Annalee Newitz’s newest science fiction novel, “The Terraformers,” is a sprawling saga set 60,000 years in the future.
But what’s more fascinating is how Newitz is redefining what it means to be human. The novel’s characters include a flying moose named Whistle, a sentient passenger train, and an alternate human subspecies who has built a secret city under a volcano.
When Newitz set out to imagine the details of this exotic fantasy world, where a nefarious corporation seeks to reshape a planet into a better version of Earth, the first step was to talk to real scientists.
“I worked as a journalist for about a decade before I started writing novels,” Newitz explains. “And my journalism has always been focused on science and often cutting-edge science, and it still is. So it’s definitely always in some way up against speculative thinking.”
“I always start by interviewing not just scientists, but people who are experts in the subjects I’m going to cover in the book.”
On March 28, Newitz joins the LA Times Book Club for a lively conversation about “The Terraformers.”
Newitz founded the science fiction website io9 and later served as editor-in-chief at Gizmodo. The 53-year-old novelist, who grew up in Irvine and now lives in San Francisco, also writes non-fiction for publications such as New Scientist, Wired and Atlas Obscura.
The author, who uses their/their pronouns, speaks in a dazzling stream of words and balances discourse on topics such as robotics and earth science with self-deprecating jokes.
Newitz developed a style of deep research while working on their first novel, “Autonomous,” which was published in 2017.
“I was like, ‘Oh man, I really need to interview roboticists now, because I have no idea what I’m doing and I have a character who’s a robot,'” they recalled.
“In ‘The Terraformers,’ before I started writing, I wanted to figure out what kind of planet you’d choose to do a terraforming project on, given that you’re in the future and you could just look for planets. How would you begin?’
When you choose a planet, do you try to make all the cool things from Earth be there?”
But which parts of the Earth would you leave out? One thing that came up when Newitz talked to planetary scientists and geologists was plate tectonics, the movement of large parts of the Earth’s surface that builds mountains but also causes earthquakes and tsunamis. “I mean, the thing is, earthquakes are kind of frustrating for everybody, and of course you can get a tsunami even on the east coast. So it was interesting to think about it from that angle.”
Furthermore, “I have this giant river in the novel. I thought, “I literally have no idea how rivers work. I don’t know how they form,” says Newitz. This led them to contact US Geological Survey scientist P. Kyle House. Newitz asked House for suggestions on how the characters would dam a river. “It’s like, ‘Have you heard of lava dams, where volcanic rock and lava create a dam and change the course of the river?’ Newitz recalls. “And I said, ‘Of course, it makes sense that this should exist. This is so bad. This is definitely mentioned in the book.”
Newitz got the idea for “The Terraformers” from a friend, the poet Stephanie Burt. “I was struggling with what to write next, and he says, ‘You have to write a nation-building story. You know, what happens long after the revolution.”
This idea appealed to Newitz, who also saw an opportunity to write a multi-generational saga. “I used to read a lot of them as a kid and I always liked that feeling of, ‘Oh, now we can see what happens much later.’ I wanted to experiment with this format.”
In writing the novel, Newitz compiled a massive document—essentially a mini-encyclopedia about the planet Sask-E—to keep the details straight. One of the keys to writing science fiction, Newitz says, is trying to create an internally consistent fictional world. “I think that’s part of the pleasure for readers, too, because the more consistent the world is, the more you can immerse yourself in it and escape the wildly inconsistent world we live in.”
Filling out this saga with compelling characters was the next part of the evolution. And even though “The Terraformers” takes place on another planet in the distant future, Newitz still used the familiar technique of mining and re-inserting bits and pieces of old memories.
Destry, the novel’s tough but empathetic environmental ranger, is named after the title character in the film Destry Rides Again. In the 1939 Hollywood western, Jimmy Stewart plays the son of a legendary gunslinger who dislikes firearms and tries to avoid carrying them, despite being a skilled marksman. It is one of Newitz’s favorite films. “I’m all into Jimmy Stewart,” says the writer.
That’s fitting, because in a way, “The Terraformers” it looks more like a classic western than the bleak nightmarish future depicted in many science fiction novels and films. “I grew up in the West, in California. For me, then, all the great stories of a settlement are connected to westerns.” Newitz sees the novel as a “landscape,” a mix of utopia and dystopia, in which characters like Destri and her companion, the intelligent and emotional moose Whistle, struggle with what the place they build should be.
Newitz describes ranger Destry and the Environmental Rescue Team as “anti-imperialist settlers”. They try to negotiate with nature, rather than conquer it.
“Destry and Whistle are part of a team that’s not just a belief system,” says Newitz. “They are actively building this world. I love the idea of them roaming around the boreal forest and just trying to make sure the humans don’t mess it up and the predators aren’t out of balance with the herbivores, and stuff like that. There is a real connection between what they believe and what they do with their lives.”
The centuries-long scale of “The Terraformers” may remind some science fiction fans of “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” the Walter M. Miller Jr. novel. in 1959 for the revival of human civilization after a nuclear war. Newitz appreciates this classic, but says “it’s very much not my style, because it’s so misanthropic. “A Canticle for Leibowitz‘ it’s about how we never get out of our problems.”
Instead, Newitz imagines a future world in which genetically modified animal-human hybrids and intelligent machines stand up to injustice. Newitz drew inspiration from the indigenous people who protested against the pipelines and other activist movements.
The human and anthropomorphic characters in Newitz’s novel also have passionate experiences, sometimes despite their complex artificial anatomy. “I felt that it freed me to be more honest about what love and eroticism really are.”
Newitz is already working on a new novel of less scope, in addition to continuing his prolific journalistic output.
But the novelist may not end up with Sask-E or a future 60,000 years later.
“I’m not a sequel person, so it’s hard to imagine writing any kind of sequel,” says Newitz. “But obviously, never say never. Maybe when I’m 75, I’ll be like, “Man, I finally got it. I will do it again.”
If you go
What: Novelist Annalee Newitz unites it LA Times Book Club to discuss “The Terraformers” with the Times columnist Carolina A. Miranda.
When: March 28 in the 6 p.m. Peaceful.
Where: Live stream online. Sign up on Eventbrite for tracking links.
Come with us: Sign up for it Book Club Newsletter for the latest books, news and events.