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The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsFollowing their second novel, The Future of Another Timeline, Annalee Newitz published Four Lost Cities, a nonfiction book about some of the earliest examples of urban life in human history. The Terraformers, Newitz’s long-awaited third novel, builds on that subject with a story about designer worlds and urban planning set more than sixty thousand years in the future. It’s not a long book, but it has massive scope, with an episodic structure that makes reading it feel like you’ve just binged three seasons of a TV series. It can be more than a little uneven. But on balance, the story’s impact is formidable, a solidly adult work of problem-solving science fiction that feels both old-school and beautifully innovative at once.

The world is Sask-E, under development by the Verdance corporation as a bespoke planet for wealthy clients seeking prime real estate in a virginal Pleistocene environment. Towards that goal, Verdance has created their own genetically engineered people, with lifespans that cover centuries, to live on Sask-E and oversee the process of ecosystem maintenance as members of the Environmental Rescue Team.

But “people” refers to more than just Homo sapiens in this future. In a manner reminiscent of David Brin’s Uplift series, the Great Bargain was a process that followed a series of eco-wars on Earth that brought about the end of the anthropocene, by which millions of animal species were bootstrapped into sapience. Naturally, this provides the story with one of its main sources of conflict: Verdance’s entire terraforming project relies on a slave labor force of living beings the company decanted and therefore legally own as property. The ethics of it get worse when we learn some species have been developed with inhibitors on their intelligence to enforce compliance.

The narrative spans over 1600 years, and begins when Ranger Destry Thomas of the ERT discovers that an entire hidden city exists inside an active volcano, Mt. Spider. Spider City is populated by Archaeans, some of the earliest people to be decanted by Verdance, whose intended role was to get the whole process of terraforming going and then die off as they were no longer needed. But die off they didn’t, and now they want their independence, including access to an adjacent river.

This entire sequence is essentially a western, the kind of story where the homesteaders refuse to back down to the railroad magnate who wants to plow through their land. Later in the story the comparison becomes quite literal, as a major plot point hinges on the Emerald Corporation, which has bought up massive amounts of land on Sask-E, and their insistence on linking all of their emerging cities by rail, which fails to consider the organic ways in which populations evolve their urban spaces. The ERT tries to come up with better, more eco-friendly alternatives that won’t violate the terms of any existing legal agreements. I make these comparisons in a spirit of high praise. A recent interview with Newitz confirmed my suspicion that they did in fact name Destry’s character after one of my favorite classic westerns, Destry Rides Again with Jimmy Stewart. Steal from the best, I always say.

The Terraformers is both high-minded speculative fiction and picaresque planetary romance. No book that includes a massive cast of both two-and-four-legged characters going out to nightclubs to see a band of raccoons is taking itself that seriously. Destry’s ERT partner is a flying moose named Whistle. The heroes of the third and final section of the book are a sentient train and a cat (named Moose) who is also an investigative journalist. The effect is something like if Kim Stanley Robinson had created a movie for Studio Ghibli. You’ll never be bored, the characters still manage to be convincing and relatable enough that suspension of disbelief is never in question, and you’re rooting for them when their struggles become truly life-or-death.

If anything, Newitz might be packing too many ideas into The Terraformers than a single book can reasonably be expected to handle. And if any idea in the book seems naive, it’s that those in power could possibly be held accountable under the law for their crimes. Still, the story is paced consistently, all of it unfolding in about 330 tight pages, exploring such themes as environmental stewardship; social justice and equality; power dynamics and corporate avarice; urban gentrification; relationships and love and how they might take new forms under life extension; and general musings on how societies choose either to succeed or fail. Even the defenders of Sask-E as a publicly owned world free of indenture and class violence know that they’ll never turn the planet into a utopia, but utopia is never the goal. Indeed, what the people of Sask-E suffer is explicitly caused by the delusion of utopia — utopia for wealthy buyers — that single-mindedly drives the book’s villains (who I will say, as a legitimate criticism, are pretty one-dimensional as characters, even if it’s not unrealistic to suggest that the ultra-rich and powerful are also ultra-selfish and shallow). No, it’s a good thing that utopia is impossible. But if you can create a society that strives for the highest attainable fairness and security for the highest number of people, then you’re on the right track.

For many readers, The Terraformers may be a bit too much of one thing and not enough of another. But Newitz’s commitment to their ideas, and their passion for the human experience in all of its wonderful folly, in all of that crazy combination of hubris and vision that makes us shape entire worlds, lets this novel come alive in ways science fiction doesn’t do nearly enough for me any more. Peter Gabriel once sang about how “all of the buildings and all of the cars were once just a dream in somebody’s head,” but what compels Annalee Newitz is that messy process between the dream and the reality. And hey, who wouldn’t want a flying moose for a best friend?