In ‘The Terraformers,’ Science Fiction Reveals Real-World Challenges

17:03 minutes

A person in a business suit sits in a clean white office, looking out to the right.
Author Annalee Newitz. Credit: Sarah Deragon

In their novel The Terraformers, author Annalee Newitz takes readers thousands of years into the future to a far-away planet that’s under construction. It’s in the process of being terraformed, or transformed into a more Earth-like world that can support human life. 

The main character Destry, a ranger for the Environmental Rescue Team, and her partner, Whistle the flying moose, are working on the corporate-owned planet when they encounter an underground society. The Terraformers explores themes of resilience, colonization, conservation, equity, and capitalism through a sci-fi lens as Newitz invites readers to reimagine a new future.

Guest host Maddie Sofia talks Newitz about the inspiration behind the book and how real-world problems made their way into sci-fi.

The Terraformers is out January 31st, and an excerpt from the book is available now.

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Segment Guests

Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz is a science journalist and author based in San Francisco, California. They are author of Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age andThe Future of Another Timeline, and co-host of the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.

Segment Transcript

KATHLEEN DAVIS: This is Science Friday. I’m Kathleen Davis.

MADDIE SOFIA: And I’m Maddie Sofia. For the rest of the hour, we’re traveling deep into the future– think thousands and thousands of years– to a planet called Sask-E. It’s being terraformed, turned into an Earth-like planet, for an intergalactic real estate company that has, surprise, surprise, not the purest intentions.

It starts off with Destry, and her partner, a flying moose named Whistle. Their job is to protect wildlife, help rivers flourish, balance carbon levels, but everything changes when they find Spider City, an ancient society secretly living inside of a volcano that changes what the terraformers think they’re doing.

This novel explores conservation and colonialism and how it all happens in lockstep with capitalism and corporate greed. Annalee Newitz is a science fiction writer and science journalist based in San Francisco and the author of The Terraformers, which comes out January 31. Annalee, welcome back to Science Friday.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Thanks so much for having me.

MADDIE SOFIA: All right, so what inspired you to write this book about building worlds in the first place?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: There’s a couple of things. One is just, like a lot of science journalists, when you’re covering environmental change, you wish that you could live for thousands of years just to see how everything is going to turn out. And so, of course, in fiction, I get to do that, and so I have this ability to have this multigenerational story of a planet undergoing transformation.

But honestly, the other reason I wrote it was I really wanted to answer some granular questions about what it takes to build a geological formation and what would it be like if you could build a city from scratch so that it functioned in a bargain with the environment instead of just crushing the environment entirely.

MADDIE SOFIA: Right, right. The Terraformers is a fiction novel. but I feel like I learned a lot of just very basic science from it. We get into plate tectonics, which I love, fan favorite, conservation, urban planning. Who did you talk to about building a whole planet from scratch?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: I started by talking to a lot of scientists. I think, because of my training as a science journalist, I can’t imagine writing something without first consulting the experts. And so I talked to David Catling, who studies the development of atmospheres. I talked to Vickie Hanson, who studies the lack of plate tectonics on Venus, which is really interesting. She’s a planetary scientist.

And I also talked a lot to a scientist who studies the origin of plate tectonics, [INAUDIBLE] and she actually helped me come up with a very ridiculous far-future device that would actually affect the plate tectonics of an entire planet. I also talked to the head of the Department of Transit here in San Francisco about trains, and his name is Jeffrey Tumlin. And my main question for him after I said, what are all the politics around setting up a train system? How do two cities agree to let a train travel between them? Which is actually quite complicated.

The question I needed really answered was, if you were a sentient train, what kinds of things would you do for fun? And Jeffrey was like, oh, obviously, strategy gaming. 100%.

MADDIE SOFIA: Wow, didn’t even suggest. They’re like, oh, yeah, I’ve thought about being a sentient train.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: He had been thinking about this for a while, I believe. [LAUGHS] And so my train character, who is part of the public transit network on the planet, is, in fact, a huge video game nerd as well as being a very good train, who helps bring people from the northern to the southern part of the continent.

MADDIE SOFIA: Right. I learned a lot about atmospheres a lot. You reference the– the person you talked about atmosphere is like, in the book, there are generations that are seeding the planet, the first people that are there, and they’re kind of designed to only be able to survive there for a short period of time before the atmosphere changed. Talk to me about that. That was really interesting.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yes, so the planet is supposed to be an Earth-like world, and in my nerdy little brain, I came up with the whole back story, where they’ve come to a planet that’s had its atmosphere mostly knocked off and probably had a big planetary collision. And so they’re trying to recreate the process on Earth that led to our current atmosphere, which has mostly nitrogen but 21% oxygen and some other gases in there.

