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REVIEW: Terraforming Earth by Jack Williamson

REVIEW SUMMARY: An example of good ideas that are poorly executed.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A group of clones on the moon preserve mankind through the millennia.


PROS: Interesting plot ideas.

CONS: Poor execution; difficult to suspend disbelief; unanswered questions; uninteresting characters.

BOTTOM LINE: Skip this one.

Terraforming Earthh by Jack Williamson is divided into 5 novella-sized sections. Two of these sections were actually released as novellas and one of those, The Ultimate Earth, won both the 2001 Hugo Award and the 2002 Nebula Award. The novel itself was the recipient of the 2002 John W. Campbell memorial Award for best novel (in a tie with The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson). Needless to say, I had high hopes for this book. Unfortunately, the book did not live up to the promise.

Here’s a blow-by-blow review of the sections that make up this book?

The first section of Terraforming Earth, titled Impact and Aftermath, tells the inventive story of how the Earth is destroyed and how a small group of survivors come to a semi-functional, robot-controlled moon base which was set up for the express purpose of perpetuating humanity in case of a major catastrophe. The “Robos” in charge of the project take DNA samples from the survivors before they die, so that clones can be created when, some millennia or other, Earth can be made livable once more through terraforming efforts (a soil sample here, a seeding there). In the end, the mission succeeds and humanity is once again thriving on the newly resurrected planet. And the moon base and its clones live on, ready to handle another catastrophe.

This is an attention-grabbing scenario as most Armageddon stories are, and putting the hopes of humanity’s survival in a group of five effectively immortal individuals is interesting – but flawed. Each generation of clones essentially fulfill the same roles. Although they learn from a previous generation’s knowledge, they never seem to grow as characters. Williamson’s writing here is swift – little exposition so the story moves quickly – but a bit too staccato-like.

Engineers of Creation finds the Earth 1,000 years older and under watch by a new set of the same clones. Some new catastrophe has destroyed life on Earth but this time there is evidence of alien life. Did the aliens destroy the humans? Or are they just reaping the benefits of some other stellar occurrence? A new expedition from the moon seeks to find out.

This section focuses mainly of the characters of Dunk, the narrator, and Casey, whose birth-father was a last minute addition to the original survival team. The vampiric alien creatures are interesting, but primitive. This part read more like a man vs. nature story. Oh, and, for those who are into such things, there are also references to Robinson Crusoe.

In Agents of the Moon (which also released as a separate novella in the March 2000 issue of Science Fiction Age), yet another generation of clones survey a still-older Earth to find that a previous (and briefly mentioned) generation’s expedition was successful in setting up a new society. Interestingly, the society is made up of believers (the Regents) and doubters (the Scienteers). Uninterestingly, it is used to little effect. The vampiric creatures from the previous outing, now evolved to ladybug size and attaching themselves to people’s foreheads, ensure order in this society.

Unfortunately, this good premise suffers from disjoint writing and events rendering it average at best. I just couldn’t get into this episode. Also, one of the characters is clearly a continuing problem from one generation to the next. Why do the Robos and the clones allow another spawning of this problem child? While I’m asking questions: how does the moon base stay functional without deterioration and with no apparent resources after so many millennia? Sadly, my suspension of disbelief is seriously waning after Agents of the Moon.

The fourth section, The Ultimate Earth, was released as a separate novella in the December 2000 edition of Analog. It was the recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, so I had high hopes. Could this redeem the book?

In The Ultimate Earth, some indeterminate time has passed. A new generation of clones learns that this time the moon itself was the unfortunate victim of a stellar impact. The Tycho base was buried but is eventually rediscovered by a man named Sandor Pen. “Uncle Pen” was able to rebuild the moon base and regenerate the clones. However, his motive is not preserving Earth’s lookout station. Instead, he seeks proof that Earth is man’s planet of origin. Since interstellar travel is now possible, humanity has lost sight of its beginnings. Meanwhile, humanity has achieved immortality through nanotechnology. Sandor Pen is assigned to handle the displacement of two hundred thousand unfortunate stranded colonists, who arrived at their new world to find the previous group of colonists dead.

Again I was disappointed – there’s no tension, no drama. Just a blurry sense-of-wonder and lots of repetitive pseudo-adventures: Clone subgroup leaves moon; clone subgroup is stranded on Earth; clone subgroup explores their “new” world. That’s pretty much it. And what’s the deal with the book’s narrator, clone-Duncan? Why is the story told in first person at all when Duncan plays very little part in the stories? Bah!

The last hope for this book lies with the fifth and final section, Farewell to the Earth. Only days have passed for Sandor Pen and the clones when they return from the troubled planet. But a thousand years have passed on Earth. (Thanks, Einstein!) The travelers come to find that no one is left alive on Earth and set about to find out what happened.

