The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz (book review).

The planet of Sask-E has been painstakingly terraformed over centuries to build a recreation of an ecosystem like old-Earth’s. Destry and her fellow rangers are devoted to Sask-E and its ecological balance. Yet for all the generations of dedication by the rangers, the planet is owned and being developed by a corporation and, now that the work is nearly complete, people have already begun to sneak planetside to sample the ‘ancient Earth’ for themselves.

Frustrated with her centuries of work being placed in jeopardy, Destry joins a colleague on a volcanic survey, only to find an entire city of people living underground. As she learns where they came from, Destry must make a choice that will decide the future of her beloved Sask-E.

‘The Terraformers’ is a book about Sask-E. The world writer Annalee Newitz brings their readers into has depth, history and a wonderful sense of realism. In this world, ‘people’ aren’t necessarily human and even the ones that are Homo sapiens are born in a tank rather than a womb.

AIs inhabit doors, ships, drones or even cyborg cows. Animals such as moose, naked mole rats, cats and dogs have been ‘uplifted’ to have human-level intelligence. Humanoids might be any variation of human that was deemed necessary, from the strength of more Neanderthal types to adding some tentacles to create a homo diversis. The natural world of Sask-E is lovingly realised in a unique technological and ecological mixture, the communities that grow upon it are intriguing and engaging. Following Destry on her journey opens up a world where ‘people’ of two, four or no legs can live in a community without divisions because of perceived physical ‘limitations.’

What I loved about ‘The Terraformers’ is also what I disliked. While the world-building is wonderful it began to feel quite preachy. While I can relate to the message of inclusion and consideration of all creatures, human or not, that message quickly becomes a scream despite the lack of all caps. The continual horror at meat eating or milk drinking as well as disparaging the keeping of pets (once they’re given intelligence, apparently dogs don’t like the ‘man’s best friend’ thing) felt very much like PETA propaganda to this vegan reviewer,  like having a manic street preacher screaming at me. Pronouns and sexuality also began to feel over emphasised as the book progressed. While these things ground the story in a non-human centric way perhaps a lighter hand would highlight issues with neon signposts and banners.

The overemphasis really came out for me due to the novel’s structure. Despite characters having lifespans of multiple centuries ‘The Terraformers’ attempts to be almost generational across its three parts which are more like novellas across the evolution of Sask-E society. Even with these significant time jumps, there is no change in the way social habits like introductions are made. No matter the society I’m pretty sure adults will always be wondering what kids are talking about these days with their fancy lingo.

The time jumps do give a wonderful sense of the consequences of decisions made early on and the evolution of Sask-E, the longevity of most characters, in particular the antagonists, meant that it did not resonate with me. Destry’s story felt like it had a traditional arc with a set-up, conflict and conclusion but then the book fell into a series of scenes and ideas about the world of Sask-E that are well-written but unsatisfying. The interconnected story-style felt jagged and somewhat lacking in narrative drive. As when Tolkien paused in the quest of the ring to expound on the story of Tom Bombadil or the epics of the elves, Newitz pauses to give interesting but not entirely relevant to the plot, stories of inter-species relationships and urban planning.

‘The Terraformers’ has me conflicted. The world and its history have great, interesting ideas and layers. The exploration of non-human intelligences within machines and animals readers would find familiar rather than in distinctly alien non-humans is interesting. The familiarity of the creatures brings the conversation quite close. If ‘The Terraforners’ were a book of interconnected short stories all with their narrative arc I would have enjoyed it a lot more. The writing and the world are beautiful and detailed. Fans of Robin Sloane ‘Sourdough’, Charlie Jane Anders ‘All the Birds In The Sky’ and Beck Chambers ‘A Psalm For The Wild Built’ might enjoy this thought-provoking book. But horror writers out there: where is the terrible book or film called ‘Terror Formers’???

LK Richardson

January 2023

(pub: TOR, 2023. 352 page hardback. Price: $27.99 (US). ISBN: 978-1-25022-801-7)

check out website: www.tor.com

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