The will to survive: Annalee Newitz's The Terraformers

An outstanding book about the power of communal action in the face of overwhelming odds

The will to survive: Annalee Newitz's The Terraformers
Image: Andrew Liptak

There’s an image that I have embedded in my mind of the world that cyberpunk imagines our future as: bleak urban landscapes where people are packed together while they spend their lives laboring away under their corporate overseers. It's the end result of how technology enables the uncomfortable optimization of our existence. And of course, lots of neon lights, limbs replaced with cybernetic enhancements, and glowing screens as far as the eye can see.

Cyberpunk at its best is a satirical genre, something that speculative fiction has a long history of. H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds and The Time Machine can be read as poking holes in the UK's image of itself as it ruled the world, while Frederik Pohl’s The Space Merchants provided an ideal welcome mat for the stories like William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which took aim at the hyper-capital Reagan era of the 1980s.

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These are fine works, but I'm sometimes bothered by the idea that these futures are inevitable. I've often felt that the genre still carries some of the scares and tropes from that “greed is good” era by imagining capitalistic futures over and over again.

Cyberpunk, is of course a satire until it isn’t; look no further than Facebook’s unironic Metaverse ambitions or Tesla leaning into the aesthetics to devise the stupidest-looking vehicle (the Cybertruck) as examples of where those ideas and trappings were taken at face value.

That’s one big reason why I enjoyed Annalee Newitz’s latest novel The Terraformers so much when I read it earlier this year. It's a joyous book about collective action, gentrification, urban planning and equality that pushes hard against the idea these bleak futures are inevitable. Their characters recognize the systemic inequalities and problems that degrade their world, and instead of working within the confines of the system, actively work to change it for the better.

What better metaphor for that than the terraforming process? Newitz sets their novel in the year 59,006 on a distant planet called Sask-E. It's being terraformed by an interstellar corporation called Verdance as a future destination modeled after a Pleistocene-era Earth for those who can afford to make the trek out to it.

Destry is a humanoid Ranger from the Environmental Rescue Team who's been tasked with helping along the terraforming process (She's accompanied by Whistle, a moose-like creature that serves as her companion and steed) by overseeing and guiding the development of the planet's ecosystems. Destry and Whistle soon make an unexpected discovery: descendants of the first set of genetically-modified workers that Verdance deployed to the planet 10,000 years ago to begin the terraforming process. They shouldn't have survived; the changes to the planet's atmosphere would have caused their numbers to dwindle and eventually die off, leaving behind a pristine planet for their corporate overlords to take over and exploit for their highest-paying customers.

But they didn't vanish: Destry and her fellow ERT rangers discover an ancient door that leads to a settlement populated by those people under a volcano. They've been there for thousands of years, setting up a conflict between those original inhabitants and the customers that Verdance is building the world for.

Newitz plays with this dynamic over the rest of the book and thousands of years as these two sides clash against one another. They play with ideas about urban planning and public transportation, painting a vivid picture of a bustling, joyous city populated by a diverse population of people (of all species) and sentient trains who call it home. On the other side, Verdance isn't willing to divest themselves of this massive investment, and is working to find any way it can to get rid of the inhabitants who can lay a claim that this planet is rightfully theirs.

They do this in a handful of ways: we follow their efforts over centuries as Verdance tries everything from outright war to messing with treaty legalese to try and get their way, opposed every step along the way by the city's inhabitants.

There are some big, relevant ideas embedded in this story, and Newitz neatly ties this far-flung future of terraforming and genetic engineering to our very real history of colonialism and even more local issues like gentrification, racism, and the types of urban "renewal" projects that tore apart communities and neighborhoods throughout US cities in the 20th century. In doing so, they paint a picture that the sorts of excesses that capitalism brings out are formidable issues that will challenge people and communities if they persist long into the future. It's hard not to read this book in 2023 and recognize the issues that Destry and her allies face: housing problems, vast, sociopathic corporate systems, and a wealthy class that doesn't care who they're trampling over as they enjoy a carefree, fantasy life.

These challenges are formidable ones for Newitz's characters: there's no shortage of tragedy and heartbreak along the way. But it's a novel that showcases the power of a community's will, one that I've seen make up the defiance, joy, and willpower embodied by any people who've come under impossible stresses as outsiders try and snuff them out. Like some of those important, earlier science fiction novels books this is a book which explores the role of imperial/capitalism/political power and how it can be stopped or undermined, reminding us that the will survive, thrive, and flourish is a powerful motivator, and that those inevitable futures are anything but.