admittedly, I have only made it a little over a quarter of the way though the book, but I would be surprised if the tone changed. I haven't given up entirely, but it keeps slipping to the bottom of my to-read pile..
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In their new novel, The Terraformers, Annalee Newitz leaps 60,000 years into the future, redefining ideas of peoplehood, democracy and love.

A diverse array of characters—hominids, animals, and objects that in 2023 are still considered inanimate, such as doors and trains—are “people” in this multi-generational story about a corporation terraforming their privately-held planet Sask-E and their workers (which the corporation owns as part of their “proprietary ecosystem development kit,”) who want to turn Sask-E into a public, democratically-governed territory.

The plot tracks the nitty-gritty of building complex things—environments, relationships, governments—as Sask-E evolves over thousands of years into a pseudo replica of Pleistocene Earth. Newitz’s heroes are members of the Environmental Rescue Team, an interplanetary force of first responders and environmental engineers who keep ecosystems in balance and stage disaster rescues. Apart from a fanciful invention called a “gravity mesh,” which allows some characters to fly, Newitz—who is also an award-winning writer of non-fiction—grounded the story in science.

“I really did try to have a very grounded, scientifically accurate approach to ecosystems. For example, when Destry, my network analyst, connects to the environment, she has these sensors in her hands, which allow her to read a vast sensor network all over the planet. The Environmental Rescue Team has scattered these tiny, microscopic biodegradable sensors so that they can read the health of the trees, soil, insects, everything. So it gives Destry this almost magical connection to the planet Avatar-style, except it’s not some hokey Tree-of-Life thing. It’s just a sensor network, much like sensor networks that we’re developing now on Earth and using in a lot of places.”
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While I love the writing style (absolutely beautiful) I just can’t get into this book. It’s so heavy with detail that I feel bogged down.
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