The Terraformers, by Annalee Newitz
It’s 50,000+ years in the future in Annalee Newitz’s far future novel, and goodness are things different. Beings are not born, they are “decanted” for specific roles and purposes, and the blanket term “human” is no longer a thing – although hominins (human-like beings who can live for hundreds of years), homosapiens, and homodiversus (a “catchall subspecies name for hundreds of customized hominin builds”) are human presenting. But h. sapiens are the only beings who could “truly nurture the terroir of Earthlike ecosystems”, and the privately held planet Sask-E (known on planet as Sasky) is being terraformed to
become an “Earth-away-from-Earth, a special world that honored humanity’s origins,” bolstering their apex caste status.
However, human presenting beings are not the only highly sentient creatures in this future. Moose, cows, cats, drones, naked mole rats, and remotes presenting as combinations (organic and inorganic, even) all communicate and interact in society. Yup. A hominin would not even bat an eye at a talking cow – one that can fly – or discount a naked mole rat as just a stupid animal.
However, for all it’s strangeness and just plain different-ness, things are still the same. There is a casual bigotry that is plain to see, dependent on a creature’s “intelligence assessment” (mockingly known as an “InAss” rating), often which is built into a creature’s decanting. For instance, a hominin known as “Blessed” are decanted to fill particular service roles – such as a chef – and insomuch, can only speak of things associated with their job: the chef can only speak of food and food preparation. Mounts – creatures considered low on the InAss rating, can only speak words that are mono-syllabic. The beings in those bodies may have more complex thoughts and feelings, but they cannot express them.
The novel introduces us to Destry, a hominin decanted to be a ranger with the Environmental Rescue Team (ERT) on Sasky, who, along with her moose mount, Whistle, patrol the Maskwa continent taking readings on her organic sensors and ensuring that the developing planet is kept in strict environmental balance per the guidelines of Verdance, the corporation responsible for Sasky’s terraformation. But when Destry and her team stumbles across a clandestine community of h. archaeans – a subspecies of h. diversus built during the first phase of the terraforming operation that was supposed to have died out a thousand years earlier – that the social balance of Sasky is thrown into turmoil, both morally and politically.
The Terraformers is a sparkling, ingenious novel that almost fairy-tale delights at the character level (I mean, talking naked mole rats!) and yet carries a lot of emotional punch as corporate greed, gentrification, social bias, discrimination and pettiness show us that the future is not all that different from the present – but also that grassroots revolution, thinking outside the norm, and caring beyond yourself can still go far in winning the day, despite the cost. This book is in turn mind-blowing, endearing, and enraging; no, strike that – it’s all those things but constantly mind-blowing (oh, my gosh, Whistle’s story arc is in and of itself amazing). It’s definitely worth checking out.