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The Terraformers, by Annalee Newitz, wants to talk about social stratification

A speculative fiction author has four jobs:

  1. Imagination. Find us a fresh lens. Show us a place we’ve never been, or a perspective on the mundane that we’ve never seen. Inject tangible energy into our imagination systems.
  2. Timely insight. Help us understand our world in this moment. Help us see the systems that animate social reality, and help us use that vision for our own purposes.
  3. Clarity. Clear the mud from our collective windshields. Use all this fresh perspective to let us look with renewed clarity on all that’s wrong, all that’s beautiful, and all we need to do to enact change.
  4. Challenge. Push the reader, and in the pushing, let fresh perspective permeate more than just the most convenient, already-exposed surfaces.

In combination, these gifts offer the reader extra fuel to continue in a challenging world. Speculative fiction is an activist project that both aligns the reader and empowers them with new conceptual tools. A good yarn in this genre gives you better metaphors for understanding your values, and even making the case for them.

In The Terraformers, Annalee Newitz, using they/them pronouns, spins a tale tens of thousands of years into the deep future. They explore the long-term project of terraforming a planet, and the teams who spend lifetimes making it comfortable, habitable and marketable for future residents.

It’s an ambitious undertaking. The range of characters and timespans brings to mind Foundation, Asimov’s epic of collapsing empire. Unlike Foundation, I was able to finish this one: its representation of gender and sexuality was refreshingly complete.

In a previous Newitz work, Autonomous, the author impressed me with the casual inclusion of computing mechanics that moved the plot forward in ways that were coherent, plausible and folded neatly into the story. Similarly, while Terraformers isn’t cyberpunk per se—not fetishizing endlessly upon the details of brain-computer interfaces—it is such a technically competent work. I completely believe in the elaborate, far-future computing systems described here. While that’s not central to my enjoyment of a book, I like when the details enhance the magic instead of break it.

But what makes The Terraformers stand out, why you have to read it, is much more human than technical. This is a book that wants to talk about social stratification.

Frozen mobility

The geometry of social mobility is bound up in the shape of inequality, and today we have both at extremes.

Social mobility is nearly frozen. If you’re born poor, you’re likely to stay poor.

Meanwhile, wealth inequality ratchets tighter and tighter each year, especially since the pandemic. The middle class erodes steadily, the wealthy control more and more wealth, and the poor grow both in number and in their precarity. To say nothing about desperation in the developing world.

These are not abstract truths. The statistics are more than just numbers in a spreadsheet. They reflect human experiences and traumas. They reflect a disparity of power, and they describe an everyday existence where wealth and corporate bureaucracies strip workers of agency and ignore their insights.

Newitz brings these dry facts to vivid life, depicting the frustration and casual humiliation of living each day under the control of someone who sees you as a tool to implement their edicts. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I had a full-body limbic response to some of the email subject lines that issue from Ronnie, a central corporate figure in the story.

Newitz brings an empathetic clarity to the experience of being employed. Anyone who has slotted into a corporate system whose executive team was far out of view will find themselves witnessed by this book.

My favorite bits involve the places where the powerful are just pathologically incurious, and how this creates long term consequences for their influence. Reads so true to life for me.

There’s also great stuff in here about the raw, utilitarian mechanics of colonialism broadly: far-off people craving yet more wealth, making social and infrastructure decisions for people they’ll never meet, who have no recourse.

…but am I also the oppressor?

Good speculative fiction challenges as much as it validates.

Newitz also asks through this work whether we are complicit ourselves in the everyday oppression of innocent lives yearning to be free. Not since James Herriot have I seen so many animals depicted with love, compassion and centrality to the story.

Unlike Herriot, Newitz is unbound by depression-era Britain’s technological limitations. Cybernetically enhanced, animals in The Terraformers text their companions, sharing their points of view and preferences, allowing them to be narrative prime-movers in their own right.

There’s delight in this: the thoughtful body language of cats figures prominently at points, and a wide cast of animal personalities appears throughout.

But the book is also pointed in its examination of how we, the readers, may relate to animals. Are we using our assessment of their intelligence as a convenient justification for their subjugation? Are we losing out on valuable insight to hard problems because we are, ourselves, incurious to the perspectives of our animal companions?

Perhaps most uncomfortably: how would such a justification eventually leak over into the control and oppression of other humans?

Implicit in The Terraformers—especially in its exploration of bioengineering and corporate slavery—is the argument that corporations would treat us all like livestock if they thought they could get away with it. Maybe we should start asking whether livestock is even a valid category before it envelopes us entirely.

A thesis for a better world

But Newitz is not here to depress us.

Shot through the entire book is a bone-deep commitment to something hopeful and better than what we know today. Throughout the tale, we witness resistance on a spectrum of strategic forms: through journalism, through non-participation, through activist demonstration, through violence and non-violence, and of course, resistance through mutual aid. Despite this, there’s also sobriety about the frustrating pace of change, and just how messy consensus and governance can be.

And a good case for why we have to work at it all anyway.

Moreover, as a real-life technology cycle rife with exploitation and neocolonial intent comes to a close, it’s timely that The Terraformers explores how corporate-born technology can be bent toward self-determination and shared civic good. All around us are the tools to create completely novel solutions to big problems. We just need to take the time to dream them into existence, and work at the resources needed to sustain them.

It’s not enough to shine a light on the problems. A good novel in this space lights up the levers. The Terraformers strikes a great balance between sober assessment of what hurts, and an optimistic vision for what we can do to change it.

Go grab this book.

The Terraformers, by Annalee Newitz, wants to talk about social stratification The Terraformers, by Annalee Newitz, wants to talk about social stratification