Tor: 352 pages, $29
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In 2021, Annalee Newitz, a science journalist and science fiction writer, published an extraordinary book entitled “The Four Lost Cities”. Newitz visited the sites and studied the history of four ancient civilizations and found that “dead” isn’t quite the right word for what’s happening to once-mighty urban centers. Even Pompeii, famously decimated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, was not so much destroyed as remodeled. “Cities” was a captivating, unconventional book about urbanism, looking deep into the past with an eye on the present. “Perhaps all our cities are in constant cycles of centralization and dispersion,” Newitz wrote. “Or if we think with our galactic brains, they are temporary stops on the long road of human public history.”
“The Terraformers,” Newitz’s new novel, is a brilliant book about the brains of the galaxy. Set in the very distant future — around 59,000 AD — it imagines human civilization developing to the point where we can build new worlds and effectively cultivate new types of creatures to govern them. Destry, the ranger who monitors the developing planet at the beginning of the novel, is a “hominin,” a human-like being that can live for hundreds of years, and her fellow hominins coexist peacefully with different species. (Her horse is a flying, talking moose-like creature; naked moles abound.)
But Destry’s planet, Sask-E, is run by a distant corporation, Verdance, and corporations haven’t developed much at all. “The Terraformers” is full of space travel, bang-bang technology and a radical overhaul of species relations, but Newitz’s concern is with the earth. What are the bad trade-offs made between the populace and top-down leadership? How do tribal and caste systems undermine societies? What makes any society sustainable? And (there’s a lot) why can’t we have better public transport?
This is a much broader canvas than the one Newitz has worked with before; their previous two novels concerned medicine and robots (“Autonomous” from 2017) and time travel, gender and power (“The Future of Another Timeline” from 2019). Here, Newitz is a thorough and meticulous world-builder, almost to a fault — the narrative often digs deep into the weeds of Sask-E. But the heart of the story is a direct cultural clash that leans against a capitalist critique.
Destry and her fellow rangers are tasked with preparing the planet for future inhabitants and for Verdance, who promises a tailor-made alien experience: “Settle on virgin Pleistocene land, with your pure H. sapiens neighbors, reliving the glory days of Earth.” Just as gentrification hits ethnic bigfoot enclaves in any major city, Verdance’s strategy threatens a whole other group: Destry and her crew discover a tribe near a volcano that was supposed to build the planet’s infrastructure and become extinct. Instead, they found a way to survive underground. Arguments over who has the right to live – and where – escalate into outright battles, as the hominins seek to find a détente with the ancient community.
At the end, a contract is concluded. One character muses that it “could be a model for maintaining balance in the future.” Thirty-odd millennia in the future, those are still the famous last words.
Newitz has written an entertaining study of conflicting social forces, dealing with how the lower classes of any society are (mis)treated; “The Terraformers” owe as much to EP Thompson as Isaac Asimov. On a smaller scale, Newitz calls out the casual bigotry that dismisses the intellect of groups unsympathetic to those in power—highlighted here through the “intelligence assessment” scores Verdance uses, derisively dubbed “InAss.”
Alternatively, Newitz wants to celebrate the fluidity of relationships that a more equal society can offer. There are playful journeys to more wacky outposts of Sask-E and plenty of hybrid species to entertain. “The Terraformers” may be the best novel you’ll read this year about a tragic romance between two moose-like creatures.
But Newitz is generally more comfortable working at the macro level—plate tectonics, river flow, and transit play a central role in the book’s plot, each handled with intelligence and often delightful weirdness. In The Four Lost Cities, Newitz argued that the main threats to civilizations are aggressive top-down leadership and failure to protect the environment. The same dynamic is at play here, as Verdance’s dogged efforts to build a standard rail line ignore the ways in which communities develop.
Newitz’s solution in “The Terraformers” — a worm-like flying train that can evolve according to the needs of the inhabitants — is grossly impractical. It will take us several millennia to catch up. But the impossibility of real-world repair does not detract from the message that can be applied now: treat communities equally, recognize their changing nature, and ensure they are not abused in the name of some outsider’s notion of “authenticity.”
These points can coalesce in the book’s late release, as Verdance’s leadership becomes increasingly single-minded and authoritarian; even the inevitable battle scenes can seem passionless compared to Newitz’s true passion, urban rhetoric. And because the book’s three-part structure introduces a new set of characters each time, it’s harder to feel invested in any of them, even as their homes are cast into oblivion.
In some ways, Newitz did the job too well. “The Terraformers” is so good at imagining how humans subvert their own societies that it seems downright miraculous to imagine we’ll live to the year 3000, let alone 30,000. But Newitz’s optimism is well-argued and captivating.
“The Four Lost Cities” lists several elements of a healthy city: “good reservoirs and roads, accessible public squares, domestic spaces for all, social mobility, and leaders who treat city workers with dignity.” We don’t need to build new creatures or invent new worlds to create this, but even if we do, the same challenges will remain. The solutions will require leaps of imagination that Newitz is convinced we possess. The brains of our galaxy have a lot to do.
Athitakis is a Phoenix-based writer and author of “The New Midwest.”