Terraformers by Annalee Newitz from @orbitbooks #BookReview #Sci-fi
Terraformers by Annalee Newitz
Orbit, pb, £9.99
Review by Nadya Mercik
“Everything in balance,” says the Environmental Rescue Team Handbook.
The question is – whose balance is it on?
As Annalee Newitz writes in the Acknowledgements, this novel was created as a dream of a more hopeful world and a nation-building epic. It is definitely both and so much more. In three hundred-something pages, it encapsulates about sixteen hundred years of history plus fifty-nine thousand years of backstory and a lot of important and controversial topics. It feels so epic that I find it a bit difficult to know where to start with the review.
Let’s start with the world. In the 59th millennium, humanity is much more than one planet or even one Solar System. It has spread to the far corners of the galaxy in search of planets to be terraformed, sometimes as private ones. In fact, Earth itself is not even the source of the genetic material anymore: genome samples come from libraries on Venus. Humanity is also much more than Homo sapiens. Even if you are decanted as one, you still get modifications, like cellular scrubbers, which help you to stay alive for hundreds of years. Homo diversus may have tentacles, skin of an interesting colour or even be a mixture of biological and metal parts. And you don’t need to be a hominin to be human. Cats, moose, rats, bots are sentient too. No aliens; everybody is coming from the Earth’s protoworld’s genome. People differ not only in their shape but in their sentiency too. As no one is born and everyone is decanted, there is an opportunity to install a sentience limiter. For example, as a simple mount, you are capable of speaking only monosyllabically; if you are a Blessed, no conversation is possible if it is not about your job.
Who thrives in such an environment? Unlike Star Trek with its Federation, this future is very much about capitalism, privatisation and corporations. There is the League for public governments, but so many planets are private and the lands on it terraformed to be sold.
The events of “Terraformers” are happening on one such planet Sask-E – a project of Verdance corporation, which is recreating Pleistocene era to offer money bags an opportunity to experience Earth as it was back in the day. The story starts with ranger Destry doing her rounds and encountering a Homo sapiens remote, whose been plundering the ecosystem and destroying the balance. Unable to persuade the remote to leave, Destry kills him, only to find out from her boss that soon enough, more people will be arriving as the land is going on sale. Destry can do little as “everything here – other than rocks, water, and the magnetic field – was part of Verdance ‘s proprietary ecosystem development kit.”
To get away from the tumult, Destry joins her friend Nil on a mission – to examine a suddenly found door in the Spider mountain. They find an underground city full of Homo Archaea people – the ones who were decanted long ago to start the terraforming of the planet. They were supposed to die out when the atmosphere of the planet changed. Clearly, they did not. Instead, they formed a democratic government and continued with their lives underground, where the air was still suitable for them. However, the new development plans of Verdance include changing the route of the river which feeds the city. With Destry’s help and some geological leverage, they manage to negotiate a treaty, which will allow them to continue to exist and govern themselves. The only thing is, this treaty remains a secret, and though it is honoured, no one off the planet knows about it.
Some seven hundred years later, there are other corporations present on Sask-E, and Verdance has lost pretty much of its influence. They own cities and impose legislation. Their only aim is to retain the customers and make even more profit out of it. For example, they demand that every property buyer also buys a Homo sapiens body to live on Sask-E. The problem is that with so many cities now present, they need a public transportation system, which will also be eco-friendly. So Sulfur and Misha, a Homo Archaea and an ERT ranger start their research to find the best solution for the problem. And, of course, they confront a lot of corporate bull on the way that does not let them do their job. Even worse, for Misha, who is still Verdance’s property, there are some serious repercussions waiting if he does not follow the rules.
The third and last part is set another nine hundred years later. The planet now has a system of sentient trains who perform the intercity transit, but the corporations are cracking down on everybody, who is not a Homo sapiens, i.e. the customer of the corporation. The desperations of the corporate world lead to real atrocities, but some old secret floats on the surface, giving inhabitants a chance to undermine the corporations.
Newitz intricately interweaves the life of the planet and the life of different kinds of humans with the personal paths of the protagonists. As a result, there is always the bigger scope present – it is in everything: from the science that creates humans to the missions they have to complete. Personal troubles are always superseded by a grander scale of life. Humans in the novel, be they hominins, moose or bots, remain more humane. Of course, there are those who cannot understand that and make fun of people who are not hominin, like Cylindra from Emerald corp. But then her priorities are different, like it is often with people who are above others. She very much wants cows in the old sense, without any sentience. She simply likes milk, and leaving the decision for a cow to give it or not complicates the process. Even though it can be made synthetically. Customers need authentic experiences.
There is a deep sense of what constitutes a person as opposed to the greedy, soulless corporate entity, which custom builds people “to suit a bunch of contracts that leaked out of corporate pustules”, to “have some special physical attribute that makes them someone else’s valuable tool”.
In the very end, it is nearly but not yet a utopia. A precedence of sorts. It leaves a lot for you to contemplate because when something is as broad as humanity in Newitz’s novel, there are too many finer details to be considered for it to work.