So the question is, how do you build oxygen into your environment? So you have to start the carbon cycle, and while you’re building up the oxygen, it’s not going to be breathable for Homo sapiens. It’s not going to be breathable for any of the creatures that go along with the Homo sapiens-type environment. And so they designed, through synthetic biology, a group of basically off-brand Homo sapiens called Homo [? alterus, ?] who can respire in an environment that has far less oxygen and a lot more sulfur and a lot more other stuff.

And that’s why those people end up being kind of programmed to die out because you’ve got to have– they’ve got to give way to the generation that can respire with the 21% oxygen. And that’s where things get complicated because, when you design intelligent beings and then say, oh, by the way, you just have to die out because the environment is changing, that creates a political problem as well as a scientific problem.

But the thing that was super fun about building the atmosphere is that, of course, on Earth this took like half a billion years. And so it was like getting to see it in a fast motion. What if you could really build an atmosphere in 10,000 years? Which, technically, you could if you had some hand-waving technologies, and that was really great.

And I really hope that readers kind of come away with an understanding of how Earth’s atmosphere formed, not as quickly, but thinking about how there were generations of ecosystems that absolutely couldn’t survive in our atmosphere as it is today. And vice versa, we couldn’t survive very well half a billion years ago.

MADDIE SOFIA: I’m reading this book, and I think when people hear science fiction, they think escape or fantasy. But this book, we’ve got colonialism, gentrification, scientific malfeasance, gender, kink. Does this book actually feel like fiction to you?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: 100%, right? A lot of the technologies for terraforming in this book are based on– what we say in the science fiction trade, we call it handwavium, the special element that you just invent by randomly throwing your hands around.

And so I think– I want it to feel realistic. I want it to be grounded in actual science. Like you said, I want people to come away from the book being like, oh, I didn’t know that was how plate tectonics worked or I didn’t realize that moose behaved in this way.

But I also do want to give people an escape because a lot of this book is dealing with extremely difficult subjects about, how do politics impact the environment? And so I threw in stuff like, oh, we have a thing called gravity mesh that allows animals to fly. Why not? I want to fly.

And there’s a lot of wish fulfillment here. A lot of it is about, how do we communicate with animals in a way that allows us to actually understand what they’re saying? And having a conversation with a moose is kind of a long-term wish that I’ve had. And so–

MADDIE SOFIA: It’s kind of a career goal for you.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: A career goal, yeah. I hope one day to be able to communicate with a moose. And so I think that the book is a balance between science fantasy and science reality, and that’s what makes it fun. It’s not going to be a fun story if it’s all just, we are totally harnessed to the here and now.

MADDIE SOFIA: You know what that actually reminds me of? One of my favorite characters in the book. There’s this person that builds a video game. This person is like a historian and a scientist, and it felt like the most real to me because they just want to use a, quote, fun game to teach history. And everybody gives them the feedback of like, hey this game isn’t really fun at all, and they’re like but the facts are there. But don’t you love the facts?


MADDIE SOFIA: You love to learn?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of characters in this book who are based on scientists and researchers who I know, and definitely, there’s a whole field of educational video games where you just– you have to ask the researcher, but why? Just make it fun.

And this character is trying to recreate the history of this planet and of planetary system that they live in, and it takes a really long time to play because environmental change takes thousands of years. And so people get into the game, and they’re like, but wait, I don’t get to fight dragons? I just have to sit here and have conversations?

MADDIE SOFIA: Yeah, I loved it. Another theme that I thought was really interesting and hit home was this idea of this like pristine or pure environment. At one point, a character is killed for hunting some small mammals because they’re damaging the land, but this idea that ideal nature is untouched or untainted by humans is false.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: That’s right, and part of the theme of The Terraformers is this idea that these are people who are completely engineering and environment in order to make it look like it hasn’t been engineered. And I wanted to really highlight the fact that, on Earth, we have been terraforming, effectively, for thousands and thousands of years, through agriculture, through hunting, just through land use.

And there are now studies that show that humans have probably been changing the composition of forests for at least 30,000 years, protofarming by just opportunistically throwing the seeds that they like around and trying to grow those trees. I was definitely thinking about all of those myths of the Wild West or the Virgin Land of the Americas because, indeed, as many writers and historians have told us and as many Indigenous tribes have told us, nope, there were people in the Americas for as long as time exists, basically.

