Annalee Newitz’s new far future novel The Terraformers is about worldbuilding in a more literal sense than is usually the case in science fiction. Newitz gives us a vivid setting, or imagined world, in the planet Sask-E, where all the action takes place. But the novel, as the title indicates, is literally about transforming an alien, lifeless planet into a world in which human beings and other earthly life forms can thrive. This is a wonky book (of the type formerly known as “hard science fiction”) because of how it goes into the technology of altering a planet, so that it has suitable oxygen levels, and a self-sustaining environment or food web; and then, at a later stage, how cities can be built, lived in, and flourish economically. There’s a lot more detail than I ever thought I would want to know about transportation planning, for instance, and the differences between public and private systems. But — in contrast to most (if not all) of the hard science fiction of half a century ago — The Terraformers insists on the social, political, and economic dimensions of technological development. Technologies are not autonomous forces; they always depend upon issues of power and control. Who plans them, and who pays for them in the first place? Who uses them? Who maintains them? Who (if anyone) draws a profit from them? And are they privately owned, and marketed as a scarce resource? Or are they available as a common good? These questions are ceotral to the novel; they do not just come up after a technology is instituted, but influence technological growth and invention in the first place. Such issues seem obvious and commonsensical to me, but it is surprising how often they are ignored, both by technological determinists on the one hand, and by people who underestimate the radicality of technological change on the other. Newitz writes excitingly of (extrapolated, futural) inventions, but she insists on alway placing these developments in a social, political, and economic matrix.

The novel starts by presupposing several big utopian changes from life as we know it and experience it today. The first, and most important, of these is called the Great Bargain; it is a backstory that explains how Earth itself was saved from ecological catastrophe. The Great Bargain was “a way to open communication with other lifeforms in order to manage the land more democratically.” As a result of the Great Bargain, mammals, birds, and other animals become able to think at human levels, and to communicate through spoken or written language. Beings like moose and cats and naked mole rats, and eventually even earthworms, who do not have human-style vocal organs, are nonetheless able to communicate with one another and with human beings via something like wireless, telepathic text messages. The novel presents this as an ethical and political development above all: lands and environments can only be managed for the common good if all the stakeholders are able to enunciate their needs and desires, and participate in decision making. The result is a society in which a large variety of sentient beings, including humans and other sorts of hominids, mammals and birds and other sorts of animals, and AIs and robots of the most varied sorts, are all considered people, and all exist (at least in principle) on an equal basis.

Several other technologies exist in order to back up the Great Bargain. People (of all species) no longer reproduce sexually. Instead, they are “decanted” from genetic blueprints with the help of something like 3D printers or matter synthesizers. People of whatever species are “born” with fully developed adult bodies, although they still need a certain amount of guidance or education before they can be fully functioning and autonomous. Every new entity — human, animal, or robot — therefore has one or several “parents”, those these need not be organically related to the new individuals under their initial care. In addition, sentient entities have greatly extended lifespans compared to what actually exists today. Human beings live for hundreds of years, and in some cases well over a thousand. (This is actually one aspect of the book that I found a bit disturbing. I have worked as an academic for nearly forty years; I look forward to retiring in the next several years. The idea of working for an obnoxious boss continually for seven hundred years straight, as some of the characters in this novel do, is deeply upsetting).

When sexuality is freed from the chains of reproduction, it can flourish in all sorts of new and different forms. Newitz wrote about robot sexuality in her 2017 novel Autonomous, and she writes about it more here. Also, when human and other beings are “decanted,” their bodies can be constructed in different ways, not reducible to traditional gender binaries. Some of the human characters in The Terraformers use “he” or “she” pronouns, but a number of them also use “they”. There actually is not very much explicit sexual description in the novel, but one humanoid character (not Homo sapiens, but a different genetically engineered human lineage) is described as hermaphroditic, with genetalia containing both stamens and pistils (as with flowers).

The Great Bargain has also solved environmental problems. Human and animal entities get their energy by consuming vegetal matter, and robots and AIs run on solar batteries. In either case, a planet’s sun is the ultimate source of energy, much more directly than is the case on Earth today (nearly all of our our energy comes ultimately from the Sun, but harmfully mediated in the forms of meat and fossll fuels). In Newtiz’s future world, there is only clean energy. There is also a technology called “gravity assist,” which allows both animals and robots to fly. I really enjoyed the flying moose (who save the day at one point in the narrative), as well as the sentient flying trains for mass transfortation.

It has become a cliché (but one that remains true for all that) that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Although the technologies that I have described so far make a world of abundance rather than scarcity possible, it still takes a huge investment, including a huge amount of labor, to terraform a planet in the first place. And so the future society imagined in The Terraformers is still a capitalist one, despite all the broad bottom-up and more or less egalitarian social structures that the new technologies have made possible. One galactic-scale corporation initiates the terraforming of Sask-E, and another one comes in as a major landlord, building cities and tyrannically ruling large populations. Nothing would happen on Sask-E without the initiative of these corporations, but they are also the major impediments to human, animal, and robot flourishing throughout the novel. The protagonists of The Terraformers continually need to battle these corporations, which is something that they cannot do as individuals, but only as parts of communities, or as parts of something like what is often called ‘civil society’ (though this phrase is not used in the novel). There is no vision of total revolution here, but only one of continual struggle, of maneuverings to leverage the needs and wants of large numbers of people against the power of the corporations. Or to put it differently: the corporations have lasers from space that can wreak destruction, but the people on the ground (and in some cases, living in cities under the ground) are sufficiently numerous, and their organizations sufficiently robust, that the corporations have to negotiate and/or back down and/or be outmaneuvered in legal and procedural terms. (These three outcomes are what happens in the three main sections of the novel).

I have mostly described the presuppositions of the novel, rather than the characters and the overall narrative. This is because, in the grand science fictional tradition, the former really guides (and even determines) the latter. The novel is divided into three sections, hundreds of years apart (in order to convey the vast time scales involved in terraforming). The narration is in the third person, but the protagonists of the three parts are respectivly: 1) a Homo sapiens employed by one of the large corporations but whose basic loyalty is to the enivronmental action group of which he is a part; 2) a Homo archaea whose ancesters were supposed to have died after initiating terraforming, but who survived instead by living underground, inside a volcano; 3) a sentient flying train. All three central characters are quite empathetic; and all of them have to make alliances with others in order to accomplish anything.

In sum, I loved The Terraformers. It combines utopian speculation with a continued realistic sense of the impediments that movements towards liberation will still have to deal with. It’s knowledgably political, while at the same time it maintains a science-fictonal commitment to, well, scientific experiment and discovery rather than the magical transmutations of desire that are more explored in fantasy. (I like certain varieties of fantasy well enough, but my heart is still with science fiction, so Newitz’s focus was especially welcome).

Children of Memory, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Memory (2022; but published in the US on January 31, 2023) is the third science fiction novel in a series that started with Children of Time (2015), and continued with Children of Ruin (2019). The books are concerned with different varieties of sentience and intelligence. The background scenario for this far-future series is that human beings on Earth set forth with an ambitious project to terraform planets across the galaxy, but that the project and never completed. The terraforming project involves creating a livable climate, and stocking the planet with a diverse enough range of Earth organisms to create a functioning ecology. After this, either the planet can be inhabited by human beings, or else the world is seeded with a plasmid that provokes genetic mutations to raise another species to human-level intelligence. But due to troubles on Earth, the plan is never quite realized. In Children of Memory, instead of uplifting nonhuman primates, the plasmid creates a species of intelligent Portia spiders. The novel traces the stages of the spiders’ rise to civilization, and considers how their mentality might be different from a human one due to the intrinsic biological differences between the species. In Children of Ruin, octopuses on a water world are boosted to human-level intelligence; again, the novel explores how such a cephalopod intelligence would be different from either a primate or an arachnid one. In addition, in the second novel, the human beings, spiders, and octopuses also encounter an alien lifeform that is something like a parasitic slime mold. The slime mold assimilates, stores, and remembers the mentality and the experiences of any other living species that it encounters. This is at first a danger to the other sentient species: the slime mold transforms all the mindful entities that it encounters into more versions of itself. But eventually, this behavior is changed from a predatory, parasitic lifestyle into one of symbiotic mutualism. The slime mold craves novelty and new experiences; eventually it realizes (or is persuaded) that it can get more of these if it does not assimilate other organisms, but rather coexists alongside them and shares their experiences.

[WARNING: WHAT FOLLOWS CONTAINS SPOILERS] Children of Memory introduces an additional uplifted species: Corvids (the exact species is not specified; they seem to be a crow and raven hybrid). The Corvids do not get the plasmid that the spiders and octopuses got in the previous volumes; rather, they evolve greater intelligence on a partly-terraformed planet where they have become the dominant species. Once again, Corvid intelligence is qualitatively different than that of human beings and other species in the previous novels. The Corvids are able to speak, but their intellectual activity happens, not in individual birds, but only in pairs. One member of a pair gathers information, parses patterns in the information, and especially notices instances of novelty. The other member of the pair in effect collates this information and strategizes ways to act upon it. Neither of the pair can do much on its own; but in conjunction, the pairs are able to analyze large reams of data and operate complex technology. Whether they are capable of originality (as opposed to noticing and moblizing novelties that they discover in their environment) is uncertain. The Corvids deny that they are sentient; the actual situation seems to be that sentience inheres in their combined operations, but does not quite exist in either of their brains taken separately. In certain ways, the Corvids in the novel remind me of current AI inventions such as ChatGPT; they emit sentences that are insightful, and quote bits and fragments of human discourse and culture in ways that are entirely apt; but (as with our current level of AI) it is not certain that they actually “understand” what they are doing and saying (of course this depends in part on how we define understanding). Children of Memory is powerful in the way that it raises questions of this sort — ones that are very much apropos in the actual world in terms of the powers and effects of the latest AI — but rejects simplistic pro- and con- answers alike, and instead shows us the difficulty and range of such questions. At one point the Corvids remark that “we know that we don’t think,” and suggests that other organisms’ self-attribution of sentience is nothing more than “a simulation.” But of course, how can you know you do not think without thinking this? and what is the distinction between a powerful simulation and that which it is simulating? None of these questions have obvious answers; the novel gives a better account of their complexity than the other, more straightforward arguments about them have done. (Which is, as far as I am concerned, another example of the speculative heft of science fiction; the questions are posed in such a manner that they resist philosophical resolution, but continue to resonate in their difficulty).

The dilemma of the Corvids and their degree (or not) of sentience is encased within a much broader story or unsuccessful terraforming, or of the mismatch between human organisms and their re-created environment. The novel mostly takes place on and around a planet that has been only incompletely terraformed; thousands of years later, a generation starship containing thousands of human beings in cryonic suspension arrives with the mission to found a new society on this planet. The attempt is tragically unsuccessful, for a number of reasons. I don’t want to give away all the plot twists here, so I will just say that the novel envisions a series of interactions between Earth-born colonists and their descendants and an unforgiving environment that only includes a limited number of transplanted Earth species, as well as these baseline humans’ interactions with the various transformed species (including but not limited to human beings who have themselves been boosted by their encounters with the other intelligent species and with the advanced technologies arising from their encounters), and also with an even more powerful technology left behind by an unknown alien species. There are multiple levels of simulation and speculation, as well as even more complex and self-reflexive levels of both intelligence and sentience (with the relation between these never becoming entirely certain). There is a lot here that deserves unpacking at much greater length than I am capable of, after writing this brief review from just one reading. The entire Children series, and this third volume in particular, exemplifies how science fictional fabulation, at its best, can lead us to reflect upon vital issues in ways that simplistic pro- and con- arguments are unable to do.