A Different Bargain with Nature: On Annalee Newitz’s “The Terraformers”

By Christian P. HainesAugust 24, 2023

A Different Bargain with Nature: On Annalee Newitz’s “The Terraformers”

The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz

ANNALEE NEWITZ’S new novel The Terraformers opens with an invasion, an alien settler delighting in the conquest of apparently pristine forest. This latter-day Christopher Columbus is a “joyrider,” a slab of flesh remotely controlled from the safety of a distant star system, freeloading on another planet’s ecosystem. But Sask-E, the planet on which the novel takes place, isn’t some prehistoric wilderness. It’s a development project, owned by an interstellar real estate corporation, managed by a team of scientists. And it’s a terraforming operation, a grand engineering project to make a planet habitable—and then sell it off to the highest bidder. No Romantic fantasies of a war between nature and industry—when it comes to terraforming, nature is always already entangled with human history.

When Destry, one of the novel’s three protagonists, protests the joyrider’s invasion of Sask-E, she’s not lamenting nature’s disappearance, as if the land were losing its innocence. She’s advancing a critique of a particular way of relating to nature:

As long as the carbon cycle was unperturbed, they could proceed on schedule and stabilize all the interlocking environmental systems. Any extra load on a freshly built ecosystem like the boreal forest might set them back centuries.

And now some joyrider from who knows where thought he could chew through their labor like he was entitled to it.

The problem is less the joyrider’s presence than the fact that he is treating the planet as a stock of disposable resources. “Home is a bargain with nature,” reads the Environmental Rescue Team Handbook, a fictional manual of ecological principles from which Newitz draws the chapter epigraphs. That nature isn’t pure and prehistorical doesn’t mean you can take what you want from it or do what you want to it. A bargain with nature is a two-way street. It implies an ecosystem in delicate equilibrium. At the heart of Newitz’s novel is an ethics of “balance”: you should only take as much as you give, and that give-and-take implies community, participation, belonging—a commons.

The Terraformers is a post-Anthropocene novel. It was written in the wake of the Anthropocene as a concept and a discourse, a way of talking not just about climate change or environmental catastrophe but also about the distinctly human renovation of the earth. For geologists, the Anthropocene names, tentatively, a period during which human civilization has left indelible marks on the planet. There are debates about the dating of the Anthropocene and its causes (did it begin with the Neolithic Revolution? with settler colonialism in the Americas? with the first atomic bomb detonations?), but these different positions share a sense that the human species has pushed Earth’s systems towards some new condition. Newitz’s novel is a critical response to this conversation, an effort to revise the imaginary organizing our planetary relations, what Mark Bould calls the “Anthropocene unconscious.” It’s an effort to socialize the Anthropocene, reframing it not as an inevitable outcome of human civilization but as a product of social systems, especially capitalism and colonialism. In other words, the Anthropocene is not the product of the human species as a whole, nor is it a product of some innate human drive or instinct. It’s an effect of social logics and power relations. When The Terraformers raises ecological concerns—like water use rights or the determination of what counts as an invasive species—they’re described as social and political matters. Newitz never uses the term, but I’m tempted to say that The Terraformers is less interested in the Anthropocene than in the “Capitalocene,” Jason W. Moore’s term for capitalism’s radical transformation of world ecology.

The Terraformers is also post-Anthropocene in imagining a period after the Anthropocene. The narrative alludes to historical events on Earth that overturned oppositions between society and nature, as well as between human and nonhuman animals. The Farm Revolutions “ended the Anthropocene on Earth, and started the calendar system people still used today.” They resulted in “a new form of agriculture”—the “Great Bargain,” which was a “way to open communication with other life forms in order to manage the land more democratically.” On the most literal level, the Great Bargain explains why Newitz’s novel is filled with talking cows, naked mole rat engineers, and one very sarcastic door. More generally, it’s the origin of an ecological—indeed, planetary—reorientation: if home is a bargain with nature, The Terraformers reconceives of home as something other than a fortress sheltering a dominant species from nonhuman threats. Home is an expanding network of life; it’s an ongoing negotiation with new partners being added all the time.

The narrative of The Terraformers tracks this expansion, each of the novel’s three sections widening the different kinds of persons or characters that make up its community: the first section tells of the encounter between one version of the human species (H. sapiens) and another (H. archaeans). The latter were supposed to have vanished after jump-starting the terraforming project, going extinct for the sake of a vision of economic progress from which they’ve been excluded. The second section brings H. diversus (genetically modified offshoots of H. sapiens) into the picture. They are enslaved workers, building cities for future gentrifiers. And the third section radically displaces humanoid characters, centering on a sentient public transit train and a feline investigative reporter who become friends and lovers, as well as leaders of a revolution.