And they’ve been farming, building cities, building roads, transforming the environment completely. And so by the time Europeans trekked over here, they were coming into a terraformed land. We are always in relationship with nature. We’re always shaping it. It’s shaping us.

And this idea that there’s this hard line between Homo sapiens and the rest of nature, that is a lie, and that is the lie that I hope to unmask in this book and to show that we are in an ecosystem. What humans do to the ecosystem is natural. It might not be good for the ecosystem, but we’re among many lifeforms that have messed up the ecosystem.

Initially, cyanobacteria in the oceans messed up the ecosystem by adding so much oxygen to the environment. They were basically farting out oxygen. And we love it because we love their farts, but the lifeforms that were on the planet at the time were not exactly thrilled because they were not oxygen breathers.

MADDIE SOFIA: If you’re joining us now, I’m talking with Annalee Newitz, author of the upcoming book The Terraformers. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

There are a lot of nonhuman animals, like my favorite character, Whistle, the flying moose, a journalistic cat. They’re as central as the humans in this book. Why did you write them like that?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: I really wanted people to imagine what it would be like if the environment could respond to us every time we did something to our ecosystems, and so there’s a couple of ways that I did that. One is that I have nonhuman animals who can talk, and I wanted people to really think about this myth that we have that human beings, Homo sapiens, are the only people and, in fact, realize that we’ve already been in long-term bargains with lots of other nonhuman animals on our planet to help steward the environment, to help hunt.

So that was part of my idea. Also part of it was just that, again, wanting to talk to moose and naked mole rats. But I also the planet itself in this book, Sask-E, the planet, is wired up with this really elaborate biodegradable sensor network. And so many of the characters are able to, for example, just touch the ground and connect to all of these billions of sensors that are part of the plants, part of the soil, connected to animals.

And they can feel, for example, if there’s too much carbon loading in the atmosphere. They can feel if the nitrogen levels in the soil are off. They really can basically be in dialogue with the environment, and I think that’s a great fantasy for us right now because one of our big problems with climate change is being unable to feel what’s happening around us unless we’re being battered by a storm.

We can’t feel those microchanges in the environment and say, oh, gosh, the fact that we have water runoff from this farm is actually creating a toxic situation 30 kilometers away. But if we could feel that, if we could actually just touch the soil and the soil could say to us, dude, things are wrong, it might really change our relationship to the environment. And so that’s part of the fantasy is, what would it take to have that kind of relationship with the environment and with nonhuman animals, where we actually– they could talk back to us and give us a piece of their minds?

MADDIE SOFIA: Yeah, and I think the science got me in this book. I came for the science, but I stayed for the community building and the revolution that happens. And one of my favorite parts of the book is there are these big evil corporate companies, and real estate agents, and monopolies, and capitalists, and all this kind of stuff, but these small groups, these self-governed entities, eventually work together to push back against these injustices.

You make a point in this book that revolutions don’t happen with one protest, one hero, one moment. Is that what you want people to take away?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah, one of the joys of building this world scientifically was showing people this long-term environmental change, but it was also about showing long-term social change. And I’ve been describing this book as the story of a very slow revolution, and it’s a reminder, I think, to all of us who care about the environment that these are multigenerational projects.

We can’t fix it alone. We can’t fix it just right now. We have our future generations are going to have to pick up our trouble, and carry it forward, and keep making trouble.

And I definitely was thinking about the fact that, at some point in the future, science, and politics, and culture aren’t going to seem as separate as they do to us now. I think it’s one of the great tragedies of our time that we try to pretend that those things don’t affect each other, and that is also a fantasy in this book is that these are not characters who see a huge distinction between doing good science and creating a good political system. They see them as all being connected in a big ecosystem.

MADDIE SOFIA: Yeah, absolutely. OK, Annalee, there is a clip from the audio book that is a group of sentient trains singing using the sounds of every place they’ve ever traveled to. I think it is only appropriate that we play you out with it. Does that sound good?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Sounds lovely.


MADDIE SOFIA: Annalee Newitz is a science fiction writer and science journalist based in San Francisco. Their book, The Terraformers, comes out on January 31. Annalee, thank you so much for joining us, and thanks for writing this book.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Thank you so much for having me, and thanks for reading.

MADDIE SOFIA: To read an excerpt of The Terraformers, head to our website sciencefriday.com/terraform. That’s T-E-R-R-A form.

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