Review: Annalee Newitz’s The Terraformers Sacrifices Plot and Pacing to Make a Point

The Terraformers as created by generative AI.

The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz sounded like a book I’d enjoy. “A science fiction epic for our times and a love letter to our future, The Terraformers will take you on a journey spanning thousands of years and exploring the triumphs, strife, and hope that find us wherever we make our home.” (Amazon) However, while I was intrigued by the first section that included Destry, my interest began to wane until it finally withered away while I skimmed to the end.

Welcome to the Blurbs

Blurbs can be misleading. Sometimes, they help a new writer gain traction. At their best, blurbs are an endorsement. At their worst, blurbs are a marketing obfuscation. In the case of The Terraformers, the blurbs felt misleading. They kick off with N. K. Jemisin, James Corey, Martha Wells, and John Scalzi, big names in science fiction, yet the novel fails to measure up to the quality of those writers, except maybe Scalzi.

Sacrificing Plot and Pacing

The plot of The Terraformers can be boiled down to enslaved corporate workers who rebel over the course of thousands of years to take control of the planet they’ve been making habitable for life in a (hopefully) sustainable way. That sounds interesting, but how did it play out?

The action is slow due to political organizing and community conversations. Would you rather see Princess Leia fighting the Empire or the slow scenes of the Senate in the Prequels? Repeated meetings may be interesting to think of how people can solve problems, but it makes for boring scenes.

I was reminded of Occupy Wall Street hand signals as the Environmental Rescue Team held their meetings.

The pacing is also slowed down by the thousands of years covered and multiple characters introduced. I thought of Dune having a long timeline, but that worked because the books were separate. If Sask-E had been more of a character would the pacing have been better?

Flat Characters, Friend!

There are Environmental Rescue Team Rangers, no not Rescue Rangers. Destry, the first main character is an ERT Ranger. She has a flying, talking moose friend named Whisper. There’s a drone named Hellfire&Crisp. There are other characters as well, but the characters fail to lift off the page. They all have the same goals. They are all so optimistic. They all love ending their sentences with exclamation points! And, Friend! The two corporate characters are also one-dimensionally manipulative and inhuman. Is that interesting? Not to me.

Cozy Sci-Fi Focus on Vibes and Safety

I’m on the lower end of the cozy sci-fi spectrum. I enjoy Martha Wells’ Murderbot Series. I find Becky Chambers boring at best. The goal of cozy sci-fi seems to be to evoke a sense of comfort and safety. The dystopia has happened and we’re now in some better, yet unexplained circumstances. That doesn’t quite fit with the slavery of The Terraformers, but the terraforming techniques and communication with all lifeforms to rehabilitate an out-of-balance ecosystem does fit cozy science fiction. The coziness seems to come through an acceptance of life forms, perspectives, and gender. I did find the use of gender pronouns to be a nearsighted choice as it felt like something from our current time period and not of the far future. If everyone is grown in a lab and has technology integrated into their bodies and gender isn’t a big deal, why wouldn’t that preference be part of their identity in the same way that they all have IDs broadcast on personal frequencies? Is cozy sci-fi meant to take things that writers and readers are worried and scared about, and create a world where those issues no longer exist?

These Aren’t the Droids You’re Looking For

This book wasn’t for me. I skimmed the last two-thirds of it because I was curious how it ended. The ending was easily telegraphed with a small surprise that was a nice touch. But there’s nothing for the reader to infer. Nothing to reach for. Take care of the environment. A better way is possible! Corporations are always gonna screw you over. Now, let’s grab some vegan tacos from the grab table and settle in.

Tim Lepczyk

Writer, Technologist, and Librarian.

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