Who doesn’t like a little space talk with their science fiction novels? No, the deep dark void is not your bag? Can I interest you in planets then? Particularly barren planets that are repurposed with the intent to house human and animal life. If so, then maybe a book such as The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz is right for you. It has ecological processes, flying moose, talking beavers, and romantic relationships between people of varying species! It’s a fun, not quite light-hearted story about the people who make such a place their home, and their mission. Unfortunately for me, it felt a little too cozy in some places while being very good at diving deeper into the nature of ecologies. Still don’t know if it’s for you? Keep reading and you’ll find out!
Destry is a member of the Environmental Rescue Team (ERT). She’s helping to make sure that interlopers to the planet Sask-e don’t cause imbalances to the growing ecosystem that is currently transforming the planet to pleistocene-like conditions. The ERT is a long-standing organization developed not long after our time to help correct the course as climate change wreaked havoc on the systems we know today. 60,000 years in the future though, they are highly skilled park rangers that keep an eye on fledgling planets, nudging the feedback loops in the right directions when necessary. But Destry notices that there might be a hidden city where there shouldn’t be. Working with her team, she goes to visit the cave system hidden within a volcano that belongs to the very first terraformers. The members of her ERT debate about how to handle the situation and their decisions echo through the next several thousand years.
I don’t really know how to describe my feelings towards The Terraformers. On one hand, the story is a little too cozy for my taste, with easily resolved plot lines mixed with nice slice of life moments. On the other hand, there were moments of serious questioning that arose from the specific ways Newitz wrote about certain ideas. Questions that felt organic to the story, and spurred on by Newitz. For me the experience was a mixed bag, swinging wildly between romance and mass death in jarring ways. To be fair, I think this dissonance is a matter of taste and I was expecting something a bit heavier and more gritty with the details, even if the overall tone was not such. So it leaves me with a little less than I was expecting while weirdly fulfilling some cravings I did not know about.
Part of me can’t move on with this review without bringing up some of the ‘technical aspects’ of the book. With the three hundred pages split between three separate timelines, it felt too condensed. It made the characters feel a bit flat, their traits emphasized by their job and a few quirky likes. Some of the dialogue was wooden, but some of it had the perfect amount of cheekiness. I appreciated the effort Newitz put into making curses more ecologically focused, even if they became silly at times. I greatly admired the attention to detail Newitz paid to ecological processes and the time that goes into them. But also just how easily balances within systems can be upset. The relationships, though they were fun and exciting as Newitz pushed the boundaries on who was capable and worthy of relationships, also didn’t feel very deep.
Part of my frustration stems from liking big stories like the ones The Terraformers draws upon, but this novel didn’t scratch the same itch. It delves into some of the scientific nuance while skirting away from the social and political aspects. Don’t get me wrong, some of the more interesting ideas come from the political conversations, I just didn’t feel a lot of tension due to politicking. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, sometimes you have to let your brain rest in one area, while digesting new ideas. It makes for a more accessible novel about terraforming, but it leaves someone like me yearning for more. I don’t want to dive too deep into what I expected, lest it feels like my whining is an objective statement, but I felt that some larger questions were left unexplored. I wanted to dive into the ethics and the process of the Grand Bargain, whereby animals are given ways to communicate their thoughts to humans. I wanted a nuanced exploration of the Environmental Rescue Team’s role within terraforming, especially when it occurred on privately owned planets. Some of these questions felt like they were just lying there, waiting to be picked up but never were. Again, this is more of a taste and preference argument, not a ding against Newitz and the story they told.
It’s hard not to read and review a book like this without immediately comparing it to some of the books I’ve read that deal with a similar topic. The Terraformers has its strengths. Newitz does an amazing job of highlighting time as an issue, and ecology as a system, regardless of conscious human activity. It doesn’t really fall short so much as it is not interested in the same questions I am. The characters, though they felt flat to me, do have some fun interactions. I particularly enjoyed the discussions about game making and historical accuracy in the latter section of the book. If you want something that feels like a good introduction to terraforming on a conceptual level, without feeling overwhelmed, The Terraformers is a very strong start.
Rating: The Terraformers – 6.5/10