Novel: The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz’s work usually blends gonzo creative energy with thoughtful sociopolitical commentary, and The Terraformers (2023) successfully continues in that vein. This time, there’s a unique auctorial challenge in the mix: lending urgency to a scenario that plays out over extremely long periods of time. Does The Terraformers manage to sustain heart-pounding narrative momentum over the course of centuries? Not exactly, but then that’s not the point of this inventive, thought-provoking novel.

It takes place in the far future on the planet Sask-E, a world being terraformed under the corporate auspices of a company called Verdance. Destry is an environmental analyst who was “decanted” on Sask-E as part of an Environmental Rescue Team, tasked with helping build out a humanity-sustaining ecosystem and keeping it in balance. When Destry and her colleagues stumble across a hidden city on Sask-E, it challenges her understanding of the world she’s creating, and the wider universe that brought it into existence. This uniquely positions her to influence the planet’s future, her efforts to fight back against exploitative corporate policies resonating across generations.

Newitz’s imaginative worldbuilding always reminds me a little of the work of Paul Di Filippo or Rudy Rucker: weird but accessible, full of zany ideas and eyeball kicks, and structurally restless. But Newitz also brings thought-provoking social justice to the table, and the far-future scenario of The Terraformers affords plenty of opportunity to explore progressive themes, particularly in the way she cleverly expands the definition of personhood, but also in examinations of gender, labor, capitalism, and participatory politics. It’s an ambitious narrative that pivots more than once to accommodate its centuries-spanning mission, and while the sections do escalate to crisis points, the focus is less on action-adventure and more on long-term problem solving and decision making. This makes the pace rather leisurely at times, but it’s still enjoyable for its big ideas, strange futuristic romances, and hopeful messages around forward-thinking perseverance.

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