In the Acknowledgements section of her latest book The Terraformers, Annalee Newitz thanks Kim Stanley Robinson. Science fiction fans will recognise Robinson as the creator of (among other things) the ambitious Mars terraforming trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars). Those books set a template for a particular type of hard science fiction – detail heavy books which often eschewed character and plot for extensive detail on things like microbial oxygen generation and, in the final volume, debate over the Martian constitution. In The Terraformers, Newitz has taken this approach (and included a character called Kim) but has added her own thematic concerns – sentience and artificial intelligence (dealt with in some detail in her debut Autonomous), the amorality of big business (also Autonomous) and sexuality and identity (The Future of Another Timeline).
The Terraformers is essentially three connected novellas set on the planet Sask-E. The book opens with planetary engineer Destry encountering a rich dilettante seeking to reconnect with his ancestral roots in her pristine forest environment. It turns out that the company that Destry works for, and which owns Sask-E (and has essentially financed its centuries-long terraforming effort), has been marketing the planet with views to selling parts of it to wealthy investors. Plans are thrown into disarray when Destry discovers a hidden community on the planet and its members seek her help. The second story takes place 600 years later and involves two characters plotting out the best form of public transport for the planet’s new cities. And the third takes place yet another 600 years later in a time of some political upheaval and revolves around a sentient flying train and a sentient journalist cat.
The Terraformers explores some interesting theoretical and philosophical territory. As a result, it is much more interested in nuts and bolts of terraforming and its implications than in delivering a consistently absorbing narrative. There are ongoing threads involving corporate greed and malfeasance and the battle for rights of sentient robots and animals. But much of the grist of this book involves exploring problems like how to safely divert a river, or what is the most efficient way to deliver a public transport system, or how do various different types of sentient beings form relationships or how do you implement a 600 year old treaty.
All of which is to say that The Terraformers is interesting without being terribly engaging. And there are a few philosophical holes in the middle of it. Firstly – if the terraforming has only happened because a corporation funded it why should the corporation then not be able to profit from that investment? Secondly, for all of Destry’s initial desire to keep the environment pristine, soon even the non-corporate development pressure must have a pretty significant impact on the planet’s environment, a problem which is never directly addressed.
There is always a balance in harder science fiction between making the future detailed and believable and telling a good story. As Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy went on, and the detail mounted, the narrative tended to move from the latter to the former. The Terraformers suffers in a similar way, with its most engaging story being the first one of the three, when the rules are necessarily a little looser.
Despite all of these caveats there is still alot to enjoy in The Terraformers. There is plenty to chew on both philosophically and thematically with real world relevance beyond the extreme futuristic setting. And Newitz brings a sense of wonder and joy to the narrative which carries over to all of her characters.