The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz book review


In his seminal study of the science fiction genre, “In Search of Wonder,” the critic Damon Knight remarks upon the complexity and richness of Charles Harness’s “Flight Into Yesterday”: “Harness told me that he had spent two years writing the story, and had put into it every fictional idea that occurred to him during that time.”

The reader of Annalee Newitz’s third novel, “The Terraformers,” will surely walk away, stunned and bedazzled, with a similar impression. This generously overstuffed tale has enough ideas and incidents to populate half a dozen lesser science fiction books. But the reading experience is never clotted or tedious, never plagued by extraneous detours. The story — which begins nearly 60,000 years in the future and unfolds over more than a millennium — rollicks along at a brisk clip while allowing Newitz space to dig into characters and milieu, and pile on startling speculative elements.

Review: ’Scatter, Adapt, and Remember’ by Annalee Newitz

As Newitz remarked in a recent interview in Locus magazine, setting a tale so far in the future is almost tantamount to inventing a world entirely divorced from our familiar reality — as opposed to, say, the hypothetical doings of 2053. And indeed, this strange, elaborate, partially post-human, totally post-scarcity wonderland sometimes exhibits a through-the-looking-glass ambiance. But Newitz layers in enough primal human culture and behavior to make the tale relatable. Love is love, even in the year 60,000.

All the book’s action — save for a few brief interludes — takes place on the planet Sask-E, or Sasky. Once a dead orb, the world has been engineered over millennia with vast amounts of high-tech human, robotic and organic effort — the “terraforming” of the title. As the book begins, the planet, owned by a large galactic corporation named Verdance, is almost ready to accept tenants. Sasky is advertised as a luxury re-creation of the Late Pleistocene, that geological period on our home world when humanity was bountifully at ease.

Sign up for the Book World newsletter

However, humanity is, nowadays, hardly natural, having splintered into a hundred forms. Besides Homo sapiens, there are the Homo diversus (“a synthetic offshoot of H. sapiens their forehead sloped back to a point, their chest wide … their limbs were long, with multiple joints”) and uplifted animal people: cats, dogs, naked mole rats with more powerful minds. Some of the underpeople remain indentured. Human, animal or otherwise, no one likes being mistreated.

The first of three sections focuses on an H. sap named Destry who belongs to the Environmental Rescue Team, an almost monastic organization tasked with maintaining the eco-balance of a given territory. Hired by Verdance, the ERT is shepherding Sasky to marketplace completion, despite some conflicts with the unethical commercialism of its employer, personified by the company’s vice president. Ronnie Drake “loved to point out during one of her sudden, inconvenient project oversight meetings that Verdance had paid to build this planet, including its biological labor force,” Newitz writes. “Everything here — other than rocks, water, and the magnetic field — was part of Verdance’s proprietary ecosystem development kit. And that meant every life form was legally the company’s property, including Destry and Whistle.” (Whistle, by the way, is a wise moose, who serves as Destry’s aide and companion, allowing Newitz to weave “buddy film” elements into the tale.)

The planned rollout goes off the rails, though, when life-or-death issues around water rights lead to a war.

Part 2 leaps 700 years ahead. Destry is deceased, but her protege Misha survives (longevity is a feature of this future), and he is one of many working to solve the problem of intracity mass transit by inventing intelligent flying trains. And in the final section, another 900 years in the future, we inhabit the perspective of one of the aerial antigravity vehicles named Scrubjay, a happy deliverer of cargo and passengers. Scrubjay and his partner, a journalist cat named Moose, become embroiled in a crisis dictated by a planetwide housing shortage caused by corporate avarice. This section, shorter than the others, feels more compressed and less lived-in.

Newitz’s deployment of hot-button 21st-century crises — water rights, mass transit, homelessness — along with the characters’ preference for progressive social policies and fly-your-freak-flag lifestyles might seem to lend this book a patina of woke righteousness. But Newitz is not tendentious so much as concerned with conveying the granular texture of life as it is lived. Their tale is powered by the reliable engine of myriad melodramas: A bully runs rampant until the townspeople come together and learn to fight back. But at times, Newitz seems almost ready to forget the theme, as they revel instead in depicting such incidents as the reaction of an innocent terraformer to the delights of a multispecies strip club.

“I wrote this book because I wanted to dream up a more hopeful world,” says Newitz in their acknowledgments. They have indeed gifted us a vibrant, quirky vision of endless potential earned by heroism, love and wit.

A note to our readers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program,
an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking
to and affiliated sites.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *