Reformed Colonizing

In some form or another, the idea of terraforming has run through science fiction for decades. The term was coined by Jack Williamson back in his 1942 story Collision Orbit, which involved the hammerblow of an asteroid impact. Gradually the idea seeped into the general body of science fiction as the problem of actually stumbling on a habitable world to settle became apparent and more intrusive measures were proposed. By the late 1980s it had blossomed into an accepted practice. 

Most of the early examples dealt with Mars. The fascination with colonizing the Red Planet had always been there. After the hoped-for suitability of Mars was thoroughly dashed by actual probes, other solutions informed new stories.

The difficulties are nicely laid out in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. The sheer expense of the endeavor rose to daunting prominence. More solutions came to the fore. Nanobots, microfauna, slamming a planet with iceballs (comets). Proposals from the other end of the problem were offered, literally changing the settlers themselves to fit the new environment. (Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus among others.)

Venus offered a different set of problems and possibly the best attempt to dramatize them is Pamela Sargent’s Venus trilogy, which is a generational saga about the terraforming and colonization of Venus. Other worlds in the solar system, as our knowledge of them grew, offered yet more technical problems to overcome and gave settings for many good tales.

Of course, the central ethical problem at the heart of all of them remained largely unaddressed, namely the whole concept of colonization. Science fiction of the exploratory variety took it as given that humanity would expand into a universe assumed to be there for the taking. The possibility of other species already being there provided the fodder for the usual exercise in imperial conflict. (Asimov famously avoided the whole issue by depicting a universe devoid of all other intelligent life but human.)

Whether we should or shouldn’t go forth and colonize is probably a pointless question. We will if we can, because “should have” has never been a factor in dismissing the idea. (Whether we should or shouldn’t go to the expense is a different question, whether as a matter of building the capacity or engaging a conflict for territory.) We will. 

So, the question then becomes how to go about it without being, well, evil. It can be argued that a good deal of the “space opera” after the 1970s has as at least a subtheme this concern, most prominently fueled by the discussions prompted by Star Trek’s Prime Directive. 

Accepting migration and settlement as a given, the ethical themes emerging from questions of how, why, and to what end offer a rich pool of conceptual interest for science fiction. The impulse behind much Golden Age SF and almost all space opera was based on the westward wave of conquest and settlement of the so-called Old West. Similarity of motifs abound. Contrary voices emerged slowly as the ongoing conversation within SF continued till the present time wherein a healthy critique of post-colonialism has come to prominence. The costs are now under examination.

Annalee Newitz has established a reputation as a sharp observer, both in fiction and nonfiction. She applies all her accumulated savvy to her new novel, The Terraformers, which combines several strands of the ideas into one excellent work that begins by setting aside the question “Should we do this?” She takes it as read that we will.

But then she sets up a scenario in which all the consequences and related issues come into play to challenge preconceptions and address responsibilities in clever and amusing ways. 

sask-E is a planet under development by a corporation that eventually intends selling lots to prospective inhabitants. A luxury development, in fact, potentially very profitable. To prepare it, various stages of work must be done to turn it into something suitable, which is a time-consuming job requiring specially adapted populations of workers for each stage.

These populations are intended to die off once their stage of the work is completed, but longterm plans are never so neatly executed.

In the months leading up to the big premier of the new world for prospective buyers, ERT Ranger Destry Thomas follows a trail of clues to an enclave of survivors from the prior era of world-building and discovers that extinction is not inevitable. A thriving city of Homo diversus escaped their intended obsolescence and built a city beneath a volcano. Destry and her colleagues now have a set of decisions to make that set all of their various obligations at odds.

The Rangers are supposed to be nominally independent, observers and enforcers of a set of environmental rules the corporation, Verdance, is required to follow in the remaking of such worlds. The ecology is intended to be pristine and the footprint of colonization kept at a manageable minimum. It’s a delicate balance.

But this, a whole population of sapients who aren’t even supposed to still exist, throws a wrench into the works.

What follows is a generation-spanning struggle between the various factions over who (and in what way) has a right to live on Sask-E. 

Newitz has built a far future universe in which uplift is a feature—we have sentient moose, among other animals—and the ethics of coexistence are threaded throughout. What might in lesser hands have become a confusing mish-mash of characters and situations is here deftly managed to excellent effect. The definition of innate value is the point here and to that end we are given as broad a cast of characters with significantly different needs, wants, and proclivities as one could wish for in a novel that attempts to tackle what one might see as post-post-colonialism. 

Once people are involved…

The exigencies of the corporation and the machinations of its designated agents, even with the initial “good faith” attempt to remake a planet over which no native life has claim, spiral into the abyss of expediency, made worse by the pathologies too-often in play among certain personality types. When “making a profit” and “delivering a product” run directly into questions of innate rights and moral necessity, the resulting wrestling match is instructive.

The Terrfaormers is at base a critique of colonialism, but done in a way more subtle than most by setting up the conditions from the beginning to focus on the regard—or lack thereof—people have for each other, especially when walls between them are erected to allow a set of goals to take precedence over any and all incommensurate circumstances that may—that will—arise.

As in her first novel, Autonomous, Newitz displays a thorough grasp of the interplay between competing issues when Market Forces are confronted by moral imperatives. Throughout, there is attention to compromise too-often absent when the full stage of narrative possibility is reduced to the confines of a soapbox. Instead of a diatribe on do’s and don’ts, we get instead a well-reasoned examination of processes in play. Granted, Newitz has a preferred outcome, but she doesn’t let that get in the way of showing the whole stage.

Besides all this, it is hard not to appreciate a well-imagined and realized flying moose.