Science writer Annalee Newitz has their eye on the future, but not necessarily our future. Their fantastic new book The Terraformers is a vision of things to come on a far-off planet, thousands of years from now. There are some sci-fi twists, like sentient trains that fall in love with talking cats, but at its heart, the book is a fascinating reflection of human history, our tendency to repeat mistakes, and the difficulty we seem to have in treating each other (and our environment) with compassion.
It’s also a super queer book. “It’s a world where there’s a lot more room for identities to be shaped by things other than gender,” Newitz says. They’ll be passing through Seattle this week for a talk at Third Place Books on Friday, February 3 and a book signing at Fuel Coffee in Wallingford on Sunday, February 5.
We caught up with Newitz for a phone interview to talk about the origins of their new book, how it reflects the current transformation of certain American cities, and the opinions of worms and cats.
What was the genesis of this book?
I’ve been thinking sort of two things. One, this is like a lot of books coming out now, a pandemic book, so I was really thinking of escapism a lot. That came down to thinking about childhood pleasures like Beatrix Potter, Rescue Rangers, stories where humans and animals work together to protect things or manage the environment. So I started thinking about this world where people are not just homo sapiens, but also different kinds of animals. I’ve always loved moose and cats, so immediately those characters came to mind.
I also, in my more thinky brain … was thinking about ways that storytelling can help us think about how we manage the environment because of course we’re in an environmental crisis. … I really think that one of our big issues right now, culturally, is that we don’t have a lot of stories that are multigenerational about solving big problems. In the environmental movement, which I follow very closely, there's a lot of frustration because we want to fix things right now, but these are problems that it took us generations to get into and they’re going to be with us for generations to come.
Having a story about how the environment has changed over many generations and how we cope with that is something I was thinking of quite consciously, and that's why I chose to have it take place over this ridiculous amount of time, 16,000 years.
That reminds me of Frank Herbert’s Dune.
Like any right-thinking person I love Dune … I’ve enjoyed all the movies, including the apocryphal David Lynch movie.
Frank Herbert was also thinking about how you write a really fun story with exciting elements but is also about environmental change and how imperialism is a form of environmental destruction. It has been hugely influential and inspirational. I was also thinking of Octavia Butler, whose trilogy Lilith's Brood is also about transforming the environment. And Tuca & Bertie, about a world of animal people who are dealing with moss gentrifying their world.
What I wanted to do as a storyteller was create a world where we could think of the environment as someone who sits at the table and talks to us. … A couple characters have sensors built into their bodies that allow them to connect to a huge network of sensors all over the planet … that allow us to track the health of ecosystems. They reach down … touch the soil, and connect to these tiny sensors that give feedback like, “Oh, nitrogen levels are a little low, there’s a group of trees here that need more water, there’s a group of animals being predated at levels that are a little too high to maintain the balance.”
I really wanted for the environment to talk back, and to have characters who were not humans—moose, cats, trains—to show how every living thing in the environment brings something to it and probably has an opinion, too. I love hearing the opinions of worms and cats.
It seems like kind of an anthology, with the periodic time jumps.
Some people are describing it as three interlinked novellas, which isn’t wrong. Each section really goes quite deeply into one or two characters. It’s really character-focused, they’re dealing with big—literally global—issues. They’re also dealing with bad romances and squabbles with their roommates and terrible bosses.
I wanted to kind of give people three snapshots of this planet as it moves from being largely unsettled by homo sapiens … all the way up to at the end, the final section is called Gentrifiers, and it’s about how the planet is full of cities and new waves of people are coming in and displacing and sometimes killing people who lived there before. It's very much a reflection of my own experiences in San Francisco where I've watched two waves of gentrification come through in the last 20 years.
How much was it informed by your writing about real-life technology?
Completely. With almost all of my fiction, I start by interviewing scientists and other experts, and in this case, I had to do a lot of that. I wanted to know how you’d build an atmosphere and a continent, so I talked to geologists, river experts … and a transit expert because I have a character who’s a train. I talked to experts in different social organizations.
It's based on those interviews, but also my first nonfiction book was about mass extinction, which required me to go into the history of mass extinctions on Earth, which got me acquainted with how many mass extinctions have occurred on Earth. … So in this book, there’s a whole bunch of little ecosystem jokes. If you're a geologist and you know about ecosystems that existed 200 million years ago, you’ll catch a few jokes about that.
There's definitely a lot of my thinking from my science journalism that winds up in this book for sure.
To what extent is this your prediction of an actual future?
I'm one of those sci-fi writers who doesn't believe you can predict the future. I'm not a wizard, as much as I've tried to be one. I think what I'm doing here is trying as much as possible to be aware of how much my vision of the future is influenced by my vision of where I come from and when I come from.
That said, I think we can extrapolate both from human history and geological history, and think about where we might be if, for example, we have many social transformations, many tech advances, but we’re still grappling with hyper-capitalism. That’s one of the questions the book asks. There are many things that change about humanity over time, but we have the same problems again and again. We go to war, we take each other’s territory, we find it easy to define people as not being people. That's one of the things in the book, is who gets to define what a person is and who gets rights.
How queer is this vision of the future?
I tried to throw in some straight stuff. I don't want people to feel left out. I think there’s like one heterosexual relationship that happened in the past, and there’s a heterosexual relationship between two moose.
There are a lot of creatures who don’t really have gender. There's a cat who’s nonbinary. There’s a train who’s nonbinary and they hook up. A lot of people seem to think this book is very queer and that’s probably why. There's a lot of romance and sex between people who are not heterosexual and who don’t really have our concept of gender.
It's easy to imagine that new ideas about gender have risen and fallen between now and when this book takes place. There’s a lot of hierarchy, haves, and have-nots. But they’re not gendered. When you have so many people who are not homo sapiens, the difference is different. If you can have a train having sex with a cat, suddenly gender doesn’t seem like it really maps onto that.
It’s a world where there’s a lot more room for identities to be shaped by things other than gender.
What do you hope readers come away with?
First, I hope to give them relief from all of the stress and scariness out there right now. This really was a book I wrote for myself to escape.
But after that, I hope that they come away with a different understanding of what it is to be a person. A different feeling about their relationship to time and how connected we are to people who will live after us, even thousands of years after us. We think a lot about how we are connected to people who are distant in space, but not so much about time.
I want people to have a little more compassion for future generations and for all life forms, not just their best friends who are homo sapiens.
Annalee Newitz will speak at Third Place Books Fri, Feb 3 at 7 pm, and sign copies of their book at Fuel Coffee Sun, Feb 5, at 4 pm. Both events are free.