Annalee Newitz on Writing Stories That Reveal a Pathway Out of Dark Times
In Conversation with Brenda Noiseux and Rob Wolf on the New Books Network
In their new novel, The Terraformers, Annalee Newitz leaps 60,000 years into the future, redefining ideas of peoplehood, democracy and love
A diverse array of characters—hominids, animals, and objects that in 2023 are still considered inanimate, such as doors and trains—are “people” in this multi-generational story about a corporation terraforming their privately-held planet Sask-E and their workers (which the corporation owns as part of their “proprietary ecosystem development kit,”) who want to turn Sask-E into a public, democratically-governed territory.
The plot tracks the nitty-gritty of building complex things—environments, relationships, governments—as Sask-E evolves over thousands of years into a pseudo replica of Pleistocene Earth. Newitz’s heroes are members of the Environmental Rescue Team, an interplanetary force of first responders and environmental engineers who keep ecosystems in balance and stage disaster rescues. Apart from a fanciful invention called a “gravity mesh,” which allows some characters to fly, Newitz—who is also an award-winning writer of non-fiction—grounded the story in science.
I really did try to have a very grounded, scientifically accurate approach to ecosystems. For example, when Destry, my network analyst, connects to the environment, she has these sensors in her hands, which allow her to read a vast sensor network all over the planet. The Environmental Rescue Team has scattered these tiny, microscopic biodegradable sensors so that they can read the health of the trees, soil, insects, everything. So it gives Destry this almost magical connection to the planet Avatar-style, except it’s not some hokey Tree-of-Life thing. It’s just a sensor network, much like sensor networks that we’re developing now on Earth and using in a lot of places.
From the episode:
Rob Wolf: What made you want to write this optimistic book about the positive directions a society can move when everyone works together in a collaborative, equitable and democratic way?
Annalee Newitz: For a long time, I had been thinking about a story where a lot of the characters were non-human animals. I always loved stories about that. I grew up reading Beatrix Potter and watching Lassie’s Rescue Rangers. And still, when I’m feeling sad or scared, I sometimes think about Lassie’s Rescue Rangers, like, They’ll save us. And so I had that in the back of my mind.
And then…the pandemic was really tough and the political situation in the United States was unstable. I feel like in dark times, it’s really important to write stories that show a pathway out, and a big, sprawling, multigenerational book is a place to show at least some of those pathways.
RW: The non-human characters are referred to as people. But some people have limits on how they communicate. They’re assigned ratings in a way that feels like a caste system. Could you talk a little bit about that?
AN: It is a caste system. This is a future where all of the beings we meet are fabricated. They’ve been genetically engineered—grown in tanks—and when they are “decanted,” which is what they say for being born, they’re basically adults with certain kinds of intelligence built in. I use the term intelligence very guardedly, because the caste system is one of intelligence.
They have what are called “intelligence assessment ratings,” which are something that’s actually regulated by an interstellar interplanetary agency. Not every community we meet uses them, but anyone is permitted to use them. And basically what happens is that when certain creatures are being built, they’re built with limiters in their brains. It’s not that they are actually less intelligent, but simply that they can’t express themselves in ways that make them sound intelligent.
So [the moose] Whistle is only able to write in monosyllabic words. He winds up sounding like a child even though in his head he has all of these multi-syllabic words—he’s just not permitted to express them.
Many of the characters refer to these ratings as in InAss ratings because you have to have your head in your ass to buy into intelligence assessment. I think if people could do something like this today they would because there’s a real obsession among humans on Earth right now with the idea that you can measure intelligence and that we can allocate jobs based on it, we can make determinations about people’s future based on it, even though, as we start to build artificial intelligence, we’re realizing that we have no fricking clue what intelligence is.
There’s a million kinds of intelligence. There’s almost no way to measure it. It’s this ineffable thing. It’s like love. You can’t measure love either. But we talk about it all the time like you can. So it was something that has really preoccupied me a lot. And I really go pretty deep on it in this book, dealing with prejudices around what intelligence is and how people are imprisoned by the way that they’re treated based on how intelligent they seem.
RW: I think that calling everyone “people” changes how we think of them. Cats are people. Naked mole rats are people. Some earthworms are people. Even a particular door in the book is a person.
AN: I wanted people to think about the environment in the same way we think about each other, and when I say “each other,” I mean when we think about the communities of people we care about. In the European culture of the West, we’ve been taught to see humans as “us” and everything else as “them.” And, of course, among humans, we also have a lot of “us” and “them” too. I think this almost fairytale approach to imbuing everything in the environment with life was my way of getting people to think, Oh, wait, the tree has life, the train has life, the naked mole rat has life. All of us have life because we all have a role to play in the ecosystem around us.
RW: One thing that recurs in each major section of the book is love. There are moose falling in love with moose and an archaic form of hominid who falls in love with a Homo sapien. I can get my mind around those. And then there is a cat falling in love with a flying train. That’s a little harder to fathom, although you make it believable because the characters feel real. I was wondering if there was something you hope readers take from these stories of these loving relationships among people who, at least externally, are very different.
AN: Again, it’s about how do we empathize with our environment? And the environment doesn’t just include plants and animals and humans. The environment is everything. And I wanted to model what it looks like for creatures who are not the same species or not the same type of built creature to love each other because they have common cause or because they both like video games.
One of the big shifts in our understanding of Neanderthals came about when the DNA from a Neanderthal fingerbone was sequenced at the Max Planck Institute. What it revealed was that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals had been having children together the whole time. It wasn’t just once. A lot of us have a little bit of DNA from Neanderthal ancestors, and I’m sure that’s true of other archaic humans, early humans as well. All of these different humans were falling in love, or at least having sex and reproducing.
And I wanted to evoke that and point out that in order for us to live in balance, we have to extend love in places that we might not expect. A lot of this book is about having uprisings against systemic oppression. In this case, it’s capitalism, because they’re dealing with a couple of very greedy real estate corporations. And I really believe that if we’re going to fight something that is systemic, it has to be sustained by love and community.
Annalee Newitz writes science fiction and nonfiction. They are the author of Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age and Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, which was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize in science. They’re also the author of the novels The Future of Another Timeline, and Autonomous, which won the Lambda Literary Award. As a journalist, they are a writer for the New York Times and elsewhere, and have a monthly column in New Scientist. They are also the co-host of the Hugo Award-winning podcast Our Opinions Are Correct. Previously, they were the founder of io9, and served as the editor-in-chief of Gizmodo.
Rob Wolf is a writer and co-host of New Books in Science Fiction.