review of Analeee Newitz's novel The Terraformers

I like it when fiction's not afraid to get weird. This story includes a romance between an uplifted cat and a robot beaver being remotely controlled by a sentient train whose brain is adapted from an earthworm's. So it's got "weird" covered. Bonus points for having one of the main plotlines revolve around public transit policy.

The only other thing I've read by Newitz is "When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis" from Future Tense Fiction (review), which portrayed a heartwarming friendship among humans, animals, and machines. The same theme is core to this novel: homo sapiens, enhanced cats and dogs and moose and naked mole rats, drones and even sentient doors are all just "people" working together. It's a pretty adorable vision of the future in that regard, though the larger context is an extreme corporate dystopia where slavery is openly tolerated. The utopian aspects are sometimes didactic and the villains sometimes seem to be guided by a desire to Be Evil rather than serious self-interest, but overall it's fun and thought-provoking.

I enjoyed the debate about the ethics of creating people in order to fill a need—specifically, sentient flying trains to provide public transportation:

"But still, it's our problem to solve. We can't build new people to fix this for us. We'd be dumping all our crap onto innocent creatures who would have to carry tourists around."

"Not just tourists. ... They'll be carrying every kind of person.... Plus, they wouldn't all have to become public transit. ... A flying train could be an engineer, a game designer, or a farmer if they wanted. ... Plenty will be left who like doing transit."

..."But what if you're wrong, and none of them want to fly people around? Or are you going to program them to want it?"

The room filled with the sound of Boring Fleet vessels laughing like wind chimes. ... "We of the Boring Fleet are not programmed to enjoy making subterranean infrastructure, but like all creatures, we find it satisfying to do things that our bodies excel at. Just as you hominins like to poke at machines with your hands and run your flappy mouths. And moose like to swim. Our bodies shape what we consider pleasant, whether that's work or play."

..."Exactly right. Not every train will want to do the same thing, but I'm not worried that the—the Flying Train Fleet will be averse to the thrill of designing optimal routes and visiting hundreds of cities across the globe."

One disappointment: the otherwise-excellent jacket art neglected to include any flying moose.