Fiction Reviews

The Terraformers

(2023) Annalee Newitz, Orbit, £9.99, pbk, 341pp, ISBN 978-0-356-52086-5


One of the enduring pleasures of reading science-fiction over the years has been finishing a book and asking yourself in tones of bemused admiration what, exactly, have you just been reading. Annalee Newitz’s The Terraformers is one such work – surprising, stimulating and not at all what I was expecting.

Truth in advertising: this book contains great feats of planetary engineering. But it’s fundamentally more interested in the politics of land use and land ownership, which you could argue is a kind of terraforming as well. There is less hard science on display here than there is human geography, town planning, transport planning, sociology and investigative journalism. Not to mention talking animals, a cross-species burlesque show and a sentient transportation network.

The plot unfolds over a millennium and a half on the planet Sask-E, where Earth-like ecosystems are being carefully established before the world is opened up for settlement. Initially we follow environmental ranger Destry as she investigates an anomaly in a volcano, which turns out to be an entire city that has been hidden away from the planet’s corporate owners for generations.

You might think that this suggests a certain amount of incompetence on the part of said corporation and you’d be correct. One of the endearing things about The Terraformers is the fact that its post-human villains are no strangers to incompetence, infighting and a very human pettiness.

The discovery of the city turns out to be the pivot that takes both rangers and a planet on a very different journey to that originally intended. The question of the volcano-dwellers right to remain becomes an issue of fundamental importance. And the implications of decisions taken by Destry and her friends in that time play out in two more linked stories moving forward in time. These follow the ongoing development and settlement of Sask-E, with recurring characters cropping up in each section.

The Terraformers takes much from the ‘soft’ sociological SF of the 1970’s and '80’s – not least its ‘anything goes’ attitude - and updates it for contemporary sensibilities. It’s hard to give too much detail without spoilers, but there’s a strong if non-doctrinaire, anti-corporate and freedom-seeking narrative at play here.

At time the eccentric touches (did I say there were talking animals?) reminded me of Sheri Tepper, which for this reviewer is mostly a good thing. But while Tepper habitually swung for the fences with every ball, and missed nearly as often as she connected, Newitz marshals their prose and plot with composure: less flash but more consistency.

I am pretty much the target audience for this kind of book, so it’s no surprise that I enjoyed it, or that its worth in my eyes continues to grow in hindsight. But, more than that, The Terraformers proves that you can still write science-fiction that is entertaining, that offers a fresh perspective on one of science-fiction’s enduring big ideas and that still manages to incorporate the author’s own idiosyncrasies and freak flaggery.

Coming to an awards shortlist near you?  I certainly hope so.

Tim Atkinson


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