Annalee Newitz. Credit: Sarah Deragon via McMillan

When Berkeley journalist and sci-fi author Annalee Newitz set out to write a novel about a hopeful future, The Terraformers was the result. And I am here to report that they succeeded brilliantly.

It’s set at a far-distant time when the human race has spread among thousands of worlds throughout the galaxy. The action spans 1,600 years, yet it all hangs together like a fine tapestry on the wall. The book is a tour de force of ingenuity. Almost every chapter offers up some marvelous figment of Newitz’s imagination.

The novel oozes optimism, but it is no dreamy fantasy tale. War, revolution, greed, and aggression propel this story. If The Terraformers isn’t a contender for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and John W. Campbell awards, I’ll be surprised.

In the year 59,006

The first of the novel’s three parts opens in the year 59,006. For 10,000 years, the Verdance Corporation has been terraforming the planet SASK-E, known as Sasky. It’s thousands of light-years distant from Earth. An Environmental Rescue Team, or ERT, is engaged in ecosystem management, helping ensure that the planet will be ready for sale to settlers within just a few hundred years. Team leader Destry Thomas and her companions stumble across a thriving community called Spider City built illegally within a network of lava tubes under a volcano. And that discovery will lead them into open conflict with Verdance’s ruthless VP of special operations, Ronnie Drake. But Destry has gained a resourceful and clever ally from Spider City named Sulfur. Together, they are formidable. But Ronnie wields enormous power.

The Terraformers, Annalee Newitz (2023), 352 pages ★★★★★

“Verdance had paid to build this planet, including its biological labor force. Everything here—other than rocks, water and the magnetic field—was part of Verdance’s proprietary ecosystem development kit. And that meant every life form was legally the company’s property, including Destry.” So even with Sulfur’s help, Destry will face great danger when she defies Ronnie. Spider City’s future hangs in the balance, too.

A hopeful future beyond the bounds of our dreams

The life Destry Thomas experiences is unlike ours in fundamental ways, beginning at its inception. People are not born but decanted, having been designed by bioengineers. They enter life fully grown and endowed with the capacity to live for hundreds, even thousands of years. Equally important, sixty thousand years ago a series of events known as the Farms Revolutions led to the Great Bargain.

First, farm animals, and then many other species of animals and plants, gained sentience in the bargain. Robots and other machines did, too—and a great many achieved a level of intelligence that permits them to be called persons. Cows, moose, beavers, naked mole rats, owls, cats—they’re all people unless the engineers inhibit their cognitive abilities. Those whose brains have built-in limiters are merely Mounts or Blessed, with intelligence so severely constrained that they’re capable of doing and thinking only about a single task. They’re not people. They’re animals.

Meanwhile, the genus Homo has branched out. H. sapiens continues to dominate in many ways, but examples of H. diversus abound, “with every possible configuration of limbs, skull shapes, and skin textures.” Some are built to adjust to the harsh environment on newly terraformed planets. Others have extra limbs or sensory organs designed to assist them in specialized tasks such as surgery. Some are bionic, others entirely biological. Those with gravity mesh under their skin can fly.

And every person, of every species, has the ability to change to a new body at will. This becomes convenient when sex is involved. Otherwise, how could a naked mole rat or a doorway make love with a human being?

Continue reading this review on Mal Warwick’s Blog on Books.

Freelancer Mal Warwick's reviews on his blog, occasionally appear on Berkeleyside. He is an author, entrepreneur, and impact investor who is one of three partners in One World Play Project, and founder...