Billionaires such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos dream of making Mars more like Earth, or seeing millions of people living and working in space — but could such dreams ever be turned into reality?
In a new novel titled “The Terraformers,” science writer Annalee Newitz imagines that tens of thousands of years from now, future billionaires (who are likely to be quintillionaires by then) will figure out exactly how to tailor planets to their customers’ liking. Which wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing.
“There’s a lot of hand-wavy technologies that we would’ve had to have invented,” Newitz admits in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “You know, I do think it’s realistic that humans are going to eventually try to set up shop off Earth in some way. … So I think for me, the question is: terraforming in the name of what, and under the auspices of what organizations.”
The environmental issues on the one planet that we’re currently capable of terraforming — our own — illustrate how tricky things can get when you start tweaking a planet’s parameters. You could argue that we’re already reshaping Earth’s environment to pump more greenhouse gases into the air, adding to a terraforming trend that’s getting us into more and more trouble.
In an effort to reverse the trend, a group of Harvard researchers proposed conducting an experiment in Sweden that would eventually involve spraying particles into the upper atmosphere to dim the sun’s warming effect. But the experiment was put on hold after an outcry from the region’s indigenous residents and conservationists.
Even the experiment’s principal investigator admits that solar geoengineering probably isn’t a great idea. “I seriously hope we’ll never get in a situation where this actually has to be done, because I still think this is a very scary concept and something will go wrong,” Harvard’s Frank Keutsch told MIT Technology Review. “But at the same time, I think better understanding what the risks may be is very important.”
When it comes to other planets, some suggestions sound even scarier. A few years ago, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said one way to make Mars warmer and more Earthlike would involve setting off nuclear bombs above the Red Planet’s atmosphere to vaporize the ice caps.
“Not risky … and can be adjusted/improved real time,” Musk tweeted.
Newitz said such schemes to geoengineer Earth’s environment — or the environments of other planets — “raise a lot of questions for me.”
“In my novel, I have a terraforming project which is being run by an interstellar real-estate development corporation, which I think is kind of realistic,” said Newitz, who uses they/them pronouns. “I mean, it’s basically the equivalent of billionaires in space.”
But the billionaires aren’t the ones doing the work. The terraformers of “The Terraformers” are a motley crew of Homo sapiens, plus other flavors of hominin species, plus totally non-human workers ranging from cats and moose to naked mole rats and earthworms. “They’re just typical first responders and construction workers and environmental engineers just trying to get by,” Newitz said.
“I can imagine the future of terraforming being kind of like Amazon warehouse workers in space,” they explained.
One of the novel’s crazy twists is that the workers aren’t conceived in the traditional way. Instead, they’re manufactured in bioreactors, which gives their corporate overlords the option of providing full human-scale intelligence (even for earthworms!) — or tamping down their intelligence if they’re meant to do menial tasks.
“It’s this kind of built-in limiter on people’s brains that can be removed, and is only put in there essentially through cruelty and through a kind of Homo sapiens supremacy,” Newitz said.
As you can imagine, that’s one of the sources of conflict driving the plot. An even bigger question has to do with who owns the property when a private enterprise takes charge of a planet. That question has long been debated in policy circles. In 2015, Congress enacted a law that supported private property rights while leaving aside the issue of extraterrestrial territorial claims.
The remodeled world that’s the focus of “The Terraformers” starts out being a privately owned planet.
“It’s owned by these real-estate companies,” Newitz said. “So there’s a movement for a public planet, and for public transit, and for public land. I think that’s a really basic lesson that cities have had to learn over and over again. … Having accessible transit, giving people mobility, giving people access to education and housing and health care, all of that stuff is part of providing good infrastructure in a city.”
When it comes to the subject of cities, Newitz has more than science fiction in mind. For a previous book titled “Four Lost Cities,” Newitz talked to historians and urban planners about what the rise and fall of ancient cities can teach us about making modern cities work.
“Workers are the people who make the city wonderful,” Newitz said. “These people are the lifeblood of the city. It’s not the dude living in a tower with a billion dollars. He has nothing to do with what makes a city good. So, I think one of the things that’s a very easy lesson to learn is, don’t mistreat your workers.”
Newitz, who lives in San Francisco, said the tale of “The Terraformers” draws in part upon personal experiences and observations.
“I think we’re going through a period in our history, especially in places like Seattle and San Francisco, where the tech industry is slowly awakening people to the idea that maybe they need to have more worker solidarity,” they said. “That’s something that I deal with a little bit in ‘The Terraformers.'”
Newitz has a lot of fun with the non-human characters in the novel — including some R-rated references to robot sex in the year 60,610 — but by the end of the book, you’re likely to be reflecting more deeply on the prospects for cities and societies on 21st-century Earth.
Listen to a chug-chugging excerpt from “The Terraformers,” featuring an intelligent cat named Moose, a sentient train named Scrubjay, and the song created by a gathering of trains:
Cosmic Log Used Book Club
For a somewhat less fictional discussion of the prospects for terraforming Mars and other planets, you can turn to “The Future of Humanity” by physicist Michio Kaku — or to this Inverse.com interview with Kaku and retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield.
One of the top items on Newitz’s reading list is “The Red Scholar’s Wake” by Aliette de Bodard.
“It is about a sentient spaceship having a romantic relationship with an engineer, and they get married in a formal ceremony, and then they learn to fall in love with each other in the midst of this massive imperial battle,” Newitz says in the podcast. “It’s a character study, but it’s also very much about family and found family. And of course it’s a relationship between a spaceship and a person, which I think we’ve already established I find really awesome.”
Newitz also got a sneak peek at “Bitter Medicine,” a fantasy adventure novel by Mia Tsai that’s due for release in March.
“It’s like James Bond crossed with, um, ‘Supernatural,'” Newitz says. “There’s elves and other supernatural creatures, and their magic is tied to various kinds of medicine. I can’t even explain it. It’s a delightful romance spy thriller with magic and elves. You just have to read it.”
“Red Scholar’s Wake” sounds like a good choice for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which is finishing up its 20th year of existence. The CLUB Club highlights books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to show up at your local library or secondhand book shop. Over the past two decades, we’ve put more than 100 books (including alternate selections) on the list.
Annalee Newitz is in the midst of a book tour for “The Terraformers,” and their itinerary includes a conversation with Seattle librarian Misha Stone at Third Place Books Ravenna at 7 p.m. Feb. 3, co-sponsored by the Seattle Public Library. Newitz will also do a meet-up and book signing at Fuel Coffee’s café in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood at 4 p.m. Feb. 5.
My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. To learn more about Phetteplace, visit her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.
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