This widening gyre of sentience stands as a counterpoint to the usual Anthropocene story. It replaces the tragic tale of humankind ruining nature with a speculative history of human and nonhuman species building planets together. “Speculative” not because it’s out of touch with empirical history but because it extrapolates a possible future from the material realities of what Donna Haraway has called “sympoiesis”: a “making-with,” “a worlding-with,” the construction of life as so many “symbiotic assemblages.” Haraway draws on evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis’s hypothesis that eukaryotic cells, the building blocks of multicellular organisms, developed from endosymbiotic relations. According to this theory, complex life has its origins in the integration of formerly independent organisms: mitochondria and chloroplasts, organelles central to respiration and photosynthesis in animals and plants, were once bacteria, eventually merging with their host organisms. This model of evolution privileges cooperation over competition. It may not entirely do away with evolution as the survival of the fittest, but it complicates the story by suggesting that new forms of life can emerge from partnerships, from cooperation, from companionship.

Newitz is part of an intellectual and artistic movement reimagining planetary life in more egalitarian terms. They join critical theorists like Haraway and Moore, as well as novelists like Jeff VanderMeer and Kim Stanley Robinson, in contextualizing social systems in the natural history of planets. In The Terraformers, capitalism is ecological, meaning it’s less some outside power forcing itself on nature than a particular way of organizing land and species, weather and water, human and nonhuman beings. Newitz hammers this point home with a provocative trope: all the persons in the novel, from the humanoid characters like Destry to the sentient trains and talking cats, are “decanted” from proprietary “templates.” They’re designed and engineered, drawing on historical genomes, tweaked by technicians, then fabricated by the far-future version of 3D printers (think the flesh-weaving apparatuses in HBO’s Westworld). They are, in short, commodities.

To their credit, Newitz doesn’t shy away from the concept’s historical associations with modern transatlantic slavery: the titular terraformers are owned, ranked according to intelligence, graded according to how well they perform their assigned tasks, and exterminated when they make trouble or revolt. This trope begins as an estranging background element, a narrative device blurring the line between nature and artifice, asking what happens when sentient beings get treated like mere tools. However, it eventually becomes a pivot point in the narrative, as characters begin raising questions about the intellectual property rights Verdance holds over the H. sapiens and H. archaeans working on the corporation’s private planet. Are they pure commodities, creatures fabricated as perfect worker replicants, or are their origins messier, a sympoietic crosshatching of evolutionary histories?

But what’s truly speculative in the novel is not capitalism’s fusion with nature—that’s all too realistic—but rather the way Newitz arrays other social possibilities against interstellar capitalism. Sometimes these possibilities are small in scale, as in, for example, the sex scenes that dot the second section of the novel. In one of these scenes, an H. archaeans, Sulfur, whose sexual organs are described as “petals” and “stamen,” and an H. sapiens, Misha, whose entire body has been turned into a surveillance device by Verdance, find a way to experience shared ecstasy: “As Sulfur lost control, rhythm getting rougher, Misha cried out in a voice that made him sound like any other mammal. He was no longer an H. sapiens, but simply a body against Sulfur’s body.”

Sometimes, though, these imaginative possibilities encompass continents, turning Sask-E into a laboratory for testing out new kinds of social formations.

For example, the novel’s first section asks what it would mean to recognize a river as a social partner, as a being possessing history and desire. A river may not be able to talk, but one can consider its inclinations and tendencies, the path that it carves through the land. To take a recent example, what would it mean to handle the ongoing dispute over rights to the Colorado River with a mind to what benefits not only Arizona, California, and Nevada but also the river itself?

The last section of the novel speculates on what it would mean to imagine a “public planet,” a planet run democratically instead of ruled over by real estate companies. The revolution that constitutes the novel’s climax makes social liberation synonymous with collective and individual rights to decide what all kinds of bodies can do. It’s about who gets to count as a person, how cities get managed, how resources are shared, what decision-making looks like, and a great deal more. It’s a messy revolution in several senses: People get hurt. Change happens, but problems persist. New forms of governance emerge, but their shapes are tentative. The planet remains contested terrain:

The governments that grew in [the corporations’] absence would take every possible shape, and none would be anywhere near perfect. Instead of a virgin Pleistocene frontier, Sasky was like every other planet that Earth people had occupied—a chunk of rock and biomass stolen and re-stolen so many times that even its humblest microbes were of decidedly sketchy provenance.

The power of Annalee Newitz’s The Terraformers lies in the way it turns the Anthropocene into a transitional period—an interregnum between one way of relating to the planet and another. If we’re going to stick with the term “Anthropocene,” then it can’t be an apocalypse, as if this epoch were a long and inevitable slide into oblivion. Nor can it be a simple problem, as if some quick technological fix might spring from the head of a billionaire to save the human species. I find the term “Capitalocene” more compelling because it immediately flags the social dimensions of our relations with nature, but I doubt that that term will catch on to the same degree as the Anthropocene. The task, it seems to me, is to develop our speculative capacities on a planetary scale, not just to bear witness to injustice and destruction but also to imagine a different bargain with nature, a different kind of home.


Christian Haines is an associate professor of English at Penn State University.

LARB Contributor

Christian Haines is an associate professor of English at Penn State University and a managing editor of Gamers with Glasses. He’s also the author of the book A Desire Called America: Biopolitics, Utopia, and the Literary Commons (2019). You can hear him discuss video games on The Gamers with Glasses Show podcast (on Apple Podcasts and Spotify).


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!