Sigh. Another cardboard cutout story with little or no emotion and absolutely nothing to interest the reader. By now, I am sick of the characters. I neither like them nor hate them. I feel exactly nothing for them – they just don’t matter at all. The recurring whining of Casey for his precious Mona is relentless in its absurdity and annoyance. In the end, it is learned that the humans have transcended their earthly forms (the nanobots have outlived the need for flesh, or some such). Somehow, I just don’t feel the same sense of awe here that I did with Childhood’s End. This section was a sad ending to an even sadder book.

Overall, surprise surprise, this book stinks. The sum is truly lesser than its parts. There were several times when I went into speed-reading mode waiting for the good parts. That’s too bad – the premises were good ones. The execution just left something to be desired. Terraforming Earth receives the dubious distinction of being the only book that I have ever rated a measly 1 star. And that’s only because I reserve zero stars for books that I cannot finish. I know Williamson is better than this. Skip this book.

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

5 Comments on REVIEW: Terraforming Earth by Jack Williamson

  1. I thought it was worth the read, but wouldn’t do it again. Some interesting ideas in there, but man oh man was it stoic. I gave it 2.5 stars (out of 4) and am not surprised by your reaction.

  2. I enjoyed it. But then again, I think that Jack Williamson is among my favorite authors.

  3. Michael Thometz // July 8, 2006 at 5:48 pm //

    Despite the repetition in plot arcs and lack of character development, I truly enjoyed this book. What the reviewer is missing is the ultimate character presented by the book: the human species. It is true that knowing our cloned characters would live again and again tempered any real concern for whether they lived or died. The tension that I felt was in finding out if our race and all our science and culture would be lost or reborn.

    As for the suspension of disbelief, I came to my own conculsions. Have we not looked at the moon as a possible source for new resources? Didn’t Arne at one point argue against another expidition to the Earth due to the finite resources of Tycho Station? There was also talk of tunnels and mining equipment beneath Tycho Station. I wondered about how the station sustained itself through the milenia, but found those doubts reasonably subdued and my suspension of disbelief restored.

    I never knew, though I suspected, that the stories were written and published seperately. I did not know of the awards this work won, so I had no great expectations when picking up the book. With all of the above in mind, I would give the book 3 of 4 stars and would certainly recommend it as a good read.

  4. Kyle Kennedy // April 3, 2007 at 9:45 am //

    g!I completely agree with this article – I decidedly chose this book for an independant reading in Environmental Issues class, and it’s hilariously bad. Why in god’s name, would he keep making up ways to allude to the asteroid, like “the object of the heavens” and things of that nature. The constant interchanging “robo-father,” “holofather…” and sometimes “father” really tickled my funnybone too.

    But really grinds my gears – is how ALL OF THE CHARACTER DIALOGUE IS ALWAYS SET UP AS:

    “TALKTALKTALK!” *Character* *adjective* *period* “TALKTALKTALK!”

    Let alone the fact that they all talk in sentence fragments…

    *Pulls out book*

    Here is a single page of the book randomly selected, with the quotations of the page.

    Page 82:

    “We’re idiots,” Arne Muttered at Tanya. “We should have stayed in orbit”


    “Why the dog?” Arne scowled in bafflement “With no attention to us?”

    “Dogs are extinct” Tanya said. “New to them.”

    “Hey!” a startled cry from Pepe. “We’re moving!”


    “A thousand years of progress since we came to fight the bugs!” He stood up and shrugged at Tanya. “Old DeFort would be happy.”

    This book is utterly pathetic – though we did get a kick out of reading about Tanya’s past jobs “Waitress, hooker, topless dancer, stripper.”

    Oh, and how all food in space becomes “space rations,” and how they pilot “space planes.”

    This old-timer may have been king at one point in time, never seen his previous works… but it pains me to read this book.

  5. I’m just a nobody who reads. 


    I found this book on the dollar shelf at the Dollar General.  The story line made me think.  I thought it had a “butterfly effect” kind of thing going.  I thought the writing style was different (finally~I’m sick to death of a lot of the same old same old) 


    Reading it I felt like I did when I read Ursula L’s book… the one about the guy who ends up on a planet of gender neutral people. 


    I actually passed it to my mom, who read it and liked it.  The story is odd, and disquieting.  Everything is set up to reproduce what we have today… and they just can’t do it.  Why not? Why couldn’t we? If we saved everything we needed to start over?  What would happen?  Honestly I found the style and the characters interesting.  The point of not going too deep into them?  Simply that each successive generation, though genetically identical, lived it’s own life… similar but look how it turned out for them…

    This is a book that will stay on my shelf until my kids are old enough to get into it.  I liked it.  (o:


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