Book Review:  The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz

This entertaining exercise in world building is set almost fifty-seven thousand years in the future. It is not so much a novel as a linked series of stories, each with its own main characters and objectives, although some of the longer-lived minor characters, mainly those that have mostly robotic parts, appear in more than one section. It is set on a world called Sask-E, which is owned by a company called Verdance. Most of the characters were created by Verdance to assist in terraforming Sask-E so that it can be sold in parcels to wealthy investors. The terraformers are legally slaves of Verdance, and although the non-human entities are sentient, Verdance uses a type of intelligence inhibitor to keep them in line.

The most fascinating aspect of The Terraformers is the characters, both human and non-human. They have been incubated and brought to life under laboratory conditions to serve particular functions in the terraforming process, and as a result there is great variety in their appearances, materials, sizes, and abilities. There are bipedal humanoids, robots, part-humans and part-robots, animals, part-animals and part-robots, and so on. Verdance considers them all chattel, but in fact among the terraformers themselves they are all considered persons, whether they are humanoid, robotic, animal, or a combination of these. Newitz liberally ascribes personhood to an array of non-human beings, including flying moose, flying cows, cats, dogs, naked mole rats, and even worms. This universal personhood serves as a pointed metaphor to compare with the present sad state of humankind, in which people are judged, labeled, and assigned positions according to background, location, race, color, gender, age, intelligence, and other considerations.

The variety of person-types in this far future scenario reminded me of some of the early works of Samuel Delaney such as Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection. In these works he introduces body modifications and mutations that make the appearances and abilities of the characters radically different from those to which we are accustomed.

In the first part of The Terraformers, an environmentalist named Destry discovers an entire civilization of archaic terraformers hiding beneath a volcano on Sask-E. Verdance would like nothing better than to murder them all and obliterate any traces of their habitations, so Destry must find a way to save this hitherto-hidden populace but at the same time fulfill her obligations as a slave of Verdance. In the second part, a team of surveyors travel the length of the main continent on Sask-E, assessing the landscape and the cultures in the newly-formed cities so that Verdance can build a transportation system. The surveying trip is an excuse to further explore the complex world and social systems that Newitz has created.

The amazing thing about this land of flying moose, naked mole rat scientists, intelligent devices that bore through lava in the planet’s mantle, and sentient worms, is that Newitz manages to explain it all so well that it is easy to suspend disbelief and come along for the ride. That’s what good futuristic science fiction does. No matter how unlikely the scenario, a good writer can take us by the hand and adroitly lead us through it so that we forget, temporarily, our previous parameters and even measure the world we have left behind in the context of the world in which we have become immersed.

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