What kind of world would humanity build with another chance to do it right?
by Annalee Newitz
Tor Books, 2023 ($28.99)
Great stories often start from a tantalizing “what if?”—the more irresistibly original the premise, the better. In The Terraformers, the new novel from i09 founder and former Gizmodo editor in chief Annalee Newitz, the central question points straight at our planet’s existential crisis: Given the painful lessons we’ve learned about how not to build a sustainable, equitable future, what if people had a chance to create a cleaner, fairer Earth 2.0? Could we succeed?
It will surprise no one that the answer is a resounding “well, maybe.” Newitz’s formidable imagination can’t change the fact that people are people. Yet the novel smartly argues that people—particularly when the term expands to include sentient forms far beyond humans—might just be a planet’s best resource. Even if takes a millennium’s worth of creativity to offset rapacious corporations, unethical developers, ineffective governments and standard-issue corruption.
The novel’s first scene sends up a classic trope of science fiction, the “first contact,” in which representatives from two civilizations meet on an alien world. Except in this case, the alien world is an early-stage planet called Sask-E, which has been modeled after the original Earth by a terraforming corporation known as Verdance, and the first encounter is between two very different versions of Homo sapiens. One is a resource-plundering, trash-talking, trash-generating, remotely operated proxy, and the other is Destry, an Environmental Rescue Team ranger who proceeds to show what happens when someone tries to mess with her boreal forest.
Sask-E appears at first to be an Eden of wild beauty and limitless potential. But as the good-hearted Destry discovers, the developers who created Sask-E—and who hold both her job and her life in their clutches—aren’t out to make a better world. Their true goal, not shockingly, is profit. The discovery of an underground civilization on Sask-E forces Destry to choose sides in a conflict that alters her beloved planet’s future.
From here the novel takes running leaps through time. Terraforming is a slow process after all, and readers who get invested in Destry’s character might be saddened to learn that this isn’t really her story. Newitz’s plot skips across generations of people who come after Destry—an appealingly diverse cast of rangers, scientists, engineers and an utterly endearing autonomous collective of sentient flying trains. If the antagonists in Newitz’s novel are thinly outlined, it is perhaps because the novel’s big “what if?” demands some fairly broad strokes. Each character plays a part in answering whether well-intentioned people can save the best parts of Sask-E from the worst depredations of runaway consumer culture fostered by slimy corporate interests and lazy government.
As the story of Sask-E’s rise, ruin and slow road to redemption unfolds over thousands of years, Newitz’s attention is on the complex symbiotic relation between technologies and cultures, another classic trope of science fiction that they also explored in their 2021 nonfiction book, Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age. The same technological innovations that push a civilization to new heights of achievement can also be complicit in that civilization’s undoing.
On Sask-E, however, technology has made possible an entirely new definition of personhood. Animals, robots, hybrids, and even doors and worms are in communication with the humans of the future. And thanks to a galactic accord known as the Great Bargain, they all have a valid seat at the negotiating table. Once the assumption that only humans are people is swept away, thorny questions of natural resource allocation, representative government, inclusive language and sexual freedom are up for reevaluation. (If you’ve ever wanted to know how a sentient train can couple with a robot or a cat, your answer is here. As one character remarks, “Where there’s desire, there’s data.”)
As messy as all this sounds, it opens up thrilling new pathways of hope that Earth 2.0 might succeed. The Terraformers, refreshingly, is the opposite of the dystopian, we’re-all-doomed chiller that’s become so common in climate fiction. Newitz’s mordant sense of humor steers the story clear of starry-eyed optimism, but it’s easy to imagine future generations studying this novel as a primer for how to embrace solutions to the challenges we all face. If we’re ever going to save ourselves from ourselves, then maybe what we need is a new way of thinking about self. —Siobhan Adcock.
Siobhan Adcock is a writer and editor whose most recent novel is The Completionist.
