Terraforming: Stranger than Science Fiction

Elon Musk and NASA are quarrelling about whether it is possible to terraform Mars. The debate is an old one. Terraforming (sometimes called ecopoiesis in the scientific literature) means to engineer an ecosystem so that it is suitable for human habitation, and the idea has been featured in popular culture for more than a century. H. G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds featured hostile Martians who brought their own plants to alter Earth’s biosphere so that Martian life might triumph. More recently, Matt Damon’s character engaged in terraforming when he used human fecal matter to germinate potato seeds in the movie The Martian.

Terraforming occurs in The Martian, starring Matt Damon

Terraforming is not just a fiction appearing in novels, movies, or computer games. Indeed, humans have been practicing terraforming on Earth for centuries. Selective breeding and terrain alterations – building dams and irrigation networks, for instance – make ecosystems more suitable for human settlement.

Perseverance and innovation already have enabled humans to undertake impressive terraforming projects. Check here to see how a 150-year-old experiment on Ascension Island has transformed a barren volcanic desert in the middle of the South Atlantic into a tropical green island. Also, see here for reporting on how the Chinese government is greening the vast Kubuqi desert, helping lift almost a million people there out of poverty. Taking a step forward towards terraforming off-planet, scientists have already successfully grown plants in Lunar and Martian soil simulants. These efforts bring humans one step closer to making other worlds habitable.

Filling Space talked with Dr. Chris Pak of Swansea University, the author of Terraforming: Ecopolitical Transformations and Environmentalism in Science Fiction, about terraforming.


What motivated you to study terraforming in the first place?

A couple of strands came together:

I am fascinated by science fiction’s treatment of colonialism and was conducting research on Afrofuturism when I started to think about a PhD. My research led me to think about issues surrounding biology, race, and colonialism. I felt, however, that there was a bigger picture that I was missing: colonialism’s relationship to the non-human, which I began thinking of as the other side of the coin when it came to science fiction and postcolonialism.

In his book, Dr. Chris Pak explores the emergence and development of terraforming in science fiction.

I knew I wanted to address this idea, but at the time there were few ecocritical approaches to science fiction. I had not yet heard about Human-Animal Studies but felt that research on animal others in science fiction was comparatively more visible than research on our ecological networks, on non-human systems: on plants and their communities, in short.

Then there’s another motivation: I’ve always been interested in biology, ecology, and geology. I grew up in Hong Kong and I remember hearing and thinking deeply about land reclamation projects there. Somewhere over the years I connected land reclamation to terraforming. A PhD on the topic of terraforming, I felt, would be a good way to bring all of this together.

What has been the historical evolution of humans’ perspectives on terraforming?

In general, terraforming was used to comment on colonialism in works by Stapledon and Wells. In the American pulp magazines of the 1930s through to the 1950s and beyond, terraforming was oftentimes backgrounded, but equally often it served as a way to think about North America’s colonisation. Between the 1960s and 1980s, terraforming more frequently became associated with ethical issues of environmental degradation. And in the 1990s and beyond, writers have used terraforming to think about the systems that structure society, the non-human lives that undergird these systems, and, indeed, on how science fiction itself explores these issues. Terraforming becomes a motif for science fiction’s consciousness of itself as a literature about science, society, and (non-human) nature.

It’s important to remember, however, that evolution isn’t a progression from one variation to another, but a range of variations that continually branch. Some of those branches may stop developing or may be transformed, but multiple trends co-exist and are re-purposed. Unlike evolution, however, art can “resuscitate” variations (perspectives) that have not had a consistent genealogy.

Why did humans develop the idea of making “alien” lands more fit for humans in the first place?

The science fiction writer Jack Williamson coined the term “terraforming” in the 1940s, but instances of the concept were about in American pulp science fiction and in scientific romances in Europe. Here are a few suggestions as to why the idea was developed:

The simple answer might be that science fiction is concerned with exploring the idea of creating new ways of living, and that this played out (in the case of terraforming) by re-working the utopian aspects of the colonisation of North America on the one hand, or by reflecting on the ethics of colonisation and the sub-ordination of other peoples and life, on the other.

On another level, as we learned more about the environmental conditions of other planets over the course of the twentieth century, terraforming became one of the few ways we could plausibly account for interplanetary colonization.

Terraforming — the ability to reshape worlds to our needs and desires — is a compelling idea that implies a significant degree of control over nature. Speculation about the human potential that science might unlock seems to lead us down the road of complete control over nature in its widest, cosmological sense. Terraforming certainly fits that profile.