|Vast sweeps of history can show|
the ramifications of policy decisions.
(Image via Goodreads)
With the rise of cheap paperback novels in the 1960s, and the decline of pulp magazines, the great science fiction tradition of fix-ups has been in significant decline. Which is why it’s refreshing to read Annalee Newitz’ latest novel. Although not technically a fix-up, The Terraformers uses a style and structure that is reminiscent of many of these works.
In fact, the novel could be read as a response — a mirror image even — of Walter Miller Jr.’s Hugo-winner A Canticle For Leibowitz. But while Miller is focused on history’s cycles of creation and destruction, Newitz’ book explores tensions between freedom and corporate serfdom.
Like Miller’s fix-up novel, Terraformers is split into three sections that are set in similar locations but separated in time by centuries.
Each book’s first section focuses on an individual in a sparsely-populated world making the discovery of an underground facility filled with hidden knowledge. It’s this section of Terraformers that provides the book’s two most memorable and compelling characters; an ecological systems analyst named Destry and Whistle, the intelligent flying moose she rides.
|We are on #TeamWhistle.|
(Photo by Olav Rokne)
The classic fix-up novels that focused on a sweep of history shared many similar flaws; compelling characters are given short shrift, transitions between historical eras can be jarring, and some portions drag. In mirroring the strengths of these works, The Terraformers is also burdened with many of the same problems.
Large-scale sweep-of-history stories might make it difficult to put the focus on individual characters, but they do provide the opportunity to relay the long-term consequences of policy decisions. In the hands of politically astute writers like Newitz and Miller, this medium can provide insightful commentary on human nature.
There is also something of Clifford D. Simak’s fix-up novel City in the DNA of The Terraformers, as uplifted animals debate the merits and the legacy of humanity. Newitz introduces us to talking wolves, cats, and earthworms, whose views on the conduct of homo sapiens is not always glowing. This occasionally gives the book a fable-like quality that some readers appreciated, but others found a wee bit twee.
With their third novel, Newitz offers readers a good example of a classic science fictional form that has been much neglected over the past few decades. As with the best fix-ups, it is more than the sum of its parts.