A cinematic tour of ambition, greed and desperation in biotech
For Blood and Money: Billionaires, Biotech, and the Quest for a Blockbuster Drug
by Nathan Vardi
W. W. Norton, 2023 ($30)
“Finding new therapies that target only cancer cells and did not kill healthy cells had become the holy grail of cancer drug development,” writes Nathan Vardi, a managing editor at MarketWatch and former editor at Forbes. For Blood and Money follows the path of one class of such products (“targeted small-molecule drugs” designed to fight blood cancers) that ultimately pits two biotech companies against each other in a race to market—and to an unimaginable payday. Readers are introduced to scientologists, restless entrepreneurs, clinical experts and the machinations of magnate financiers searching for the next billion-dollar blockbuster. In the middle of that friction of ambition and greed are the patients, desperate for cures and more time.
The story begins with Pharmacyclics, a small biotech company in California that is working on a drug to treat leukemia. Along the way, we meet charismatic and sometimes capricious executives and investors, as well as revolving doors of employees being hired, fired and starting new companies (and competitors).
Vardi examines the fraught, infamously slow FDA market-approval process, but the pacing of the book remains quick. With the focus on characters shifting from chapter to chapter and a vast number of names—people, companies, drugs—included for detail, it can feel at times that one needs a color-coded organizational chart to keep up.
In the quest for magic-bullet biopharma drugs, a particularly disquieting element is how powerful investors become drivers of medical strategy. The scientific search for cures often seems overmatched by the outsized desire to be first and to reap the highest returns; one could be forgiven for wanting to rename the book For Money and Blood. The profits are astronomical, yet investors still consider how much they’ve left “on the table.”
Still, there are meaningful collaborations, and many characters in the book genuinely want to do right for patients with deadly diseases. Readers remain distinctly aware of those who have benefited (and continue to benefit) from these drugs. Yet the banks, investors and hedge funds leading the search underscore an overall health-care system that feels skewed in its priorities.
Vardi, who is clearly knowledgeable about Wall Street and biopharma, depicts the nuances of both in a vivid, cinematic fashion. One can already imagine the movie version. —Mandana Chaffa
The Land Beneath the Ice: The Pioneering Years of Radar Exploration in Antarctica
by David J. Drewry
Princeton University Press, 2023 ($39.95)
Glaciologist David J. Drewry takes readers to the frigid research outposts where he and his colleagues pioneered the technique of radio-echo sounding to plumb the depths of the Antarctic ice sheet. Drewry explains how this new technology emerged to compensate for inadequacies of past methods, then shares his own experiences mapping invisible mountain ranges and, worryingly, lakes deep under the ice that are hastening melt. A peppering of photographs and delightful personal anecdotes show the excitement and frustration that are inevitable during scientific expeditions. —Fionna M. D. Samuels
by Stephen Markley
Simon & Schuster, 2023 ($27.99)
Stephen Markley’s epic novel creates a full-scale panorama of a world bludgeoned by climate change, even as it magnifies the struggles of those caught in its vast and unrelenting chaos. Activist groups A Fierce Blue Fire and 6Degrees both attempt to provoke government and industry into addressing the climate crisis, but their divergent philosophies take them down different paths as society unravels. Markley’s dark depiction of the near future is filled with vivid descriptions of climate catastrophes, but his intricate network of complex characters balances precision with pathos, offering a kaleidoscopic view of humanity’s fraught relationship with its changing planet. —Dana Dunham
The One: How an Ancient Idea Holds the Future of Physics
by Heinrich Päs
Basic Books, 2023 ($32)
Which is more fundamental, the many or the one? Author Heinrich Päs believes physics gestures at an underlying unity simple enough to count on one finger. If only physics would embrace monism, its deepest mysteries would yield to that magic number. But monism was declared a heresy, first by the medieval Church and second, in Päs’s telling, by physicist Niels Bohr. Even if the connections between ancient monism and modern science are a stretch and Bohr is reduced to caricature, the history is thoroughly researched, the physics is cutting edge and Päs’s larger point resonates: much, or maybe all, of what we take for reality is an artifact of our limited perspectives. —Amanda Gefter