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The Terraformers

March 2, 2023

The Terraformers, by Annalee Newitz, is a science fiction novel of overwhelming ambition and scope, one that creates interesting ideas and situations and follows some of them to their logical conclusions. I found it well-written and interesting. My only complaint is a minor one; twice I got deeply invested in the characters only to find myself moved on to an event after their lifetime and introduced to new characters, starting the whole process over again. Like most science fiction, this novel is more about plot than character, but the number of characters is very large, and most of them are well-fleshed-out (so to speak) and compelling.

Many of the characters are not homo sapiens. Some are intelligent animals and others are what we would call robots or cyborgs. First we meet Destry, who is an Environmental Rescue Team Ranger on a planet called SASK-E. Destry is riding a sentient moose named Whistle who can text her his thoughts, and has sensors in her fingers that connect her to the planet’s network. It just gets weirder from there.

This is a novel about world building, and the world it creates is fascinating and detailed. At the beginning of the novel we learn that SASK-E is a privately-owned planet and the company that owns it is called Verdance. “Most of the planet’s hominin population were workers made from standard templates, decanted and controlled by Verdance,” and Destry is one of them, although the ERT “was a profoundly public institution, with campuses on nearly every League world.” We learn that the ERT “saved the world from apocalyptic floods by inventing a new form of agriculture. The Great Bargain, they called it. A way to open communication with other life forms in order to manage the land more democratically.”

Whistle is a “mount.” Destry says that “she’d met so many creatures like Whistle who were obviously people, despite their supposedly low intelligence, that she had long ago stopped buying into the League’s ‘intelligence assessment’ rating system. There was a good reason why the rangers called them InAss ratings. Your head had to be buried deep in your ass to say a flying, talking moose with a weird gang of aeronaut drone friends wasn’t smart enough to be a person.”

There are so many odd and interesting things that happen, and so many different kinds of people described. One of my favorites is a sentient door named Jaguar who gives chapter five its title: “A Very Angry Door.” A central location is Spider City, hidden from Verdance inside a mountain and settled by the original builders of the world, Archaeans, whose interpretation of the “Great Bargain” includes everyone—including, by the end, earthworms and sentient trains.

The novel is divided into three parts; the first part, Settlers, begins in the year 59,006, focusing mostly on Destry and Whistle and the politics of the Verdance-owned planet. The second part, Public Works, is set in the year 59,706 and focuses mostly on Misha, Destry’s student, and Sulfur, an Archaean from Spider City, along with a metal cow named Zest and Rocket, a flying robot who knew Destry. We find out that on SASK-E, as Zest explains,
“there are two kinds of brains….unmodified intelligence and human-equivalent intelligence. Once you have a human-equivalent brain, that’s it. There are no natural levels of intelligence. But there are ways of artificially limiting people’s vocabulary to create the illusion of mental hierarchy. A person with a Blessed rating can only talk about the one task they were designed for—like, say, tree planting. A Mount can only speak in single-syllable words. Of course, a so-called person has full vocabulary access. So how do you create the InAss ratings? At Verdance, the templates call for limiters. Basically they break part of the software that controls the brain-sender interface. But other places do it differently. You can damage the tissues, or create chemical shortcuts that circumvent speech.”
The second part of the novel focuses on how all the people on SASK-E learn to work with each other without trying to limit anyone else’s capacity to communicate. It shows how much better this can make everything work on Sasky, as the natives are calling it.

The third part, Gentrifiers, is set in 60,610. This part focuses on Scrubjay, a sentient train, and his friend Moose, a cat and data historian working as a journalist (we find out that Whistle chose the color of Moose’s grandparent’s fur, in a scene we remember from part one). Scrubjay and Moose support the revolution that eventually earns the SASK-E settlers their freedom from Verdance and the other corporation, Emerald, that have been trying to take over. At one point Scrubjay and Moose are outraged to hear that “Emerald was ordering all non—H. sapiens people out of their cities unless they were slaved to a legitimate property owner.”

In the end, Sasky becomes a public planet. “Instead of a virgin Pleistocene frontier, Sasky was like every other planet that Earth people had occupied—a chunk of rock and biomass, stolen and re-stolen so many times that even its humblest microbes were of decidedly sketchy provenance.”

The Terraformers is a book of amazing scope, and I found it fascinating.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 2, 2023 12:08 pm

    I’m glad for you that some of the characters were well delineated as your description of the plot suggested it just got weirder and weirder. I applaud the inevitable conclusion though, with its cynical world-weariness: “Sasky was like every other planet that Earth people had occupied” – ain’t that just the way with how humans treat Mother Nature, the matrix of their coming into existence.

    • March 3, 2023 2:42 pm

      The great thing about this novel is that even if a few of the characters have moments when they get weary and cynical, the tone of the novel never gives in to that. It’s unrelentingly optimistic about what people can accomplish if they keep trying to improve.

  2. March 3, 2023 2:26 pm

    Thanks for this review. I was a bit sore that Netgalley didn‘t grant me my request, but after reading your review, I am not sure that I would enjoy this.

    • March 3, 2023 2:43 pm

      Really? I can’t imagine any science fiction fan not enjoying it–the worldbuilding! I mean, literally!

  3. March 3, 2023 3:41 pm

    Oh this does sound fascinating. Adding to my TBR list. Thanks? 😉

    • March 3, 2023 3:41 pm

      You’re welcome! she said, obliviously. Seriously, I think it’s worth adding.

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