Monday, October 15, 2012

Review: Terraforming Earth by Jack Williamson

Terraforming Earth by Jack Williamson
Published: Tor, 2001
Awards Won: John W. Campbell Memorial Award

The Book:

“There is a chance, however remote, that an asteroid might collide catastrophically with the Earth and destroy humanity.  With that in mind, Calvin DeFort planned a moon base to preserve the genetic material of Earth against future disasters.  He couldn’t know how soon that base would be needed.

The base is unfinished when the collision occurs, and few make it off of the Earth in those last hours.  Those eight survivors are fated to spend the rest of their life in the moon base, within sight of their dead home planet.  Thousands of years and many cloned generations of the original survivors will pass before the Earth is once again habitable.  Raised by robots, and indoctrinated into the roles of their forebears, each new clone generation carries the responsibility of the future of the human race.” ~Allie

This is my 10th novel for WWend’s Grand Master Reading Challenge.  Jack Williamson was the second author awarded the Grand Master title (after Heinlein), but this is the first of his work that I’ve ever read. He wrote many novels and short stories in his long career, which spanned from 1928 to just before his death in 2006.  Serialized in “Analog” and “Science Fiction Age”, and published in 2001, Terraforming Earth is one of his later works. 

My Thoughts:

Terraforming Earth begins after the destruction of the Earth and follows the lives of the many generations of clones. The story moved swiftly from one generation to the next, especially early in the story. Their quiet, repetitive moon base lives were punctuated by trips to see the changing Earth, where they encounter ecosystems that seem wholly alien.  This might sound like hard SF, but I felt that the story was much closer to being fantastical and dream-like than scientific.  All in all, the creatures and societies the clones encountered reminded me more of the style of early 20th century stories than of modern science fiction.  This throwback to an older style of science fiction seems like it can only be deliberate, but it made the novel feel strangely dated rather than ‘retro’.

When a story spans such a long period of time, many authors find ways to keep the human element relatively constant, whether that’s through immortality, reincarnation, or, in this case, cloning. Unfortunately, I didn't feel like this particular story had adequate characterization to support its milennia-spanning tale. There was very little development beyond the characters’ physical appearances and most basic personality traits, and they often felt more like caricatures than characters.  The narrator, Dunk, was a historian, which fit with his habit of recording everything that the team observed.  However, despite the fact that most of the other survivors were selected for their scientific expertise, their training seemed to have little effect on their actions and personalities.  They didn’t seem to do very much, other than observe the Earth. 

While the characters weren’t very complex, I did appreciate how the psychological effects of their situation were occasionally addressed.  Each generation was raised together, and they were given extensive documentation of the lives of the previous generations.  Their robot ‘parents’ made an effort to socialize them into the roles of the original humans from which they were cloned.  In some generations, the clones insisted that they were individuals. In others, they had a strange sense of being only the latest of many ‘selves’.  As a result of their sense of continuation of self, they were often very casual about death, even going so far as saying “See you next time,” when facing inevitable demise.  I found this kind of speculation very interesting, and I would have liked to see more exploration of these ideas.

On the other hand, the repeating clone generations could get tiring sometimes.  There was a lot of repetition in the story, as each generation had to learn the same information as the one before.  The social relationships between the clones also varied very little from generation to generation.  I felt like I really did not need to read a recap of the same abbreviated relationship drama each time.  After the first, I already knew who would sleep with who, and the relative size of the breasts and libido of each girl. A lot of the repetition could have been due to the fact that this was originally a serialized story, which was only later published as a novel.  However, if the story was originally planned to end up as a novel, it seems like the pieces should have been edited together more seamlessly.  

My Rating: 3/5

The story of Terraforming Earth felt almost dreamlike, with its surreal landscapes, ephemeral repeating clone generations, and rapidly passing centuries.  The cultures and ecosystems that sprang up after the end of the human race reminded me of the science fiction of the earlier 20th century.  While I liked how the effects of the clones upbringing was somewhat addressed, I did not think that the small group of survivors made a very compelling human canvas for the story.  There was also a lot of repetition in the story, which might be a result of having been serialized before it was published as a novel.  I am curious to read some of Williamson’s older work, to see how it compares to Terraforming Earth in style.


  1. 10th! Are you going to have any trouble finishing the GMRC?

    1. I think I've got it under control :). My current plan is Fritz Leiber's "The Big Time" for November and Poul Anderson's "Genesis" for December, but that might change. From the WWEnd list, it looks like you've got one left.. is it going to be "Doomsday Book"?

    2. Yeah, hopefully the title isn't portentous of the quality of my final GMRC review :)

      Hope you like The Big Time. It was one of my first for HEP and I liked it alright. I think it is mostly under-rated, but then I wouldn't go out of my way to read it again either. I'll be very interested to see where you stand.