Annalee Newitz’s most recent science fiction novel, “The Terraformers”, is a sprawling saga set 60,000 years in the future.
But what is most compelling is how Newitz redefines what it means to be a person. Characters in the novel include a flying moose named Whistle, an intelligent passenger train, and an alternate human subspecies who built a secret city under a volcano.
When Newitz set out to imagine the details of that exotic fantasy world, where a malevolent 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 a decade before I started writing fiction,” 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 a refresher against speculative thinking.”
“I always start by interviewing not just scientists, but people who are experts on the topics I’m going to cover in the book.”
In 28th MarchNewitz joins the LA Times Book Club for a live conversation about “The Terraformers.”
Newitz founded the sci-fi 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 nonfiction for publications like New Scientist, Wired, and Atlas Obscura.
Using the pronouns they/them, the author speaks in a dazzling stream of words, balancing his discourse on topics like robotics and earth sciences with self-deprecating quips.
Newitz developed a deep investigative style while working on her first novel, “Autonomous,” which was published in 2017.
“I was like, ‘Oh man, I really need to interview some robotics specialists now, because I have no idea what I’m doing, and I have a character that’s a robot,'” they recall.
“In ‘The Terraformers’, before I started writing, I wanted to understand what type of planet you would choose to do a terraforming project, since you are in the future and you can only search for planets. How would you start?
When you choose a planet, do you try to make all the good things on Earth there?
But what parts of 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 portions of Earth’s surface that forms mountains but also causes earthquakes and tsunamis. “I mean, the point is, earthquakes suck for everyone, and of course you can have tsunamis even on the East Coast. So it was interesting to think about it from that angle.”
Also, “I have this gigantic river in the novel. I thought, ‘I literally have no idea how rivers work. I don’t know how they form,’” says Newitz. That led them to contact US Geological Survey scientist P. Kyle House. Newitz asked House for suggestions on how the characters would dam a river. “He told me, ‘Have you heard of lava dams, where volcanic rocks and lava create a dam and divert the river?’” Newitz recalls. “And I was like, ‘Of course, it makes sense that that would exist. That’s so rude. That’s definitely in the book.’”
Newitz got the idea for “The Terraformers” from a friend, the poet Stephanie Burt. “I was distraught about what he was going to write next, and she said, ‘You have to write a nation-building story. You know, what happens long after the revolution.’”
That notion appealed to Newitz, who also saw an opportunity to write a multigenerational epic. “I read a lot of those as a kid, and I always enjoyed that feeling of, ‘Oh, now we can see what happens much later.’ I wanted to experiment with that format.”
In writing the novel, Newitz compiled a massive document, essentially a mini-encyclopedia for the planet Sask-E, to keep the details correct. One of the keys to writing science fiction, Newitz says, is trying to create an internally consistent imaginary world. “I think it’s also part of the joy for readers, because the more consistent the world is, the more you can dive into it and escape the terribly inconsistent world we live in.”
Populating that epic with compelling characters was the next part of the evolution. And even though “The Terraformers” is set on another planet in the distant future, Newitz still used the familiar technique of mining and reusing bits of old memories.
Destry, the tough but empathetic environmental ranger in the novel, is named after the main 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 one, despite the fact that he is a skilled marksman. It is one of Newitz’s favorite films. “I’m totally into Jimmy Stewart,” says the author.
That fits, because somehow, “The Terraformers” it looks more like a classic western than the grim nightmarish future portrayed in many science fiction novels and movies. “I grew up in the West, in California. So to me, all the great settlement stories are connected to Westerns.” Newitz sees the novel as a “topia,” a mix of utopia and dystopia, in which characters like Destry and his partner, the intelligent and emotional moose Whistle, grapple with what should be the place they’re building.
Newitz describes Ranger Destry and the Environmental Rescue Team as “anti-imperialist settlers.” They try to negotiate with nature, instead of conquering it.
“Destry and Whistle are part of a group that’s not just a belief system,” says Newitz. “They are actively building that world. I love the idea of them roaming the boreal forest and just trying to make sure that people aren’t messing it up, and that predatory animals aren’t out of balance with herbivores, and things 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 sci-fi fans of “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” Walter M. Miller Jr.’s 1959 novel about the rebirth of human civilization after nuclear war. Newitz appreciates that classic, but says that “it’s not my style, because it’s very misanthropic. ‘A chant for Leibowitz‘ It’s about how we never got out of our problems.”
Instead, Newitz envisions a future world in which genetically modified animal-human hybrids and intelligent machines stand up against injustice. Newitz was inspired by indigenous people who protested against the pipelines and other activist movements.
The human and human-like characters in Newitz’s novel also have gripping experiences, sometimes despite their complicated artificial anatomy. “I felt like that freed me up to be more honest about what love and eroticism really are.”
Newitz is already working on a new novel that is less extensive in scope, as well as continuing his prolific journalism.
But the novelist may not be done with Sask-E or a future 60,000 years down the road.
“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 like 75, I’ll be like, ‘Dude, I finally figured it out.’ I’m going to do this again.’”
If you go
That: Novelist Annalee Newitz joins the LA Times Book Club to discuss “The Terraformers” with Times columnist Caroline A. miranda.
When: 28th March in 6 p.m. Pacific.
Where: Live streaming online. register at eventbrite to see links.
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